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.

The Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make

Go into almost any company and ask employees what annoys them most about the leaders in charge, and the list is unlikely to vary all that much. I love this Harvard Business Review video,The Biggest Mistake a Leader Can Make. Watch it, and I guarantee you’ll be singing along. 

In fact, you may even think:

See that! I’m a great leadership thinker too. I would fit right in on that video.

Why yes you are. Which is why I’m inviting you to play along with our next crowd-sourced adventure: A look at the biggest mistakes team leaders make.

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”
~ Tallulah Bankhead (YouTube)

The team leader’s job is arguably the toughest job in most companies and organizations. Team leaders operate under constant pressure- up-down-and sideways- coupled with limited control. Just as the HBR crowd found remarkable consistency in the biggest mistakes leaders make at the top, I’ve found similar consistency with the mistakes team leaders make at the front line. It’s not the same struggles that happen in the leadership stratosphere, the pressures vary and so do the mistakes. Here’s a few that come to mind. What would you add?

The Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make

  1. Under-communicating the big picture – People don’t understand WHY they are being asked to do what they do. The team yearns for meaning to inspire their work.
  2. Failure to identify a galvanizing goal – Teams need to know that THEY can make a difference based on their actions. It’s a mistake to think that the company mission will be enough to rally the team at a local level.
  3. Over-telling – If leaders keep giving away the answers, they’ll keep asking, and you’ll have one brain at work instead of ten. Ask more questions. Leverage each team members’ strengths to cull-out their leadership. Encourage them to work together and support one another.
  4. Avoiding the tough Conversations – It’s easy to look the other way, or to let poor performance slide. Not telling people the truth will hurt your results, drag down the team, and stagnate growth.
  5. Lack of Connection – Too many team leaders get scared off by the HR warnings about not getting too close to their team. They manage them like employees instead of connecting as humans. Always err on getting to know your team and how they roll. Sure you should be careful of hanging out with them as traditional friends, but ensure your conversations are real and heartfelt. Your team will connect with customers and the work that they do, if they are first connecting with you and with one another.
  6. Succumbing to gravity – Team leaders can’t change everything but they can change some things. Your job is to remove road blocks. If something feels stupid, it probably is. Do what you can to manage up and sideways to make your team’s job easier.
  7.  Short-Term Focus – It’s always urgent, and there’s never time for the long-term investment in people and processes that will impact the business. This can work for a week or so, but beyond that you’re doing substantial long-term damage to your team. Ensure every day includes real work toward longer-term goals.
  8. Accepting What Is – Leaders see what’s possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the way we’ve always done things, particularly if you have a formula that works. If you’re creating break-through results and turning heads, slow down, look around and talk with your team about what you could be doing differently.
  9. Your Turn
  10. Your Friend’s Turn (please pass along and ask others to help)

Let’s Write A Crowd-Sourced EBook

We can leverage our collective experience, scar tissue, stories and wisdom to accelearate the learning for front-line leaders. Here’s my thought. We use this post to identify and rank the biggest mistakes team leaders make. Take my list, add, delete, or prioritize in your comments.

Then I’ll take the most popular topics and write posts on them in the coming weeks, again you weigh in with your insights and stories. Then, I turn the lessons into a free ebook available to all subscribers. We all have something we can use for ourselves and with our teams. Who’s in?

The Screw Up Post I Shouldn't Have To Write

If you ask any leader for the right way to handle a screw up, you’ll likely hear the following advice: admit the screw up apologize, do what you can to make it right. Try it. Tell a few leaders you just screwed up and ask for advice. Let me know if you hear something else. Leaders KNOW what to do when they screw up, but when they’re the one doing the screwing (up), many employ different tactics.

The Dark Side of Responding to Screw Ups

No leader admits to these stunts, but everyone has ugly stories of when someone else’s screw up left them, well, screwed. The juiciest ones make the news. But most of these response are cunningly subtle.

  1. Create a Diversion – When you screw up, draw attention to someone else’s big blunder. Look around, surely someone else is screwing up more than you. Make a big deal. Visit your local fireworks dealer. All eyes turn there, and you walk away, unnoticed, and unscathed.
  2. Reinvent History – It didn’t turn out the way you planned, so change “the plan.” Fuzzy recall of decisions are prime targets, revisit who and why decisions were made so they reframe you in the best light. This works great if you find yourself with a microphone or on National television.
  3. Stop, Duck, and Roll – Surely the most popular screw up avoiding tactic, this one works best when there’s a bus of blamers headed your way. Stay alert so others can take the blame. As a leader you’ve got too much to lose, let a few of your followers get squished, and you can help them later.
  4. Confuse – Works best with lots of data. Get good at excel. Pivot tables can intimidate the casual good guy. Bury your screw up so deep it will take weeks to find it. By then, folks will have moved on or grown weary of the search.
  5. And please – Add your favorites to the list.

The Leadership Response

When this crud happens to us, it’s easy to roll over, absorb the frustration and let it go. We take the “high road” and the behavior continues. It’s particularly tempting to let it go when it’s the powerful changing the story or confusing the game.

When we accept such responses from our team, our peers, or even those in power, we diminish our leadership and encourage these behaviors to continue. As leaders, consider when you turn your head. No response is a response. We teach by what we accept. And, by what we don’t.

The Screw Up Post I Shouldn’t Have To Write

If you ask any leader for the right way to handle a screw up, you’ll likely hear the following advice: admit the screw up apologize, do what you can to make it right. Try it. Tell a few leaders you just screwed up and ask for advice. Let me know if you hear something else. Leaders KNOW what to do when they screw up, but when they’re the one doing the screwing (up), many employ different tactics.

The Dark Side of Responding to Screw Ups

No leader admits to these stunts, but everyone has ugly stories of when someone else’s screw up left them, well, screwed. The juiciest ones make the news. But most of these response are cunningly subtle.

  1. Create a Diversion – When you screw up, draw attention to someone else’s big blunder. Look around, surely someone else is screwing up more than you. Make a big deal. Visit your local fireworks dealer. All eyes turn there, and you walk away, unnoticed, and unscathed.
  2. Reinvent History – It didn’t turn out the way you planned, so change “the plan.” Fuzzy recall of decisions are prime targets, revisit who and why decisions were made so they reframe you in the best light. This works great if you find yourself with a microphone or on National television.
  3. Stop, Duck, and Roll – Surely the most popular screw up avoiding tactic, this one works best when there’s a bus of blamers headed your way. Stay alert so others can take the blame. As a leader you’ve got too much to lose, let a few of your followers get squished, and you can help them later.
  4. Confuse – Works best with lots of data. Get good at excel. Pivot tables can intimidate the casual good guy. Bury your screw up so deep it will take weeks to find it. By then, folks will have moved on or grown weary of the search.
  5. And please – Add your favorites to the list.

The Leadership Response

When this crud happens to us, it’s easy to roll over, absorb the frustration and let it go. We take the “high road” and the behavior continues. It’s particularly tempting to let it go when it’s the powerful changing the story or confusing the game.

When we accept such responses from our team, our peers, or even those in power, we diminish our leadership and encourage these behaviors to continue. As leaders, consider when you turn your head. No response is a response. We teach by what we accept. And, by what we don’t.

Felons, Leopards, Spots and Feedback: A Short Story of Missed Opportunity

Last night I accidentally had dinner with an old college friend. It was one of those fun chance meetings which quickly leads to a run down of every mutual acquaintance and what they are up to. He shared a story that got me thinking about feedback, and my responsibility to give it.

The Story of Missed Feedback

He began, ” and Joe (not his real name) is a convicted felon.”

“What! Story, please.”

Joe is a bright, talented guy who quickly became a successful businessman. My interpretation of the story is that his white-collar crime was not an oversight or an accident, but a substantial breach of integrity motivated by greed and vengeance.

I looked at my friend, “I am embarrassed and sad to say, that I’m not shocked.”

So why wasn’t I startled by this news? In my interactions with Joe there were times when things just didn’t feel right in the way he treated his relationships or stories that just didn’t stick together. At this point, the details are fuzzy, but I do remember thinking, “I should give him some feedback.”

I never did.

Why hadn’t I?

Was I afraid? Worried it “wasn’t my place?” Worried I would lose the friendship?

What if I had?

What if others had in the 20 years between then and now?

What if friends and colleagues had called this leopard’s’ spots as they saw them emerge-when the stakes were low. What if he had more ticked off people calling his bluff along the way? Would he have failed sooner and softer? Or, perhaps they did. I will never know.

What is our responsibility to give feedback and hold up mirrors for our friends early in the game?