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Karin’s Leadership Articles

The Biggest Mistake NEW Leaders Make

by | Aug 1, 2014 | By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning |

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.

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  1. Bob Whipple "The Trust Ambassador"

    Here is my take on the topic

    When you are transferred or somehow otherwise assume command of a new unit, what happens in the first few minutes, or first few hours, will determine your initial success rate for the first year, at least, of your tenure. Reason: People form an opinion of you very quickly (first impression), and that vision stays with you until supplanted by ideas from events that play out over time. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Blink demonstrated how we human beings have an uncanny ability to size up another person in an instant. The level of trust that will prevail during the entire first year is usually set before the first week of an assignment is completed. It is really important to get off on the right foot with people. Unfortunately, many leaders come into a new assignment with the wrong attitude. Let’s list some things that can help get a new leader off on the right foot.
    1. Assume things are more right than wrong

    It is a mistake to come into a new job with the attitude that everything is messed up. Unless you are taking over a failed unit that is in free fall, it is wise to remain calm initially and seek to understand the strengths and good performance that already exists. The best advice is to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut in terms of pronouncements early on. Seek to learn, appreciate, and reinforce for the first week or so.

    2. Establish rapport one on one

    It is a good idea to meet with each employee in the new unit privately to chat about his or her role and generally get to know the individual as a person. This will begin to form some trust between you and the individual. Asking questions about the employee’s family and hobbies demonstrates that you care enough to get to know that individual as a person. Sharing some of your own stories also tends to form a basis for trust. Many new supervisors like to ask what the employee would like to see him or her doing and not doing. This simple question often brings out issues that have been lurking in the culture before the new person arrived.

    3. Build trust as early as possible

    When meeting a new person, the basis for trust to start forming lies in the answer to 5 basic questions. I call these things “a handful of trust.”

    1. Are you Competent?
    2. Do you have good Character?
    3. Are you Consistent?
    4. Are you Cordial?
    5. Do you Care about me?

    When you chat with new employees, keep these 5 things in mind and work to answer all 5 of them as positively and quickly as you can.

    4. Avoid pushing ideas from your former job

    It is a good idea to refrain from bringing up the excellent policies in your prior position. Many new leaders make the mistake of saying, “In my last job we used to do this or that.” It undermines the will of the people in the new unit. Individuals do not want to hear what went on in the boss’ prior position a dozen times a day. It wears thin very quickly.

    There is an antidote to this common problem. When I would promote or move a manager, I would ask him or her to refer to the prior job only one time in public. Once that chit was played, I suggested the new leader refrain from other references for at least 2 months. This gave the new leader the opportunity to appreciate the good things that were being done in the new area before giving a lot of suggestions for them to be more like his old area. The people never knew the difference; they just seemed to like the new manager quite a lot.

    5. Observe the informal organization and cliques

    The culture of an organization is heavily influenced by the chemistry between individuals. You need to be alert to the “informal power structure” because that is operating in tandem with the formal organization. It is imperative to know who the informal leaders are in the group and gain their trust. Often the sub-culture is extremely powerful and equally negative. If you find this to be the case, I recommend “adopting” one or two of the key people. Find out what makes them tick and learn to understand if not appreciate their point of view.

    6. Practice management by wandering around extensively until you are a known quantity

    Many new leaders make the mistake of sequestering themselves in strategic meetings early on. This labels them as suspect and less transparent. Be open and out there for people to interface with daily. Extra time devoted to this activity, even if it means extra working hours for a while, pays off huge dividends.

    • Karin Hurt

      Bob, WOW! Thanks for your deep, insightful and actionable thoughts here. A post within a comment. I absolutely LOVE IT. Great list for the “handful of trust.”

    • Bruce Harpham

      Bob, you make a number of excellent points. Regarding “Avoid pushing ideas from your former job” is a great point (especially if you have changed companies).

  2. Steve Borek

    Failure to be authentic. Most leaders walk around in another costume trying to be something they’re not. Their followers can smell this a mile away and mirror the leader’s behavior.

    p.s. This weekend I’m caddying in the LPGA’s Credit Union Classic. It’s the latest stop on the Symetra Tour. I hope my player makes the cut! 🙂

    • Bruce Harpham

      Authentic is an interesting word that has different meanings. I’m curious – can you illustrate the point with an example?

    • Karin Hurt

      Steve, I hate that smell. Have fun in the classic!

  3. David Tumbarello

    I am not exactly in the position you describe. In fact, I am new to Project Management and I look forward to being challenged and growing in the field. I entered an existing organization and I am definitely empathize with your common failures. Looking back over my first few months, if I could do one thing differently, I would have given less “product” and more “person”. I remember someone saying that it will take at least a year until I understand the department where I work & my role in the department. That being said, the first few months should be about relationships, as you point out, and gradually showing what I bring.
    Thanks for the wise words, Bruce & I look forward to reading more insights.

    • Karin Hurt

      David, Totally love that… less product and more person. Amen.

  4. Robert Adams

    Ah – “thinking too small.”
    A sad but common flaw. What can leaders do to fight that weakness?


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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