Thursday, April 14, 2011

10 Mistakes Every Leader Should Make (and learn from) before They Die

I was driving to work the other day and the morning show hosts were doing
a bit on a list someone created called “10 Mistakes Everyone Should Make Before They Die”. While it was a lame bit, that, along with an email from reader Tim Eyre, gave me the idea for this blog post.

It’s been proven over and over again leadership development is all about experience. We learn from job changes, stretch assignments, other people, and other more formal ways (courses, books, blogs, etc…). It’s those experiences that are the hardest – those “developmental challenges” – that we can learn the most from. Lominger calls it “developmental heat”.

A great way to assess someone during an interview is to ask about mistakes they’ve made. You’re looking for signs of self-awareness, humility, resiliency, and learning agility. The most successful people – those “A players” – can be remarkably candid and insightful about their mistakes and failures. However, the thing that sets them apart from those that just have a history of screwing up is that they always learn from their mistakes. They take a risk – fall down – pick themselves up and dust themselves off – reflect on what they’ve learned – learn new skills and behaviors, and incorporate them into their leadership repertoire.

They don’t point fingers, place blame, or make excuses – they own up and learn how not to do it again. Of course, it helps that they have a nice healthy track record of accomplishments to off-set those occasional mistakes.

I once heard an experienced manager call this “earning your scars”.

OK, so when it comes to leadership mistakes, mistakes are good, right? The more the merrier!

Here’s 10 that every leader should make and learn from:

1. Take too long to fire a problem performer. This is probably the number one regret I hear the most, from seasoned executives to new team leaders. They waited too long to take action on a poor performer. They had their head in the sand in denial, thought they could perform a miracle and save the employee, or were aware of it and just didn’t want to face it.

2. Putting too much emphasis on credentials and experience in a hiring decision and not enough on personality and cultural fit. Been there, done that. It was my very first hiring decision. Candidate A has a Master’s degree and 10 years’ experience. However, former manager warned me about a “little temper problem”. Candidate B had no degree and limited experience – but great relationship building skills and was seen as high potential. I hired A – and it was a disaster. B was later promoted to department manager. Lesson learned.

3. Not having a vision. Without a clear and compelling vision, it’s hard for teams or organizations to have a clear sense of purpose, priority, or mission. It’s just day-to-day, business as usual, and reactive. Too many new leaders overlook “the vision thing”, perhaps because it’s too intangible or misunderstood. It’s also hard to connect the dots of operational problems back to not having a vision.

4. Not managing upwards. A lot of leaders operate under the assumption that “no news is good news”, or “my performance speaks for itself” when it comes to their relationship with their hands-off or busy boss. While the autonomy may be nice, it’s important to keep your manager informed of your team’s accomplishments, and to build a solid relationship that can be leveraged when needed. It’s a bad assumption to assume your boss is aware of your good work and will be an advocate for your function when the going gets tough.

5. Overrelying on a few strengths and not paying attention to development. It’s all too easy to continue to fall back to the same handful of strengths that got you to where you are. However, without continuous development, you’ll soon stop growing and fall behind. The best leaders are always aware of their deficiencies and are always working to learn and get better.

6. Not listening. This one’s often a blind spot for leaders, and sometimes takes a two-by-four across the side of the head to get them to realize it’s a problem. Usually it’s a major screw-up as a result of not paying attention to what people are trying to tell them, some strong 360 data, turnover of key personal, or some kind of other pain that will turn them into a reformed poor listener.

7. Trying to be liked by everyone. Leaders can’t be their employee’s friends, and leading change usually means ruffling someone’s feathers. Being a leader means requires developing a thick skin and being able to take the heat without taking it personally.

8. Not asking for help. Driving around lost for hours because you’ve got too much pride to ask for directions might make a funny beer commercial, but as a leader, it can have disastrous consequences. At a minimum, it’s incredibly annoying when a leader just can’t admit when they don’t know how to do something.

9. Ignoring your peers. Some leaders make the mistake of only paying attention to their boss and employees (looking up and down), but fail to look sideways. The inability to build coalitions will prevent a leader from getting the cooperation and support needed in order to solve cross-functional problems or lead change.

10. Not seeking or being open to feedback. Two of my favorite “Good Things Bosses Believe”, from Bob Sutton: “I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me” and “Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realize it”.

Wow, that list was way too easy to write! I have no idea where they came from……

However, I’ll bet it’s incomplete. What are some other mistakes that every leader needs to make in order to “earn their scars”?

This post is brought to you by JD Edwards services from Syntax.


Andy Klein said...

Dan, great post! I love how you embrace the fact that even though you can warn against these mistakes, leaders are still going to have to experience them themselves to truly learn from them.

The post also reminded me of a recent article on BNET, The One Interview Question You Need to Weed Out Rotten Apples. When interviewing for a new position, the author has learned to ask people, "Tell me about the last time you made a mistake." What he looks for is the person who owns up to a mistake and illustrates how they learned from it. Same thing here!

Dana Searcy said...

Great post Dan! There is a lot of good information here. I too think it is great how you say it is okay to make mistakes. We all make mistakes and that is how we improve and grow.

In regards to #3 (having a vision). I personally believe that you can not have a vision of where you want your company to go if you do not first have a purpose. Purpose is why we do what we do. It should serve as an everyday guide to each person in the company.

Thanks for sharing!

Donna Dunn said...

I think you just put together the entire course of learning in my career. I've made all of these mistakes, learned from them, and would like to think that I won't make them again -- just new ones.

Thanks for putting it so clearly.

Pamela D'Luhy said...

Fantastic piece of writing. I especially like the first point. We wrote a post about how often the managers assume the problem is anything but the employee.

Mind if we quote this in a future post?

Anonymous said...

Great post! It's already making the rounds in my company.

I did a self-assessment on your list and I'm about halfway there. Fortunately, continuous development is not a problem!

As for items missing on the list, I don't see the "Trust but verify" lesson that we all have to learn at some point. That was an early mistake I made and am grateful that I did.

Unknown said...

Thanks Dan for sharing this wonderful article.

Regarding # 2, it is clear how much emphasis is given for individual’s personality, attitude, and behavior over the years of experience and their level of education. I felt that is the number one key for leaders or for someone wants to be a leader.

Regarding #7, I am sure it will be tough to be liked by everyone; but I felt a leader should possess the charisma to win the hearts and minds of the people around him. Otherwise they are same as managers.

Dan McCarthy said...

thanks! I've found that interview question to be one of the best ways to weed out bad apples too.

thanks! Agree, purpose is so important, although I'm not sure which comes first.

Thanks! Sounds like you're ready for the advanced leasership course.

sure, quote away, I would be honored.

thanks! That's a terrific add! I can't tell you how many times managers have told me about that scar. They thought inspection was a dirty word; it really just shows that its important.

you're welcome, and thanks for the comment. How about respected.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the post! All very interesting and practical points. Point 8 and Point 10 are very important to leaders. Nobody can be good at everything. We all need help and getting a feedback and welcoming the feedback can only make us better in the long run. So it is important to surround yourself with people who are willing to give you the necessary help and the right feedback.

Abby - Wage Garnishment said...

Number 3 (Not having a vision) is perhaps the most dangerous, if you don't have a goal you can't reach it (obviously).

Great post.

Anonymous said...

So many of those have to do with beliveing that the current course you are on is the best and only one possible. It is so much easier to just continue to do what you are doing rather than trying to change something. How about #11 "Not realizing that the list of mistakes you'll make is never ending" (but hopefully not full of repetition.)?

Bonnie Flatt, Leadership Coach said...

Great article Dan. How about #12. Creating silos, not sharing information or your contacts. By hoarding your information and contacts and keeping things siloed, you may have some efficiencies, see short term successes and have "good" work but you will not see great, sustainable work. Start sharing your information, connect your contacts to one another and open up your networks to what is possible. This will knock down siloes and will result in more sustainable, longer term business results.

Cindy Flanders said...

Dan, we've been reading your blog for awhile. We are launching our own site soon on Management. As someone who managed folks for over 20 years, I find your advice to be spot on-everytime. The recent post on 10 mistakes every leader should make really hit home. Great job!.

Unknown said...

And perhaps #13 - promoting the wrong person. One of the quickest ways to upset your team is promoting someone that does not deserve it or performs their new role poorly. The employees perception of the leader is diminished and the system may be perceived as unfair. Love the post

Dan McCarthy said...

Nandini –
Thanks! I agree. Someone on Twitter left another mistake suggestion: being afraid to hire people that know more than you do.

Abby –

Anon –
I think we’re up to 12 with yours. But who’s counting? Thanks.

Thanks. That’s sort of what I meant by “not paying attention to your peers”, but you said it much better. We’ll make that 12B.

Cindy –
Thanks, that means a lot to me. I look forward to seeing your new site, “Manage Fearlessly”. Nice title.

Alexander –
Thanks, #13 it is. I agree, there’s no better way to ruin your entire team’s morale!

Unknown said...

A terric list and great comments. I plan to post a link in my academic leadership blog.

Will Forsythe

Dan McCarthy said...

Will -
Thanks for the mention!

Unknown said...

Not defining and articulating a culture. It is hard to know who fits a culture if you can't say what it is. Rick Cronk, former Dryer's CEO took creating a culture to an extreme with the "Dryer's Grooves". He made sure to get in front of every employee every year to ensure they knew the culture. Learn more about this at our one week exec program at Berkeley (only of course, if NH is far for you!):

Unknown said...

Great post, indeed. I'm on my first years of leading, and I'm always surprised with the challenging it is as it touches on every human aspect of the leader. Sometimes I even ask my self, why me or anybody would want that much responsability in the first place?!

Carl said...

Hi Dan

#2 jumped out for me. Coming from a recruitment background, sometimes I found it hard to show a potential hiring manager that a certain person was a good candidate for a job because their resume just didn't seem to show what they were looking for but I still got the impression the person was a good fit.


Yi Shun at The Hub said...

Interesting post, although I was thrown by the headline: Do you mean that all leaders are bound to make these mistakes at some points in their career no matter how well prepared they are, or do you mean that all leaders should take these steps at some point? There's a fine line, and I think leaders who buck the system are going to walk it at some point. Really curious to see what your take on that is.
Cheers, and thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I love that you've included experiencing and learning into this post. As opposed to many that point out mistakes to avoid, this one is more real world.

Additionally, these are all qualities good leaders and managers must have but many in the position fail to recognize.

In fact, in Top 10 Ways to Be a Better Leader the #1 skill is to "learn from your failures". I suppose it should include recognizing your failures and understanding they will occur.

Dan McCarthy said...

Kim -
OK, you get a free plug for Berkeley Exec Ed. Actually, you guys have great programs.

Bruno -
Thanks, that's a question every potential leader should ask.

Carl -
Thanks, I guess some managers have to get burned a few times before they start listening to their recruiter pro.

Yi Shun -
Thanks for asking. The headline was more of a tease, not to be taken literaly. The real point was all about learning from your mistakes.

Online -
Thanks, and a free plug for you too. (-:

Anonymous said...

"Not learning from your mistakes" can also be a huge mistake! Thanks.

Kia said...

"Not learning from your mistakes" can also be a huge mistake! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Not having confidence in your people - huge mistake. If you believe your people are incompentent, fire them or develop them. Worst mistake is taking it all on yourself to keep up appearances. That is NOT leadership; it is suicide!

Dan McCarthy said...

Kia -
How true. #14. Thanks.

Chemgirl -
#15, agree 100%! Thanks.

Jenn said...

Dan, Thanks for the excellent post. This list is resonating with many folks.
I wanted to challenge #5 just a bit, though. I'm in agreement that continuous development is necessary, and great leaders challenge themselves to keep growing. However, I've become fairly swayed by the strengths literature (from Gallup and others) that indicates strong leaders will identify ways they can maximize their areas of strength. The breakthrough results come from gathering a team of people with diverse strengths - strengths that the leader recognizes she is lacking. A great leader will hire people with strengths different from her own, so that the *team* has a full complement of strengths needed to succeed. The thinking is this leads to much better results than the leader trying to become strong in every single category.
What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Loved the post!!! do you have a website or something?

Dan McCarthy said...

Jenn -
Thanks. I agree with everything you said - however, as long as it's not taken too far. Here's a post I wrote on the topic:

Anon -
Thanks. Just this blog, and my employer: