The Biggest Mistake NEW Leaders Make

As a follow-up to our discussion about the Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders make,Bruce Harpham, a project management education expert, offers his insights on the biggest mistakes NEW leaders make. Mark Twain said, “Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” When we made errors in judgement, it’s important to learn from that experience. Fortunately, you don’t have to experience every leadership mistake personally in order to grow your skills. New leaders face special challenges as they adapt to new responsibilities. There are two kinds of new leaders: experienced leaders who join a new organization and rookie leaders. Experienced leaders changing roles, consider the outsider CEO trend. For example, IBM hired Lou Gerstner as CEO in 1990s rather than promoting from within. A few years ago, Ed Whitacre took over as CEO at General Motors even though he had limited experience in the automotive industry. Rookie leaders face a different challenge. Switching from individual contributor role to a leadership role is stressful. There are plenty of new habits to build and new skills to learn. Both types of new leaders are vulnerable to four failures outlined in this article. With the right planning and attitude, you can avoid all of these leadership failures.

1 – Failure to build relationships

Relationships are what make the world go round. It’s true that a new leader has some credibility by virtue of their role. If a leader assumes their formal authority and position are sufficient to lead, they will quickly run into resistance. Relationship building is important for everyone. If you are an executive appointed to lead an organization of several hundred people, then you need to go out and visit people. There’s nothing worse than a new and unknown executive issuing orders from their office by email. Take the time to introduce yourself and learn what your people are working on. Action: for the first week (longer for larger organizations) as a new leader, focus on meeting people over coffee and lunch. Those relationship building efforts will pay dividends in the future.

2- Failure to focus on strategy

Ian McAllister, General Manager at Amazon, reports that one of his greatest challenges as a new manager was thinking too small. I have seen this failure happen with highly skilled technical professionals. When you draw your confidence from technical skills and accomplishments, it is tempting to jump in and work alongside your team. Unfortunately, diving deep into operational details carries a heavy opportunity cost. You have less energy to think about strategy. That means less time to think about developing your people. It also means less energy to consider the big picture threats facing your organization. Action: when a team member asks for your direct involvement on a work task, search for solutions that do not involve your involvement. Often, that will mean suggesting they seek help from a more experienced team member.

3- Failure to balance personal and organizational ambition

Ambition is one of the defining qualities of successful leaders. Like any strength, it can be overused or used ineffectively. How can you tell if your self-confidence and ambition are hurting more than helping you? You simply need to consider a few key questions:

  • How do you communicate your accomplishments as a leader? Do you give credit to your team?
  • Do you write thank you notes regularly?
  • Privately, how often do you think about your annual bonus versus the organization’s growth goals?

According to Jim Collins, author of “Good To Great,” truly great leaders are ambitious for their organizations, rather than seeking personal celebrity. Action: review your organization’s goals weekly to ensure your actions are contributing to the organization rather than building an empire.

4 – Failure to recover from mistakes professionally

Nobody likes to make mistakes. Leadership errors and misjudgments are especially painful. Failure to acknowledge your mistakes and move on ultimately hurts your credibility. Few people expect perfection in leaders – don’t mistake that realism for thinking you can get away with mistakes. Consider the example of Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. The war went badly for years and McNamara refused to communicate the extent of the administration’s errors. As a result, American trust in government declined for decades afterwards. Action: Review your past leadership mistakes and explore how (or whether) you fully recovered from these mistakes.

Learm more about Bruce here.