As a chief people officer, I have a front-row seat to watch some leadership careers flourish — and some crash and burn. Here are the five most critical mistakes that derail promising careers.
1. You think you have to know everything.
I once worked with a leader who could never admit that he didn’t know the answer to a question. There’d be a brief flash of panic in his eyes, then a hasty, “Uh … our central office is handling that” or “That project will be done in … six months.” He was clearly making it up on the spot. In his effort to look capable, he made the situation far worse — and he no longer holds that leadership role.
Leaders often make the mistake of thinking, “I’m the leader, so I can’t ask questions. I’m paid to have the answers!” This instinct usually comes from a good place — we all want to be credible. But, you don’t earn credibility by pretending to be infallible.
Instead, building true credibility requires a strong dose of humility. It means admitting you don’t know if the central office is handling that project, but you’ll find out and follow up. It means owning your mistakes and apologizing when you’re wrong. Showing a bit of vulnerability might seem counterintuitive, but it often increases your credibility, and therefore, your effectiveness as a leader.
2. You don’t trust your team.
Micromanaging is a common symptom of this lack of trust: needing to approve everything, hesitating to delegate even the smallest task. Even though I know better, I still catch myself on occasion assigning projects to capable team members, then fighting the urge to look over their shoulder. I have to remind myself of the many great things they’ve done on their own and let them do their jobs. Otherwise, micromanaging will destroy creativity, shut down initiative and disengage teams.
I had a call this morning from some members of a demoralized front line team. Their leader asked their opinion all the time, but rarely incorporated their input into her final decision. In the end, this leader simply didn’t trust that the team might have greater insight than she did.
If you go through the motions of involving your team while always doing what you planned anyway, your team will quickly pick up on it. And the next time you need their best thinking, don’t be surprised if you’re met with silence.
3. You let uncomfortable situations fester.
Ineffective leaders let uncomfortable situations, critical conversations or performance issues go unaddressed, because they don’t know how to address it without being unkind. When in reality, the kinder, more considerate thing to do — for the employee, team and the organization — is to address problems head-on.
A Harris Poll survey found that “a stunning majority (69 percent) of the managers said that they’re often uncomfortable communicating with employees.” One solution? Catch problems when they’re small. Leaders often hope that if they ignore these situations, they will somehow resolve on their own. But, waiting only causes the situation to get bigger, hairier and more difficult to address.
4. You focus on short-term wins at the expense of long-term results.
I recently had a leader whose team felt like he had no time for them, that they were just a means to an end. The situation got so bad that his top performer quit. When I approached him about the problem, he said, “I wish I had time to have one-on-ones with these people every week, but I don’t.”
Curious, I asked him what he did see as his No. 1 priority. He replied, “The most important thing in my role is to hit our revenue number.” And I said, “See, that’s where we view things differently. I think your most important role is to help your team hit the number.”
It’s a subtle shift. Ineffective leaders get so focused on results that they lose sight of the people who produce those results. They often excuse less-than-ideal behavior by saying, “We have to hit the number at all costs.” And I want to respond, “Really, at all costs? Because you just destroyed the very thing that was going to hit the number next quarter.”
Great leaders, effective leaders achieve results in a way that allows them to get those results over and over again.
5. You’re stuck in old ways of working.
This is not a generational issue. People — older, younger, in-between — are working differently, with nontraditional hours, remote locations and virtual communication. Call it life balance or more of a holistic approach to careers, but people want flexibility. The worst leaders resist it; the best leaders leverage it. In a study of a 20,000-person organization, a Stanford researcher found:
The researcher, Professor Michael Bloom, said to Insights by Stanford Business, “For employees, they’re much more productive and happier. For managers, you don’t have to spend so much time recruiting and training people. For firms, you make far more profit. For society, there’s a huge saving of reducing congestion, driving times and, ultimately, pollution … There’s not much to lose, and there’s a lot to gain.” I completely agree. You can get the greatest talent in the planet if you’re willing to break from tradition.
By Todd Davis
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