The Two Top Mistakes that “New” Leaders Make – and How to Avoid Them

New leaders earn their promotion. They are successful, they have proved their value and now they must lead. Many new leaders, typically, make one of two primary errors:-

  • They lead from the middle, or
  • They just don’t lead at all

Lead From the Middle

You’ve just been promoted, or you have come in from outside and are new to the team. You want to prove your worth – what you know, what you can do, how much experience you have. You must ‘prove it’ to the people who promoted you, and you must ‘prove it’ to your team. So, you roll up your sleeves and dive right in. You want to show you can do it faster, better, smarter, with fewer resources and still beat the deadline. The more you are at the coalface, the more you are showing everybody just how good you are.

Unfortunately, that is not how they see you. They see you as busy, sure, and they probably see you as disruptive to how the team normally works, and they see you as working below your leadership level. You call it coaching but they see it as micro-managing. You see it as directing, reviewing and assessing but they see it as interference and disruption.

Not Leading At All

The other extreme is less obtrusive and less disruptive. To quote Bing Crosby in one of his war films when he and Bob Hope were lost “We’re far enough behind the lines to be generals.” Being that remote from your team is not leadership; it’s not even delegation, it’s more like abdicating leadership responsibilities. You might see it as spending time on forward planning, or reviewing results to improve future results, or even exploring new ideas and new processes that will bring greater efficiencies later on. They see it as ‘never here’ or ‘not interested’.

Leadership is not about getting a happy medium between the two mistakes, leadership skills do not sit somewhere between micro-managing and ignoring. Leadership skills are specific skills that, when applied sensibly, put the new leader in the right position, focusing on the right things, going in the right direction. Avoiding those two mistakes is, essentially, simple.

Avoiding Those Two Mistakes

You can avoid these mistakes as a new leader by following some simple steps. Your goal is to lead your team to achieve a successful outcome – and to continue along that path until you are seen as a true leader. The basic steps are these:-

  • Be clear about the reasons behind your promotion or recruitment. You’re here for specific reasons – keep them front and center
  • Know the company’s, the department’s, the project’s purpose (We’ll use ‘team’ to encapsulate those entities) – that is the context in which you, and your colleagues, work
  • Know what team’s ‘promise’ is to its internal or external customer base – what do your customers expect from what your team does, because that is the basis on which they will measure you
  • Know the key results you must achieve, and the parameters (time, cost, etc) within which your team must operate
  • Determine the key performance indicators (KPI’s) that will tell you and your team that you are on course – or straying off course
  • Estimate the core knowledge and skills your team needs to achieve against those KPI’s, and the resources they must have available
  • Share all of those things with your team – so they can stay as focused on their roles as you are on yours
  • Agree with your team how they should measure their own performance – and yours – as part of the ‘on track – not on track’ monitoring you will all do
  • Agree on a measurement and assessment process, so your team is clear and focused

Those few steps are time-tested. When you get down in the trenches with your team, you and they know there is purpose behind it – you are not just trying to ‘prove your worth by ‘leading from the middle’. When you are away from them, they know you are working on some aspect of your mutually-known and agreed steps that will make success more certain and their work more effective and more efficient – so you are not “behind the lines”. Planning, reviewing, assessing, and making decisions based on those assessments is what leaders do well.

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