By Mattson Newell (@MattsonNewell), Client Partner for Partners in Leadership, and an expert and author on breakthrough communications, global human resources, and talent development
Taking on a leadership role within your company for the first time can be both exciting and challenging, offering a valuable opportunity to develop managerial and organizational skills as well as take on more accountability for driving business results.
Unfortunately, it can be easy to fall into patterns of poor leadership that diminish employee engagement and create unnecessary hurdles to achieving topline results.
While we often hear that taking risks and learning from failure is essential to growth and success, optimal leadership development happens when we learn from others. As a new leader, you need to level up quickly, so take note of these six critical mistakes that first-time leaders often make -- and the strategies you need to sidestep them.
1. Creating a Habit of Over-Complicating
From organizing projects and teams to facilitating communication across departments and spearheading meeting after meeting, leaders are often pulled in many directions. In response to these daily demands, many new leaders feel inclined to over-complicate internal processes, models for communication, and even the roadmaps for achieving organizational results. However, this approach can create unnecessary holding patterns in your pipeline, discourage employee engagement, and decrease productivity in the workplace.
Instead, leaders should proactively weed out all inefficient protocols and cultivate a purposeful, clear focus around topline priorities. As the late Steve Jobs said, "simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean, to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."
By carefully streamlining his approach, Jobs successfully scaled one of the most successful business ventures in history -- proving that simple, straightforward processes can help leaders generate outstanding long-term results.
2. Falling Into the 'Commander' Mindset
Many new leaders are ambitious and may be prone to perfectionism. Unfortunately, perfectionism may cause some leaders to adopt a 'commander'-like mindset in which they micromanage, telling direct reports exactly what to do and when to do it. This habit can create a toxic culture in which one of two outcomes is likely to occur: either teams lack accountability, waiting to be guided step-by-step through their workdays, or they become annoyed at the lack of trust they receive from management and thus disengage from their work.
To avoid these two detrimental outcomes, shift to a leadership style focused on collaborative movement toward shared goals. One of the fatal mistakes new leaders make is failing to ask questions and encourage open dialogue. By inviting new, diverse perspectives from everyone on the team, you naturally generate more effective solutions and accelerate results.
3. Ineffectual Communication Skills
First-time leaders often err on the side of infrequent communication with direct reports -- usually in the hopes of avoiding micromanaging and the 'commander' mindset! However, a lack of communication (or miscommunication) can kill progress toward benchmark results and create silos in which individual employees or teams operate without considering topline organizational results.
Effective communication is frequent and accessible, involving open dialogue between parties. For leaders, this means fostering an environment of egalitarianism in which direct reports feel comfortable approaching and offering feedback to leaders -- not just receiving critique. This supportive culture of communication positions all employees for success.
4. Inconsistency Around Expectations
A recent Partners In Leadership Workplace Accountability Study revealed that some 85% of employees are not clear about what their organizations are trying to achieve. Leaders fall into a trap of shifting their focus from one day to the next -- in September, you may make a big sales push, only to emphasize the importance of customer satisfaction in October. It's not that all of these objectives aren't relevant, because they certainly are. However, a lack of long-term consistency around expectations in the workplace creates confusion and slows employee productivity.
Consistency, on the other hand, builds trust, as employees learn what is expected of them and can easily identify the objectives toward which they are working. Leaders can establish consistent expectations by remaining focused on results, outlining the top three to five organizational priorities that all employees should work toward every day.
Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, has always led with a long-term vision of his business. From the company's humble beginnings as an online bookstore run out of a garage, he opted to invest in early technologies and expand slowly. By defining and homing in on long-term results from the get-go, Bezos has built a business empire with a valuation of over $1 trillion.
5. Failing to Lead with Purpose
Employee engagement is at a historic low: according to the latest Gallup reports, a staggering 87% of employees are disengaged at work. Though the reasons for employee disengagement may be multifold, a lack of purpose-driven leadership is often to blame. This is a major problem, considering collaborative movement toward organizational results requires high levels of employee engagement.
Employees will work hard for money, harder for a great leader, but hardest for a cause they believe in. To boost engagement, identify, clarify, and champion your company's purpose so that every employee is on board. This is especially true of millennials, who now make up the largest sector of the U.S. labor force. Identifying a clear purpose gives employees a why behind the what, which in turn leads to higher engagement.
6. Prioritizing Process Over People
Leaders often invest the largest portion of their time in logistics: planning and conducting meetings, streamlining processes, optimizing systems, and communicating with other corporate leaders. These are crucial elements of effective leadership -- however, without the framework of a thriving, people-centric culture, these efforts fall flat. If you approach leadership with the mindset that business processes are more important that the people you hire, the teams you build, and the employees you promote, you'll wind up with an unproductive, toxic workplace culture.
Instead, invest resources in making the smartest hires possible, consider how existing talent can be leveraged to assemble high-impact teams, and encourage high retention rates by offering valuable benefits and opportunities for professional growth. By treating your people as your strongest asset, you can foster a culture of collaboration, engagement, and trust that leads to better results.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings always chooses people over processes. According to Business Insider, "Netflix has become famous in Silicon Valley for its unique company culture, which does not tolerate either failing employees or brilliant jerks." Hastings only hires and promotes employees who embody his company's core cultural values of dedication and kindness. As a result, Hastings has created a people-first business that regularly surpasses its quarterly and annual goals.
Leading a Thriving Culture
By sidestepping these common mistakes, leaders new and old can cultivate a thriving company culture that supports high rates of employee engagement and achieves organizational results efficiently and effectively. A leadership strategy rooted in collaborative problem-solving, open communication and clear expectations can propel your organization to new heights.
Continue building your leadership skills by mastering how to inspire employees while holding others accountable for results. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll learn to create movement in your company (and your career!)