First-Time Managers Need to Practice Leadership Conversations

It’s tough to transition from an individual contributor who does the work well, to a leader who must continue to do the work, plus lead others. Many first-time managers feel they don’t have the experience and the confidence to manage what their new job is about: conversations. Here is why and what they should practice.
Andrea Laus
SkillGym CEO
5 min read


Taking over as a leader for the first time is a critical, career-defining moment and developing early on the required skills for managing conversations right can accelerate their career trajectory.
Preventing avoidable mistakes at this juncture requires preparation, commitment and follow-through.

Practice is the most effective way to improve conversational skills.
The more they practice, the more they gain confidence and raise their self-awareness. Comfort zone starts to expand as soon as a first step toward consistent practice is taken.


Did you know that:

  • 26% of first-time managers feel they were not ready to lead others to begin with?
  • 75% say they never received any training on leadership conversations when they transitioned into their first leadership role?
  • 55% of first-time managers don’t communicate well, according to their subordinates?


Conversation is the goal

Most people think that management is about reaching that goal, doing that task, achieving that result and so on. That’s the outcome, of course.
But it’s worth reflecting on what the core activity is to get there.

Did you ever consider that CONVERSATION is where managers spend most of their time?

What are the consequences of entering a management role with little or no experience in leadership conversations?



What are the consequences of entering a management role with little or no experience in leadership conversations?


Research supports the idea that the majority of managers widely underperform in the ability to develop their teams through authentic, empowering and effective conversations, which should be at the core of their role.

This is especially true for first-time managers, since shifting towards a management role clearly requires the development of even stronger conversational skills.


Fostering the ability to leverage fruitful and empowering conversation throughout the entire organization is the new goal of any talent development professional, since multi-directional and cross-functional leadership conversations are increasingly needed.


Which conversations matter most?

Of course, there are unlimited conversations to deal with out there.

But if you look at the problem more carefully, you end up with an 80/20 short list that probably looks like the following one.


A short list of the few conversations that matter most:

  1. Align/Update
    Applying a coaching mindset when updating with reports may ease the birth of a culture based on continuous improvement. This will also benefit the entire team as everybody can develop good situational awareness skills.
  2. Negotiating an objective 
    Conversations motivate the employees and increase their self-confidence and self-esteem. They will perform better as well as strive for bigger challenges.
  3. Coach/Mentor
    Mentoring and coaching employees is the best way to support individual growth. Mastering this type of conversation will develop motivation, self-confidence and self-awareness in employees.
  4. Giving performance feedback
    Feedback is a key moment of the relationship with employees. Being able to coach them through a better understanding of their current limits is essential to turn obstacles into opportunities.
  5. Delegating
    One of the crucial tasks of any leader. The goal is to improve the employee’s performance, since they will feel rewarded and appreciated, encouraging them to stay motivated and keep up the good work.
  6. Motivate
    Even the most committed employees need help to improve confidence and motivation. A great manager can spread this energy to the entire team, leading to an improvement of the organization’s performance.
  7. Reorganization nudge
    Reorganizations generate stress and potential disorientation. Supporting employees in this delicate context can motivate and empower people in improving their role and, most of all, their self-confidence.
  8. Priority-setting nudge
    At some point, every employee needs a gentle push; a nudge to improve their performance. Nudging them through their daily organizational challenges will grow their ability to work better and become more aligned with the company’s objectives.


Which styles work best?

Following the most classic situational approach—based on the topic being dealt with, in which type of conversation, with which type of employees and according to the flow of the subject—a well-balanced program fosters the use of four different leadership styles drawn upon at the very moment they are needed.

To represent the make-up with which trainees should learn to leverage these four different styles, blended in different percentages throughout each conversation, this would be a fair representation of the best formula for turning an individual contributor into a manager:



  • 52% – Coaching
    This style is of course at the core of any manager conversational strategy.
  • 23% – Democratic
    Everyone should be given the opportunity to participate, to exchange ideas freely and discussion should always be encouraged. Strong democratic leaders inspire trust and respect among followers.
  • 18% – Visionary
    Visionary. When employees aren’t just engaged, but inspired, that’s when organizations see real breakthroughs. Inspired employees are themselves far more productive and, in turn, inspire those around them to strive for greater heights.
  • 7% – Commanding
    Sometimes inspiring, coaching and being participative requires an adjustment to ensure that any possible hesitation is carefully directed and guided.


Benefits of this type of training

Practicing on this type of program helps first-time managers improve their self-awareness, their daily communication behaviors, the quality of their leadership style and the most appropriate approach, based on the different kind of employees they deal with.

After just a few weeks of consistent practice here at SkillGym, we typically observe a shift of their communication behaviors towards a much more effective managerial approach:

Individual Contributors’ Approach Managers’ Approach
Answer questions when asked Asks questions to help employees better understand options and strategies
Search excellence in their own work Models excellence by working with team members and mentoring achievement
Looks for feedback Observes behaviors and provides feedback
Search for coaching when necessary Provides coaching as an ongoing priority
Follow given steps Guides team members through steps as they implement action plan
Receive feedback Provides timely, consistent feedback during the daily flow of work
Treat obstacles alone Probes issues with team members to discover the root cause behind the obstacles
Face their own challenges Guides and supports team members as they uncover their own challenges


What’s next

Conversational Leadership is not an option.

It is not only a matter of self-improving in communication skills, managing an effective conversation is something that all leaders should be able to do. Their organization asks them to do it. Their team asks them to do it (explicitly, if they’re lucky; between the lines, in most cases).


They need to do it in order to be recognized by their community because leadership is not a medal that someone can pin on their own chest.

And most of all, leadership is not effective if it doesn’t spread a positive energy, capable of generating new leaders in turn.


A true leader has to use the transformative power of face-to-face conversations in their everyday work to build connections, influence and encourage people as well as learn from them.
In another article (“First Time Managers Upskilling Acceleration Factors“) I discussed the acceleration factors needed to speed up first-time managers’ upskilling. I recommend reading this article, since training is as efficient as the tools you deploy.


If you are looking around to find the Digital Role Play solution that suits your needs, please look at our website. Inspiring content including pre-recorded webinars and articles are plentiful there. Naturally, if you’d like to continue this conversation, we’d be delighted: all you need to do is book a 1-hour discovery call with us.

Enjoy the rest of your day.


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