Director Hunter Roberts Consulting Limited
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Seven big mistakes new leaders make and how to avoid them

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If you’re new to a leadership role you might feel pressure to prove yourself and deliver straight away, but before you set off towards your goals, bear in mind the common pitfalls those who’ve gone before you have fallen into.

8th Jul 2021
Director Hunter Roberts Consulting Limited
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Boards and senior leadership teams want people in the top roles who will drive the organisation’s success. If you’ve been recruited or promoted into such a role it’s because you’re a high performer who shows promise.

It’s natural to want to make your mark in a new role, but it’s a mistake to make changes before you know the business inside out.

Being given a top job doesn’t mean you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career, however. On the contrary, becoming a new leader requires you to learn a whole new set of skills. Today’s style of agile leadership means failing fast and moving on quickly, but we can still avoid some common errors. So what are these mistakes and how can you avoid/recover from them?

1. Making changes too quickly

It’s natural to want to make your mark in a new role, but it’s a mistake to make changes before you know the business inside out. Take plenty of time to get to know everything about the area you’re responsible for: every role and each person in it; your customers and their profiles; marketing and communications strategies; sales, operations and accounts. Leave no stone unturned.

What may seem like a quick fix at first glance could be a major mistake that only becomes apparent when you’re fully absorbed in how things work. Ask questions, listen and learn, hold individual meetings with everyone to understand their challenges and successes. Be confident that you’re making the right changes for the right reasons, when the time is right.

2. Trying to be friends with the team

As a leader, you need to possess a lot of emotional intelligence and display high levels of empathy. You should care about your teams and what happens to them, but I’m afraid you can’t be their friends.

When you’re appointed into a leadership role, the dynamic with colleagues changes. You become responsible for making tough decisions that have an impact on people’s lives, often under pressure. If you don’t feel that you can apply enough distance to be impartial, maybe a leadership role isn’t for you.

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3. Letting the power go to your head

Responsibility is often confused with power, but ‘being responsible for’ and ‘having power over’ are not interchangeable phrases. Your new appointment may give you the authority to hire and fire, but you will quickly lose the respect of your teams if you use that authority as a threat to get your own way.

There are six commonly recognised leadership styles: visionary, coercive, affiliative, coaching, pace setting and democratic. The most effective are a combination of visionary, democratic and coaching. Shouting, demanding and threatening are never acceptable ways to lead.

4. Emulating someone else’s style

We can admire the style of a senior leader or a public figure, but we don’t have their background, we don’t know what drives them, and we can’t be them. It’s great to have someone to look up to – having a mentor is one of the most effective ways to develop leadership skills – but when we try and copy other people, we lose what makes us unique and appear inauthentic.

Identify the core values that guide you, they’re the foundations of your leadership brand. Build on these foundations with your strengths, skills and expertise. As a leader, you should be aware of your personal style and the value you bring to your role. Knowing your qualities also means understanding where you fall short and having the insight to fill the gaps.

5. Focusing on negatives

No new leader wants to fail, so being alert for errors is common, but identifying and highlighting mistakes causes resentment and can quickly turn a workplace into a toxic environment. Keeping things ticking over until something goes wrong means people only get feedback when it’s negative.

Positive leadership should be an ongoing exercise in development, of yourself and your teams. Feedback should be a constant, two-way stream. What can you do to help people achieve their goals? What can they tell you about their challenges and how things could be done differently? Focus on achievements and have open discussions about what could be improved rather than apportioning blame or seeking recrimination.

6. Taking on too much

It’s common for new leaders to assume that they have to do everything that’s asked of them, and that to say no will be seen as being weak or incapable. If you’ve come through the ranks from a managerial role, it can be particularly difficult to separate functional tasks from operational goals.

As a leader, you should be defining the vision for your teams and equipping them with the skills they need to achieve it. You have a responsibility for their personal development and their wellbeing, but not to complete their tasks. If you are bogged down with the minutiae of daily operations, then you need to clarify your role with your own leader. You may need some personal development to turn your managerial expertise into leadership success.

7. Not having basic leadership skills

If you find yourself floundering in a leadership position, it could be beyond your control. Your role may not have been clearly defined, the structure or the resources of the organisation may not provide the support you need, or it could be a simple case of inexperience.

Boards and senior leadership teams appoint people with the skills needed to lead a business to success. They also have a responsibility to ensure that person is equipped to succeed. This means coaching, development, feedback or maybe a professional management qualification.

When you’re in your first leadership role, you’re an inexperienced leader by default. Avoid the common pitfalls with a high level of self-awareness, some strong personal development and accept that you’ll always have something to learn.

Interested in this topic? Read How to deal with workplace stress as a new leader.

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