The 4 Common Leadership Mistakes You Didn't Know You Were Making
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“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things;
leaders being humans sometimes make mistakes and do the wrong things”
An insurmountable challenge with leadership is that is cannot be learned overnight.
Taking risks and learning from failure is important on the path to success, but you can’t learn from mistakes you don’t even know you’re making! Optimal leadership development happens when we learn from the mistakes of others, so here are four common mistakes we find most leaders make (including ourselves).
1. The WIDE Open Door Policy
Striving to create a culture of openness requires the leadership to be approachable. The open-door policy is a revered policy that most leaders try to implement. If it works, it achieves admirable goals. It builds trust, fosters collaboration, and removes barriers across levels in the hierarchy.
But that’s only IF it works. The disadvantages of an open-door policy are only too real. We took great pride in our open-door policy and our approachability but realised we were paying a high price for it. Employees who were uncomfortable with decision making kept delegating their problems back to the leadership. Not only was this affecting the productivity of leaders in the company, but it also made individual contributors far too dependent on management than they needed to be! In some cases, it rendered the chain of command redundant because employees could simply bypass their managers or team-leaders and approach a higher level of management!
So have we given up on the open door policy? Of course not. We open the door at specific times and set the ground rules carefully. We hold monthly and quarterly meetings where employees can lay out their opinions and questions. We also make sure all employees understand that they are expected to know their jobs better than anyone else, and therefore take ownership of outcomes.
2. Mind Your Tongue:
If you’ve grown into leadership, you either come with a lot of experience, or a lot of ideas and creativity. The best leaders today act like catalysts for innovation. They share ideas freely and promote open dialogue. They are always available for critical inputs and advice and participate in projects themselves to lead from the frontlines.
With more than 30 years of collective experience in the engineering software domain, our leadership was no different. We were hands-on in our approach and participated in brainstorming sessions or project planning meetings with our team at every opportunity. We wanted projects to benefit from our experience in addition to the fresh perspective of younger minds.
The downside was hard to perceive at first.
When participating in brainstorming meetings we let ideas fly almost habitually. But, it’s hard to tell when your ideas are accepted just because they came from you, and not because they carry any merit. Employees might not be comfortable disagreeing with a senior leader! Simple suggestions can be taken as commands and employees can instinctively start moving to execute on your ideas without ever stopping to question them!
While it isn’t possible or desirable to curb the free flow of ideas, as leaders, we need to be careful what we say and to whom. When you make a suggestion, it is important to state that it is only a suggestion and you still expect people to think critically and own outcomes.
3. The Customer is NOT Always Right:
The best way to figure out what someone wants is to ask them. The best way to figure out what someone ‘needs’, however, is more complicated.
Most businesses start by fulfilling wants. They build a sustainable foundation and keep talking to customers to learn more about their wants and fine-tune their operations. At some point, they start understanding the customer well enough to know what they need. A seasoned leader needs to know when they have reached this point.
We worked extensively with CAD Software Channel Partners, or Value Added Reseller (VAR) as you might know them. If a customer asked for customizations in the CAD software the VAR was selling to them, the VAR would call us in to make it happen. The VAR was freed from any client request they weren’t geared to cater to. It made sense, and it was what the VARs wanted.
However, we knew the scenario that these resellers were operating in. SaaS software is growing cheaper, less complicated, and more intuitive. Most software vendors are steadily moving to sell directly through their online stores instead of through resellers who are now struggling to put the ‘value’ back in Value Added Reseller.
We knew what they needed. Even though no one had asked us explicitly, we offered them a new form of partnership. We would now create software plugins, add-ons, or extensions for them that they could bundle with the software they were selling and instantly differentiate themselves. Since they would retain the intellectual property, they could stand apart from the competition.
VARs had built longstanding, trusted relationships with their customers. They knew what their customers needed but lacked the capability to fulfil it. They were struggling to stay relevant in the SaaS market but did not wish to let go of the relationships and knowledge they had accumulated. They needed to differentiate themselves and keep selling.
If you know your customers well, it’s not hard to see what they truly need. If you just keep giving them what they’re asking for, you might only be doing half your job.
4. Don’t ‘Disagree to Agree’:
We’ve all been in heated discussions where the only way to end the debate is to ‘agree to disagree’. Aggressive growth trajectories require energetic, opinionated people in the leadership. When sharp minds with varying experiences enter a room, sparks are bound to fly.
As leaders, we learn to manage conflict early. We learn how to disagree and convey our thoughts in a logical, coherent, and actionable form. But, how do we prepare for a lack of conflict? When do we learn to manage too much agreement?
If you’ve had a partner for a long time, it’s possible that at some point you start tending to agree on most things. Even when you disagree, it turns out you’re both talking about the same thing in different ways! Sometimes it happens because you start thinking alike, and sometimes because you get into too many arguments and start subconsciously agreeing to avoid more conflict.
Since our partnership at work also extends into a partnership in life, we were faced with a similar dilemma. When we were faced with a problem, how could we be sure we weren’t skipping important considerations and ‘loading the dice’ to get to an answer we both agreed upon?
It is important to have differing opinions and develop a common problem-solving approach, rather than start developing common perspectives. So, we brought in a strategist to play the devil’s advocate and decided to hire consultants to bring in fresh perspectives in areas that needed the most attention.
Leadership development is an ongoing, constant endeavour. There will be mistakes no one warned you about along the way. Making it a point to question prevailing wisdom, including your own, can help to throw light on inconsistencies you might miss otherwise.