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How Hard Can It Be? Rookie Mistakes in Leadership

Close up of a chess player holding a chess piece

Leadership is not always easy. While we may have great intentions and ambitions sometimes, without meaning to, we actually set people up to fail. An example of this may be similar to the scenario below.

Alex is the senior manager and observes that Chris is a positive, productive, capable team member, gets on with others and has some great ideas to move things forward. Chris often shares suggestions about what the current team leader could do better to improve service delivery internally and externally, after all ‘how hard can it be? ’When an opportunity arises Chris gets promoted into the team leader role. Chris appears to have the energy and ideas to make some real progress with this team. Fast forward six months and somehow Chris’s good ideas just haven’t materialised, there is little difference in team performance, the same gripes continue, the team remains mired in the same problems and Chris is feeling overloaded. What has happened?

One reason why Chris’s leadership journey has stalled is that when we take on something new, often ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’, we don’t recognise the complexity of the task or even that it is a specific task or skill set. We readily accept our own lack of knowledge when the skill set is very different from our own, for example we start a new hobby, or return to an activity that we were once competent in. We know that we need to take time and be deliberate about developing those skills again. But the closer something is to our own experience, perceived skill set, environment and daily practices, the harder it is to distinguish or ‘see’ how different it really is. In this case Chris felt very familiar with the responsibilities of a team leader role and could imagine other possibilities but didn’t see below the surface to the self and people leadership skills needed to action success. Having creative ideas is not the same as having the skill set to execute them effectively.

Rookie mistakes are those mistakes we make when we underestimate the complexity of the task, we cannot ‘see’ the skills, steps and stages needed to implement the change. Unfortunately, it is not just people who are new to the role who make these mistakes. Failure to critically review our day-to-day practices and seek improvement can lead to leadership missteps throughout our career.

At NZIM we often nurture people to fulfilling their potential. Some common roadblocks we encounter are:

  • Holding onto old habits and patterns that no longer fit with the new role
  • Having difficulty building the team from a different perspective, moving from mate to manager
  • Confusing ‘being busy’ with ‘being productive’
    Either being too slow to make a decision or making all of the decisions
  • Avoiding difficult conversations
  • Seeing constructive feedback as negative feedback
  • Feeling that you must do everything yourself and/or have all of the answers
  • Not delegating, it takes too long, might as well do it myself
  • Uncertainty about letting go of some of the operational tasks to allow time for leadership activities
  • And you might be able to name a few more.

Alex has an important part to play in helping Chris to ‘see’ the leadership skills needed for success, by honing skills of observation, support and holding professional conversations about leadership with the new leader. To develop any skill set people need to move through a journey from “how hard can it be’ to seeing what is needed, taking action and reviewing the results.

We can support people to avoid these sort of mistakes by:

  • Encouraging them to recognise that there is an issue, the issue is manageable, it has a specific set of skills that can be learned. This may happen in discussion with managers, colleagues, networking or continuing professional development; or recognising their ‘teachable moment’ the times when individuals realise that things aren’t working and they need to make a change.
  • Find the frameworks and patterns essential to skill development for this issue, move beyond our own day-to-day experiences to find out where we can access new learning, new examples and new ways of working. This may be by accessing coaches, mentors, role models, evidence-based research or continuing professional development.
  • Engage in deliberate practice to improve the skills, break it down into manageable steps and stages, adapt the steps to the environment. Keep skill development deliberate by ensuring opportunities to practice, reflect on the results, seek feedback, recognise success and next steps in the challenge.
  • Recognise and anchor the improved skill set, share and discuss our successes and challenges, to increase our self-awareness and use this as the next step for learning.
    But there will be a limit to any individual manager’s input. The most effective change happens when our people have the opportunity to talk about leadership with others, share successes, challenges, explore ideas and learn from each other’s practice. Talking about our work on a regular basis supports our team leaders to see the value of the specific set of leadership skills that they can learn, develop, enhance and eventually coach in others.

To support your team leaders, eliminate rookie mistakes listed in the article and many others, improve their skill development and have professional conversations about leadership. The NZIM Team Leader series provides a comprehensive set of leadership skills in:

Essential Skills
Building Effective Teams
Leading Lean (enhancing productivity in the workplace)