(And How To Avoid Them)
With Kudos and Apologies to Stephen Cover
Individual Achievers Become Team Leaders—a Different World
My first professional job as a rising young individual contributor was one that made me get up excited each morning. In this job, I did the most exciting things I loved to do—product development, sales and marketing, promotion, and lobbying. I traveled to conferences, made speeches, ran hospitality suites, and picked up big tabs on meals.
My position generated a lot of revenue for the organization, and when you’re bringing in that kind of money, few people question your expense account. I rubbed elbows with people way up the totem pole from the folks I had been raised within tiny Tomball, Texas and that made me feel very important.
How Rising Stars Suddenly Confront the Dangers of Leadership
Since I was having a lot more fun than salary, I knew I had to earn more—so I put management in view. I was asked within a year to head a department with a team with what seemed to be at the time an enormous budget.
Turned out it was the age-old adage to be careful what you wish for. Management and leadership suddenly changed my life from daily creativity and excitement—to managing a difficult team with lots of conflicts. I was making decisions that affected people who all thought they needed a slice of my budget. True, I bought a better car, moved into my pseudo mansion in the burbs, but now I was managing the politics of an organization, and there was so much administration and process.
Daily I signed travel authorizations for my employees to go to places I used to go. I made lots of decisions and in the process made lots of mistakes. I found myself in an environment in which not everyone wanted me to succeed. The margin of error was much narrower and the potential for making mistakes was much greater.
7 Mistakes that Highly Successful Leaders Make
I finally did learn to enjoy my role as a leader of people. As I gained experience as a manager, I began to see the opportunity to work with people, investing in their potential and success. I embraced team leadership and began to enjoy it.
As I have studied leadership in coaching and alignment initiatives, I have seen brilliant, capable people who frequently make predictable mistakes that they can avoid and learn from. With apologies to Stephen Covey, here are 7 Deadly Mistakes of Highly Successful People.
1. Failing to Put Your Time Where It Matters. As the leader of the organization, you and everyone around you assumes that you wield the power over what’s next in the organization. Yet you quickly find out that the people around you are the ones who control you through the flood of papers, issues, and appointments. Unless you can disrupt what everyone thinks you should be doing, you’ll be hopelessly in the weeds and you’ll never get to the real decisions.
2. When Details Trump Outcomes. You’ll be working 18 hours a day and won’t be able to come up for air and you’ll hear on the grapevine that people are saying you don’t get anything done. You are astonished because all you do is work. Become outcome-oriented more than process-oriented. Every leader inherits a workflow that is the “routines of predecessors past.” These routines keep you from seeing the real outcomes that are critical to aim today. Take a zero-based look at what you do. See what your real outcomes are.
3. Competing Instead of Trust Building. We are taught to compete, not to collaborate. We value class rankings, team scores, and dollars earned, but nobody ever gave us a class called Collaboration 101. Our reflex action in the workplace is to show people around us how fast and competent we are. Finally, in our first work experiences, people begin to mentor us in networking. It takes time and practice to learn the art of trust building through getting to know the people you work with and gaining their trust.
4. Failure to Listen/Ask Questions. One of the biggest mistakes that highly successful people are guilty of is not listening or asking questions. They have been successful at powering through situations to achieve their objectives without regard to anyone who might stop them or slow them down. This is a great technique for a long distance runner but won’t work for a team. The two most valuable tools of a leader are the ability to listen and ask questions.
5. Lack of a Team Alignment Process. The best organizations spare no expense or effort at recruiting the most educated and experienced employees. Then they give them a title and a team and have meetings as fit into peoples’ schedules. Team members don’t coordinate naturally because they come from different experiences and backgrounds. Many Leadership Teams are really individual players using their own playbook. The team has never been pulled together, aligned or coached.
6. Lack of Consistency—Following the New Shiny Object. One of the most common mistakes of leaders is what I call “whiplash management.” The leader does an All Hands one day and announces with great fanfare the new direction of the company. Even those close to senior management find that senior management is soon going in a different direction. Employees are at a loss to know what’s going on and the discouragement is palpable. Suddenly leadership embraces the New Shiny Object without a transition of any kind leaving everyone confused.
7. Becoming Isolated—Being the Last to Know. As you go up higher in an organization, the tendency to become more isolated increases. The old saying is at a certain point you’re so high that if you wanted to put out a fire, the water would never reach the ground. Even though the people around you should keep you informed, they may not recognize important dynamics of the organization they can’t see. They also may tell you only what they want you to know. Be sure to check external information sources like Glass Door. Employee surveys can be useful. You need a regular employee town hall meeting where employees are encouraged to speak out. A 360-degree assessment for key employees and teams is one of the most effective ways of getting the pulse of the organization.
8. Kicking the Can Down the Road. This is also called “head under the sheets management.” Some problems actually do go away after ignoring them, but problems that have to do with pockets of incompetence, and finance issues and constrained resources are neglected at your peril. Once these problems come to a head, it is often too late to recover.
Mistakes are often not bad. Errors are platforms for learning and sometimes have unexpected positive outcomes. At the same time, it’s important to understand that the most talented leaders make huge mistakes. Be aware of the most predictable errors and be prepared for those you thought could never happen. Mistakes are one of the biggest components of life. Handling them is a skill that every successful leader must have.