5 common mistakes leaders make
We asked two local leadership experts: What are the most common mistakes leaders make?
Friday, August 17, 2012 7:00 AM
Harlan “Bud” Hockenberg
Founder/CEO, Independent Advisor LLC
Hockenberg, 84, launched CEO Independent Advisor late last year. As a longtime business lawyer and former political consultant, Hockenberg’s goal is to give CEOs unbiased advice and perspective.
Leadership/organizational development consultant
Hannah is a leadership and organizational change consultant. A former bartender, he runs LeadershipCocktail.com, and gives presentations in which he shares leadership stories and relates them to mixing drinks.
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1. Not connecting with employees
Leaders often wrongly assume that they can either motivate their employees with external rewards such as bonuses, or that the same thing that motivates them will motivate employees, Hannah said. Research suggests that’s not the case. Good motivation is internal, he said, and a leader’s job is to help employees figure out what motivates them.
Similarly, Hockenberg said, leaders often have trouble understanding younger generations. Using language such as “this is the way we do it” isn’t usually a satisfactory answer for someone in the Millennial generation, he said. “It’s the ‘why’ instead of the ‘what,’ and understanding how to explain the ‘why’ in language that is in the frame of reference of the person you are talking to,” Hockenberg said.
2. Lack of self-awareness
Particularly as leaders get higher in an organization, they aren’t as self-reflective as they should be, Hannah said. “They have had a lot of success in their career, so (they think,) ‘Why should I change anything?” Often, when leaders do take the chance to reflect, and ask for feedback from their employees, peers and supervisors, they find out things they didn’t know about themselves. A dangerous consequence of a lack of self-awareness includes overestimating your strengths and downplaying your weaknesses. Hannah said he has seen executives have their careers derailed because they haven’t spent enough time reflecting on their leadership style or getting feedback from others.
3. Personnel decisions
Hiring isn’t an exact science. Hockenberg has what he calls a business person balance sheet, which requires a CEO to do a “net worth statement” on each of his or her key advisers. Too often, he said, CEOs will make hiring decisions based on subjective personal relationships. So how much should leaders rely on their gut rather than objective factors? “It’s a combination,” Hockenberg said. “Experience helps the gut, and knowing the right questions to ask.”
People are getting so good at interviewing, Hannah adds, that it’s especially important to ask the right questions during a job interview. Another common mistake that new managers make is not understanding how much time personnel issues will take. “Probably two-thirds of your time as a leader is spent on personnel issues,” Hannah said. “Not only negative issues, not only problems, but how to keep somebody engaged.”
4. Imposing change
Leaders frequently underestimate what it will take to implement organizational change, Hannah said. For one thing, often by the time that a leader announces a change, he or she is used to the idea. Employees are not. “We as leaders say, ‘It’s no big deal. They’ll roll with the punches,’” Hannah said. To counteract that, it’s good to remind employees that they’ve dealt with change in the past and survived, even if it is uncomfortable at first. Another common mistake when it comes to implementing change is not properly communicating why it is necessary and getting employees to truly embrace it. “About 70 percent of significant organizational change fails,” he said. “Ultimately, if a change fails, that diminishes trust.” Hannah likes to tell the story of a CEO who called all of his employees into the parking lot, and lit an oil drum full of old policy manuals on fire. “The symbolism was that was the way it used to be, but we’re going to do things differently now,” Hannah said. “He recognized the value that you have to appeal to the heart as well as the head.”
5. Failing to see opportunity
CEOs tend to do one of three things in times of uncertainty, Hockenberg said. Some will cut back on expenses and employees. That’s a mistake, he said. It causes employees to feel uncertain about their job and look for employment elsewhere. Another response is to maintain the status quo, which is better but still prevents companies from taking reasonable risks. The third, and correct, response is to take advantage of the situation. “The third CEO understands that in uncertain times, if you do today what you did yesterday, you will never get to tomorrow,” Hockenberg said. Taking unreasonable risks would also be a mistake, but recognizing the opportunity that uncertainty provides is key.
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