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Five common mistakes new leaders make and how to avoid them

Are you leading a business that’s scaling up fast?  Is it the largest business you’ve ever led?  If so, you’re not alone.  Many of our clients learn on the job and fall into the same leadership pitfalls.  As a leader, you cast a long shadow. And it’s possible to see the shape of that shadow in the teams you lead.

I was chatting recently to a Chief People Officer about precisely this.  His business is doing phenomenally well, but there are issues.  Looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the C-Suite leaders, he said he could see the same flaws in the teams they were managing. There was a direct link with the personality of the leader.

All of us have things we’re good at and things we’re not.  It’s a fact of life.  But until you’re fully aware of this, you will likely fall into the same common leadership errors we see repeatedly.  It’s essential to tackle these areas head-on as they will prevent your business from scaling up. 

So what are the mistakes new managers make?

1. Failure to communicate a clear vision and strategy

Scaling up entirely depends on your organisation’s clear understanding of your vision and strategy.  Nothing is more important for a leader than this. 

When we start working with a business that’s scaling up, we ask the CEO, ‘How clear do you think the strategy is?’  Their response? ‘Crystal clear. It’s been the same for the past five years.  Everyone knows it.’  Then we speak to the Executive team, and they first say, ‘It would be great if we had a clear strategy!’

Firstly, ensure you’ve crafted a meaningful BHAG, Purpose and Core Values.  Something that excites your team and unites them behind your vision for scaling up.  Then you’ve got to sell it.  And keep selling it.  To your customers, your staff, your investors, your wife… Boil it down into a single phrase.  Make it pithy and say it over and over.  If the team start parodying you doing this, you know you’re getting through. 

At Rackspace, it was ‘Fanatical Support.’  At Peer 1, ‘Every interaction matters.’ And at IT Lab? ‘Service Obsession.’ All of these businesses were on a fast trajectory of scaling up.  And every decision we made was guided by this overarching vision.

All OKRs and priorities should be linked to your strategy.  There should be a clear line of sight between the objective you’re working on today and this future state.  Too often, scaling-up companies get bogged down in orphan or shadow projects that have nothing to do with the vision.  This gives you a lens to kill them.

Finally, review and adapt your strategy when needed.  I like to do a two-day off-site every year to check Executive Teams are still aligned with their vision.

2. Focusing too much on technical skills vs. soft skills

Most of our clients are tech firms where you often see this mistake.  But it doesn’t just apply to this sector.  You find it in professional services and medical organisations too.  Lawyers want to be managed by lawyers, and doctors want to be managed by doctors.  There’s a common error of new leaders prioritising technical competence at the expense of softer skills.

It’s wrapped up in people’s egos and self-regard.  They’ve worked hard to get to where they are.  They’ve spent all their time in classrooms and on courses, gaining expertise and knowledge.  So they expect the same from their leaders.

But hear this.  From a leadership perspective, the larger your organisation and the quicker it’s scaling up, the less critical these technical skills in leaders become.  And the soft skills become vital. The primary role of a leader is to create a vision and sell it.  For this, you have to take people with you.  And you won’t do that if your interpersonal skills are poor. 

Leaders should be in love with the customer’s problem and not the solution.  That’s where their focus should be – on building empathy, relationships and active listening. People who overvalue technical competence are often too wedded to the solution – they’ve created this shiny thing that they’re disproportionately proud of. Yes, they may be technically competent, but they’re telling the sales team to sell something made in a vacuum.  This builds a culture of technical arrogance.

So, find ways to build soft skills in your teams.  Develop empathy and promote active listening.  And if you know this is a weakness that impacts people’s perception of you as a leader, surround yourself with people with good soft skills. 

3. Not delegating enough

I find it fascinating.  Why do people get so emotionally attached to doing the work themselves?  A leader’s job is to make themselves redundant.  Unless they do this, they’ll be stuck forever in their role.  In a business that’s scaling up fast, sales managers will never become the sales director unless they delegate.  They must put time and effort into the next level up, and their team needs to fill the gap left behind.

One of the saddest things I see in scale-ups or start-ups is people who’ve been left behind.  In the beginning, you have a small group of generalists, but they begin to specialise as the roles get bigger and bigger.  But they won’t grow into these bigger roles if they don’t delegate.

Maybe it’s an ego thing that links back to my point about overvaluing technical skills. People like to be the expert.  People with technical skills hate giving these up as it defines their identity, and they feel naked without it. But you need to get used to this discomfort in a business that’s scaling up fast.

4. Micromanaging your team

This isn’t a challenge I’ve ever suffered from!  Anyone who’s worked with me knows I’m much more in the abdication camp than micromanaging. Like failing to delegate, micromanaging comes from a place of not being able to let go. From a Working Genius perspective, people with ‘Tenacity’ get their endorphin hit from finishing something off. When we coach CEOs with this trait, they’re often former lawyers or software developers who find it so painful to get out of the detail.  But they realise, as leaders of businesses that are scaling up, they have to do this.

Either they dive into the detail so their team don’t feel trusted, or they insist on finishing things off so the team only does 80% of the work. They feel there’s no point finishing – their manager will always unpick it.  By acting in this way, you’re building in a lack of accountability.  This behaviour infantilises people.  It’s also suffocating.  Liz Wiseman has written an excellent book ‘Multipliers’ which talks about accidental diminishing.  We discussed this back in 2020 for my Melting Pot podcast, which makes for fascinating listening. If this happens in your business, it becomes a barrier to scaling up.

As a leader of a scaling-up business, you’ve got to let people make their own mistakes.  Clients complain, ‘It will take me longer to tell them to do this than if I do it myself’.  ‘No!’ I reply. ‘If you keep doing it, you’ll end up stuck in a hole you’re never coming out of.’  Your role as a leader is to develop your team.  And you’ll only do this if you stop breathing down their necks.  

5. Lack of self-awareness and emotional intelligence

It’s vital to be self-aware enough to see these pitfalls in your leadership.  I believe in natural strengths balanced by things you’re not good at.  So get clear on what these things are.  Patrick Lencioni calls it your ‘Working Genius’, Gallup calls it ‘Strengths’, and Dan Sullivan calls it ‘Unique Ability’.  Whatever profiling tool you use, understand where you’re weak and build a team that’s good at these things to support you.  You should be free to double down on what you’re amazing at and hire people who can do the other stuff.

When I was a salesperson, I found the admin boring. And when I was a Sales Manager, I found reviewing pipelines duller than a wet day in Grimsby.  But I could see the value.  And I was supported by people who loved doing them.

Above all else, you need a growth mindset in a business that’s scaling up. It has to be about abundance rather than scarcity.  Be prepared to be uncomfortable. If you read ‘Radical Candour’ by Kim Scott and love it, you don’t have a problem with self-awareness.  To be truly successful at scaling up your business, you will need to be vulnerable, and you have to want to go there.  

Some clients get down the road with us and say, ‘Thanks but no thanks’.  They don’t like the discomfort that comes with scaling up.  But others with a growth mindset see their businesses flourish. 

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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