Many years ago (I won’t say exactly how many), I made the transition from working as a staff nurse, responsible for my own actions and performance, to becoming the nurse manager of the unit I had been working on for six months. My first promotion! With this advancement came unit-management responsibilities and the added accountability for supervising the nursing assistants and staff nurses who were previously my peers.

When my director of nursing offered me the nurse manager position, I remember having mixed feelings. On one hand, I thought, “I’m in the big time now. I’ve really made it!” All my hard work honing my clinical skills, expertly administering meds and treatments, and delivering great patient care — it all helped me make my mark as a competent nurse. On the other hand, I wondered if I had it in me to take on the pressure of overseeing all aspects of managing the unit and assuming accountability for other people’s performance.  

Becoming a first-time manager is one of the most challenging leadership transitions in an organization. The number of new skills to be learned can feel daunting. Coordinating and assigning work, ensuring care and/or service delivery processes are running smoothly, overseeing quality initiatives, ensuring adequate equipment and supplies, and routinely communicating with staff — just to name a few. By the way, I recently saw a job description for a skilled nursing facility charge nurse that listed all of the “major duties and responsibilities.” It was 11 pages! (I’m not kidding!)

My mistakes

After accepting the nurse manager position, I quickly realized I was woefully underprepared. Individual excellence does not a good manager make. Who knew? I sure didn’t! And, apparently, neither did my director of nursing!

Here are just a few of the mistakes I made upon assuming my new role:

  1. Believing that I had to know all the answers. After all, I was put in charge of my unit for a reason. I was supposed to have the answers.
  2. Assuming that I would be able to manage my time the same way I previously did. I didn’t realize that constant interruptions to my daily to-do list would be the norm and would come from all directions.
  3. Treating my former peers like friends and acting like nothing had changed in our relationship. Shifting from co-worker to boss felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want my staff to think I was big-headed and bossy. I struggled trying to figure out how to assert my role as leader while setting healthy boundaries with my team.
  4. But my greatest miscalculation was thinking that my excellent clinical skills automatically made me a good supervisor. After all, I should be able to just tell everyone what to do and how to do it, and all would be good. Right?

The biggest challenge for any new manager is recognizing that attention needs to shift from “me” to “we.” This shift requires less talking and more listening. It requires humility to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and the courage to ask lots of questions. The new manager has to learn how to build a cohesive team, while at the same time relate to each employee as a unique individual.

Many first-time managers perceive the people leadership part of their job as a necessary evil. After all, coaching and developing people is time-consuming. Coping with day-to-day employee issues feels burdensome. And putting effort into building a healthy, productive team feels onerous. Yet, it’s the front-line manager’s people practices that have significant influence on employee engagement, productivity and overall morale of their work team.

I was lucky. The previous nurse manager of my unit had been promoted to assistant director of nursing, so she was available to coach me and provide much needed guidance. She arranged for me to attend some supervisory development training where I really began to understand my role as a people manager. My wise and patient mentor was generous with her time — guiding me through the tough spots even though she was dealing with her own transition to becoming a manager of managers!

Unfortunately, a lot of organizations take a “sink-or-swim” approach to leadership transitions in which promoted employees are left to figure it out on their own. New managers either learn slowly and painfully through the school of hard knocks, or find themselves flailing and failing. This approach is not only distressing and demoralizing for the new manager, it’s very costly to the organization.

Managers can make or break your employee engagement and retention efforts. Investment in developing managers through leadership training, coaching and mentorship helps managers become successful in reaching their potential and, by extension, the potential of their teams. Invest in developing your current managers and take proactive steps to develop future leaders before they make the transition. If you have identified employees who have leadership potential and are interested in advancing to a management role, begin developing them now. Help them avoid the traps that are common when making the transition to a first-time manager.

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.