Leadership Landmines: Critical Mistakes First-time Leaders or Managers Should Avoid at all Cost
What is a key secret of an employee-focused organization? Leadership development focused on growth, productivity, sustainability and human-centric approach, according to thought leader Josh Bersin. Amid the rise in management occupations in today’s fluid macroeconomic environment, the growing requirement to bring together these 4 elements has changed the narrative of leadership development.
Being a first-time leader or manager is challenging, given the backdrop of expectations and requirements.
The secret to employee-focused organizations: Leadership development
Why is leadership development in the spotlight? The answer’s simple – a staggering rise in management occupation numbers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, the number of manager roles in the US workforce exceeds 9 million currently. Employment in management occupations is projected to grow 8% over 2021 to 2031—surpassing the average increase in all occupations.
What makes it interesting is the population mix that will man these roles. These will largely be filled by millennials and Gen Z workers, who are expected to make up nearly 60% of the workforce towards the close of the decade.
Transitioning into a leadership or managerial role: Challenges and opportunities
According to a March 2023 article by Forbes, navigating new leadership is both exciting and challenging. The perks of leadership development are alluring, but offset by the scope to make typical first-time leader mistakes. You need to tread carefully. A casual slip-up can lead to loss of trust, create a strain in relationship and have a cascading effect across the organization.
The challenges could pertain to delegation of roles & responsibilities, lack of clarity on work profile, managing peers, inadequate training, lack of experience, inability to rally the team or gain their trust, obsession to prove yourself as a leader/manager, weak soft skills, etc.
But each challenge can turn into an opportunity, provided you know how to harness it. To build the right workplace culture from the start, it is very important to understand what are those critical leadership mistakes a new or first-time leader or manager makes, and how to avoid these.
Checklist for success: Avoiding common blunders in new leadership
(i) Ego alert! The dual challenges of self-perception – imposter syndrome versus overconfidence
New leaders often fall into the belief that they must possess expertise in all areas, but this is a wrong perception. In the realm of leadership, first-time leaders or managers are often at loggerheads, either with the imposter syndrome or with overconfidence. Neither is right.
While confidence in abilities is necessary, it is equally important for leaders to acknowledge their limitations and approach each situation with curiosity. Even if they believe they know the answer, new leaders should maintain a mindset of continuous learning by asking questions and remaining open to new insights.
What are some issues you could face? How to develop an organization-first mindset; what is team management; what is effective communication; how to develop effective leadership skills; what are the soft skills a first-time leader or manager should have; how to handle the difficulties in setting clear goals for your team, or in communicating effectively and in providing constructive feedback? It requires navigating the complexities of managing relationships and balancing the needs of both the team and the organization.
You require an infrastructure to support first-time managers through comprehensive training and development programs on leadership and management techniques. Recognize the unique demands of your role as a first-time manager. Approach your responsibilities with an open mind. Ask your organization or leadership for the necessary support, resources, and training/coaching. Investing in development not only benefits individuals but also contributes to the overall success of the organization.
Embracing humility and inquisitiveness, leaders can navigate challenges more effectively and foster their own growth.
The way out: Ask for expert advice, seek a mentor both within the company or outside and expand your perspective, don’t hesitate to show your ‘human’ side.
(ii) George Bernard Shaw to Peter Drucker echoed the sentiment; do you?
Communication in leadership is the art of listening and speaking.
George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Peter Drucker added another layer, saying, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
Most first-time leaders get communication wrong. It is assumed, or is one-sided, where the leader talks and does not listen. Understandably, you are anxious and would want your team to know you, but it is equally important that you get to know them.
Interact with your team. Have discussions, one-to-one or in groups. Understand where they come from, their disposition and values. This will help you relate better with them.
What is the ideal way?
Let’s take an example. You are a new leader and, as chance will have it, downsizing the organization lands on your plate. How do you go about it?
The first step is to hold as many conversations as you can with people across the organization, across levels and seniority, and with the various teams.
Aim for the line managers specifically. That is where the bulk of the exchange of information happens. These are also the key influencers. You may, depending upon your discretion, like to take some of them into confidence even before implementing layoffs. Ask for their suggestions and see if these can be implemented. Having them by your side helps in sending out the right message to the rest of the team.
Keep the atmosphere light during the discussions/meetings. Broach the subject but with caution to not spread panic. Listen and observe as much as you talk. This will help the people speak up about their fears and air the questions they may have.
Using your discretion, explain the rationale behind why the company or leadership has taken the difficult step. Communicate honestly and clearly why and how it is as much a tough pill for the management to swallow.
If you have made adjustments to cut down the number being retrenched by reshuffling people, or moving them to other teams, talk about that too. Showing that it was not a heartless decision or executed recklessly will earn you goodwill. Employees value compassion.
If it is a large organization, you may write an open letter. Express your thoughts with honesty and be direct. Talk about how the leadership intends to take the organization forward, and what prospects lie in store for the remaining staff. Convey that the organization is going to emerge stronger from the crisis.
Express your confidence in the workforce. Pepper your conversations with messages that the management will do its best to provide the required support. Seek questions. Employees will reward a genuine quest by placing their trust in you.
A similar approach can be adopted by a new manager tasked with getting his team to work on a challenging project. After you’ve communicated the project, hear them out. What could be the concerns, how the grey areas need to be addressed, how should you reshuffle in case of an unforeseen situation, etc.
Communication is the foundation for effective management and leadership development. A first-time leader or a new manager needs to keep all channels of communication open.
(iii) Precise, not extreme: Balanced leadership persona
How do you deal with your team? By striking the right balance in developing the optimal leadership persona. You need to find that sweet spot between toughness and empathy. New leaders or first-time managers either become too distant and authoritative, or too pleasing in the bid to win over the support of their team members. Be genuine.
Begin by assessing the composition of your team. Understand the age groups they fall under. Plan your approach. So, if you are heading an organization that is looking to hire Gen Z for certain designations, you need to tailor your talent management approach:
- Comprehend the values of Gen Z and strategize your branding accordingly to make it effective. Make yourself known on the platforms they frequent. Figure out what is trending in this group.
- Understand that this is non-conventional talent. Hence, the traditional talent management approach will not work. Work out a strategy to leverage the capabilities of Gen Z. For instance, see if you can tailor the role to make it more skill-based.
- Most important – Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.
Similarly, if you are a first-time manager required to manage a team that is a mix of all age groups, your strategy will be different. To reach out to them, you would need to have a deep understanding of how each member behaves, and what would appeal to them. The strategy that you have for a Gen X employee will not work for a millennial. Find that middle ground. Some may like a more interactive approach, some would be better off with detailed instructions, others may just want a few guidelines and then be left alone to deliver the desired outcome.
Managing people is challenging, given the different personality traits and aspirations. No one management style will work for all. Observing and assessing will help you avoid the extremes of being overly authoritative or excessively friendly. Neither of the two is genuine, rendering leadership ineffective. Genuineness sticks, particularly now with most candidates often prioritizing authentic workplaces over fake company cultures.
(iv) Anathema to effective management: Micromanaging
Ever heard any employee say this –I perform best when I am micromanaged?
Leading and effectively managing a team for a first-time manager or leader is challenging. Leaders often find themselves tricked into micromanagement in the name of effective management. Obsessed with the details, you’d want to be in control of every aspect of the process and the people.
According to an article in PubMed, the long-term costs of micromanagement can be significant. It leads to negative outcomes like low morale, high turnover, reduced productivity, and dissatisfied customers, often ranking among the top reasons for employee resignations. Moreover, it hampers departmental growth potential as managers focus excessively on operational details, neglecting strategic planning. Micromanagers also face a heightened risk of burnout.
Changing micromanagement behavior is a challenging and time-consuming process that begins with recognizing the need for change and understanding its detrimental impact. Self-assessment of leadership style can be beneficial during this transformation.
Rather than trying to exert excessive control over every aspect of a project, it is more effective for bosses to gain knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of their teams. By understanding their team members’ capabilities, they can inspire and motivate them to produce high-quality work. This approach involves empowering employees, providing them with autonomy, and encouraging them to take ownership of their tasks. By fostering a sense of trust and confidence in their abilities, bosses can create an environment where employees feel empowered to contribute their best efforts and showcase their skills. This approach not only boosts employee morale but also enhances productivity and promotes a culture of collaboration and innovation within the team.
(v) Are you a hoarder of efforts and credit?
Delegation and credit are key aspects of effective management.
According to noted American entrepreneur and philanthropist Eli Broad, the inability to delegate is one of the biggest issues with managers at all levels. Most leaders or managers like to take all the work and credit for themselves. Delegation of work is critical to trust-building, which is interlinked with employee empowerment.
Why is delegation of work such a big problem with leaders across levels, or managers? Where does this “do everything approach” arise from? Is it since they became managers for the first time? Maybe yes.
At the core is obsession with delivery on all fronts, as new leaders often believe that they are the experts in everything. So, if a new or a first-time manager is assigned a project, the individual gets obsessed—even overwhelmed—with delivering top class results. What do they end up doing? Confuse achieving goals and targets with division of team work. In their bid to meet their own expectations—rather surpass it—they turn into “control freaks”. They keep a tab on every single thing each team member is doing, interfere when absolutely not required, give unsolicited advice, and operate as tough task masters.
Loss of trust with the team. Rapport takes a hit. Work culture suffers. Goals, even if met, are achieved at a high cost.
Delegate work. Give your team the responsibilities to test their skills and the space to execute. Work experience will give them confidence. They will naturally rally behind a leader or manager who facilitates their growth and contributes to career development. Moreover, you will not be overwhelmed by the mundane and routine tasks. It will free up bandwidth for you to focus on other core issues, such as more effective leadership guidance.
For a leader at the entrepreneurial level, delegation will also entail consulting with the management team. So, if a new leader wants to implement large-scale digitalization in the organization, what should be the approach? Consult with his team and take them into confidence by giving value to their suggestions and ideas. Coordination and collaboration are important tools in leadership development and team empowerment.
Effective leadership is closely linked to employee empowerment and workplace culture. Therefore, it is very important that first-time leaders and new managers be aware of the critical mistakes outlined and actively avoid them. With this, new leaders can set themselves up for success and create a positive impact on their teams and organizations.
Leadership is a continuous learning process. By actively investing in their own growth and development, first-time leaders can inspire a culture of continuous improvement, empower their team members to take ownership of their work, and foster a positive and inclusive environment where everyone thrives.
Your time as a first-time leader is a unique opportunity to shape your leadership style and set the tone for your team’s success. Don’t let it go waste.