UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

The Top 5 Mistakes New Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them

November 1, 2010 By Heather Harreld

scaleddownbusinessimageAfter being recognized for years of accomplishing tasks and making individual contributions, new leaders are suddenly confronted with a much different situation. They are now held accountable for the work of others – both their successes, and perhaps more troubling, their mistakes and poor performance. Thus, one of the most common pitfalls that new leaders can face is lapsing back into doing rather than managing.

Don’t fall victim to that pitfall or make these other top five new leader mistakes:

1. Doing rather than leading
2. Not forging relationships with lateral peers
3. Not gaining support from above
4. Not delegating effectively
5. Failing to establish or project credibility

Lapsing back into doing rather than managing
A strange thing often happens to individuals who solve technical problems effectively – they are promoted to lead others who are charged with solving technical problems. This is a fundamental and radical shift in one’s role. And it is easy for new leaders to slip back into doing what they were good at and, likely, what they enjoyed; namely, solving the technical problems that are brought to their desk.

Yet, this is typically exactly what their new subordinates do not want them to do, because it doesn’t allow them to learn, grow and develop their own technical skills, notes UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Dave Hofmann. Hofmann is the Hugh L. McColl Scholar in Leadership.

There are some problems, like if a subordinate needs information from another part of an organization, that a leader should handle. But for technical questions, instead of jumping in to solve the problem, ask a series of carefully constructed questions to help an employee think about the problem in a different way.

For example, Hofmann suggests asking:

* What is the problem that we are trying to solve?
* What would a successful solution look like or allow us
to do?
* What are the criteria that define that successful solution?
* What are the drivers of those criteria?
* In light of this discussion, what would you recommend we do and why?

The next time a subordinate has a question she is likely to come with a much more well thought out problem and recommendations, Hofmann says.

“Now you have imprinted your goals and problem solving methodology in their head,” he adds. “Now they start thinking about problems the way you do. The payoff is much bigger and it only takes a smidge longer to ask questions.”

It also allows you to gain increased trust in their abilities and turn over more responsibility to them.
Not establishing relationships with interdependent groups
A new leader may overlook establishing relationships with lateral peers in other groups that they or their subordinates may rely on to meet their goals.

Nurturing relationships with marketing, warehouse operations, research & development and other interdependent groups is critical.

New leaders should ask their boss early in their role whose cooperation they will need to succeed. Then, they should form relationships with key people from those groups by asking them:

* Can you provide me a big picture overview of what your unit needs to accomplish and how we fit into your work?
* What are the metrics used to measure your performance?
* What is your evaluation of my unit’s performance – what are we doing well, what could we improve?
* Are we doing anything (such as providing your team with reports) that you no longer need or use?

“You are establishing yourself as a real team player trying to learn their world,” Hofmann notes. “This is your job to trade off multiple different stakeholders and what they value. The only way you can effectively do this is if you understand what they really value. This makes it possible to influence them in many different ways.”

Then, if a new leader needs that other group’s help later, he will know the group’s metrics of success and be able to frame the request as something that will help both groups, he adds.
Not gaining support from above
A new leader will want to get alignment right away with their new boss on items like goals, vision and metrics for success. But beyond these straightforward questions, new leaders might fail to ask pointed questions of their boss about her preferred working style.

If, for example, a supervisor prefers to talk about new ideas in person before reviewing content in an e-mail, she may tend to disregard the new leader’s e-mails that suggest new ideas. A new leader could attribute this to his ideas being ignored. But with a conversation about working style, this type of miscommunication could be avoided.

Ask these key questions:

* How do you want to be updated on my progress?
* Should we meet weekly, or if I have problems do you have an open door policy?
* If there is an open door policy does that apply equally to all parts of the day?
* Here is a question that Hofmann particularly likes: What could I do as a subordinate that would really drive you nuts?

Not delegating effectively
Delegating effectively is not, “Here is what I want you to do. Go do it.” Instead, delegating well requires a detailed discussion that really should link to earlier conversations between the new leader and their subordinates where the leader learns about the subordinate’s career goals and aspirations. When delegating new assignments, a new leader can draw on these previous conversations to say, “Here is an assignment and here’s how it might benefit you given some of our previous conversations about where you want to go,” Hofmann notes.

A new leader also should outline when delegating:

* Why this is a compelling assignment
* Who an employee might need to work with to get the project done
* The metrics of success
* Boundaries the subordinate will have in terms of cost
* What conditions would trigger the leader to become involved
* How the employee is to communicate progress to the leader

Not having or projecting credibility
Often when people are confronted with taking over as the leader of their former co-workers or a new group of people, they can stumble when trying to establish credibility during situations where they function as a peer versus when they must show leadership.

To establish credibility, a new leader must “diagnose” a situation to determine if they should function like a peer, in a group brainstorming activity, for example. Trying to tell others what actions should be taken is not appropriate in this situation, Hofmann notes.

Likewise, if the situation demands that a leader step up and lead, asking the group their opinion makes a leader seem weak and uncertain.

“Think about the situation and what it really demands of you,” Hofmann suggests. “In a situation where a team is scared, stressed out or not sure how to respond to a new competitive threat, a team needs a leader to step up and say, ‘It is okay. This is what we’re going to do. I need your help.’ This quick diagnosis of what is required is really critical as you start establishing credibility.”