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Two mistakes new leaders make – and how to avoid them

22 Sep 2017 By Dr Wanda Wallace

Transitioning to a different role is one of the greatest challenges we can face at work. Set yourself up for success with these tips from Dr Wanda Wallace

I see people make two big mistakes when they take on a new role. The first is the tendency to prove you deserve the opportunity. As Marc Howze at John Deere says, that’s the worst mistake people make: “Stop trying to prove you deserve the job and get on with doing the job.”

The second is to sequester themselves away, maybe with one or two trusted confidants, and try to figure out a strategy – what needs to be done, who will do it – and announce that to the organisation. People put enormous pressure on themselves. We tend to think being smart means: ‘I as the leader am expected to know everything, to understand my organisation, to know what needs to get fixed and to have a plan to do it. Once I have all that sorted out, then I will talk to people.’

Both mistakes can be fatal. If you are still trying to prove you deserve the opportunity, after a short while your team will start questioning whether you really did or not. And announcing the new strategy that you created without talking to anyone is a good way to make sure that no one is following you – at least not willingly.

In a transition, you need a smart, confident way to ask people what they think, assimilate all that information and then make some decisions. People tend to be much more willing to follow if they have had a voice, have been heard and have been taken seriously – even if you ultimately disagree with them.

I have asked many leaders how they manage key transitions, particularly ones where they as the leader are not ‘the’ expert. All these leaders point to the same three questions:

  • What do you like about what you (or my group) are doing?
  • What are we (or is my group) doing that isn’t working so well, that you wish would change?
  • If I could only do one thing, what would you like to me tackle/address/do?

Communication is key. Talk to many people in the first weeks. Ask everyone those three questions. Listen carefully to the answers. Then assimilate and synthesise. Where is there agreement among all the voices? Where are the truly divergent perspectives? What’s the easiest thing to do first that will reduce some level of pain and aggravation for people? Then do that. After that’s fixed, tackle the next issue, and so on.

John Murphey, former CEO of Bell Helicopter, says you change a culture by fixing things. If you don’t know what to fix, ask people – they have an uncanny ability to tell you what isn’t working well.

Dr Wanda Wallace is an executive coach and trainer, and CEO and president of Leadership Forum Inc. She hostsOut of the Comfort Zoneon VoiceAmerica Business Radio

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