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Column | Leadership

Jill Geisler: How to navigate the transition from team member to team leader

Column | Leadership

Jill Geisler: How to navigate the transition from team member to team leader


Headshot of Jill Geisler

Jill Geisler

So you’re ready to apply for a promotion to management. Or perhaps you’ve already been promoted. Good for you!

I say that as someone who truly knows about moving up from within — the joys as well as the challenges. I was all of 27 years old when I was promoted to lead my newsroom. Suddenly, I oversaw people young enough to have been my social buddies and old enough to be my parents. I was responsible for hiring, performance management, evaluations, morale, budgets, contracts, union issues, technology, marketing decisions and competitive strategy.

This was decades ago when few women held such leadership positions in my field. I was an outlier. And of course, I had no management training. I learned on the job — especially from my mistakes.

That’s why I love teaching new managers. I want to help them succeed right out of the blocks and avoid common pitfalls. Below is my advice for newly promoted leaders.


Go on a listening tour. Even if you know every single person on the team you’re now leading, take time to listen to each one. Remember, this is their time. Some things to ask: What makes a great day at work for them? What do they believe success looks like for them as individuals and for the team? What communication formats work best for them and the team? How do they like to get feedback — both positive and negative? And what ideas do they have for improving processes and products?

Although the focus of your tour is to give people a voice and your undivided attention, you can also expect questions about how you will lead. Expect one to be whether you plan to make changes. Let people know you’re gathering info from them to add to the mix of your own ideas. Be on the lookout for quick wins — simple problems you can resolve. (That filthy old microwave in the break room? Poof! Replaced!) Quick wins let people know you heard them, and you get things done in the short term while also working on issues that need deeper investigation or investment.


Be wary of the following behaviors that can undermine a new manager’s effectiveness.

Still doing your old job. Many managers like to stay in the comfort zone of things they know, so they keep a hand in their former work — even when it isn’t necessary.

Micromanaging those doing your old job. Give people support, but plenty of room to grow. You have other things to focus on.

Avoiding the unfamiliar. It’s your job to learn, especially if you are managing people whose work you know little about. For example, if you are now supervising technical staff and that’s not your background, you owe it to them and to yourself to learn about their processes, goals and challenges.

Thinking you must have an answer for everything. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get right back to you.” Just make sure you do so.

Not appreciating the power managers have. Your words and actions carry far greater weight than you know. Assume that you now have a megaphone and a spotlight that follow you wherever you roam at work. Your offhanded comment or criticism carries great weight. So does your praise. Use that voice and spotlight intentionally, not accidentally.


Be prepared for new relationship dynamics with staff who previously were peers.

Colleagues who also applied for the position. New managers are often overly concerned about this. People who applied for your job may be disappointed that they didn’t get it, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to create problems for you. Don’t assume that their complaints or mistakes, or even their silence, is driven by resentment. Unless you have evidence that someone is truly trying to sabotage you, deal with them positively, respectfully and collegially. You need each other.

Former buddies. If you’ve been social friends with staff you now supervise, you don’t have to suddenly build big barriers to prove your professionalism. Be as friendly as ever, but also be clear that in your new role, your relationship with the entire staff is important. No one gets special treatment because of past social connections.

Back in the day, you may have swapped office gossip with co-workers, but now you’re responsible for confidential personnel issues, competitive strategy and budget matters. You are now the steward of the organization’s integrity, so there are things you can’t share.

Party invitations are another social situation that may require a different approach than they did in the past. Your presence sends a message that you care about the event, but what you do while there may be different now. My advice to party-going managers is “Drink less, leave early.” That way you remember everything you said, and after you’re gone, they’re free to do what you used to do at parties — critique the organization and do impressions of the bosses.

People with significant seniority and more experience. Smart, tenured staff can be intimidating to a new manager. But like all staff, what they want from you is respect, feedback and opportunities. I often tell managers when they talk with veteran staff to stop assuming there is a neon sign over their head that flashes “NEW. GREEN. INEXPERIENCED.”  Instead, picture that sign saying “NEW. FRESH. INNOVATIVE.” Like all employees, your experienced team members want to know one important thing: What does it mean for me?


As a new boss, it’s important to steer clear of mistakes that can erode your credibility. Don’t drop the ball in ways that telegraph disrespect: Getting work schedules out late, delaying evaluations or raises, failing to get back to people on questions or requests that are important to them or forgetting to include people who should have been in the loop. If you make a mistake (or rather, when you do, because no manager is perfect), own it. More important, apologize specifically and sincerely, with details on how you will ensure it won’t happen again. A forthright apology builds your credibility.


Don’t assume you have to be the first person to arrive and the last to leave every day. New managers sometimes feel they must be omnipresent. That’s a recipe for exhaustion.

Be available. Have a strong backup plan for problem-solving when you’re away or off the clock. Empower your staff to make good decisions in your absence by routinely talking about values and goals with them. One such value is work-life harmony, which we’ve covered in this column before.

Also, don’t measure your work or that of others by the volume of time put into it. Instead, look at its quality, and, most of all, its impact.

Finally, remember, new manager: The most important thing leaders do is help others succeed. Good luck! You’ve got this.

About the Author

Jill Geisler

is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago, and a Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership.


Do you have questions or topics you'd like Jill to address in a future article? Email Crystal Milazzo, HFMA senior editor.

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