What are the most common mistakes first-time managers make, and how can they be avoided? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
This may come as a surprise, but in my experience, the mistakes made by first-time managers and those repeatedly made by experienced executives often have a great deal in common. Here are some of the dominant management and leadership failures commonly observed at all organizational levels – across business, government, and the military. General Chuck Jacoby and I describe many of them in our new book Agility: How to Navigate the Unknown and Seize Opportunity in a World of Disruption.
Few things are more detrimental to the morale, culture, and long-term success of any organization than the leaders’ failure to live up to the organization’s values they proclaim to embrace. This is precisely what happened at an investment company we knew well. This firm was founded on the premise that complex forces have created persistent market inefficiencies that could be exploited. This was entirely inconsistent with the magnitude and nature of the losses that followed. When asked by the board of directors to analyze the firm’s downfall, we expected to hear complex financial and economic explanations, such as market paradigm shifts or the emergence of disruptive players and products. Instead, it was the failure of leadership that became a dominant theme.
After the supposed market inefficiencies proved fleeting (not a surprise for the students of efficient markets), senior executives failed to adjust and put forth a viable strategic vision. Excessive and unfamiliar risks were taken in pursuit of growth and investment returns. Caution expressed by subordinates was treated as disloyalty and dismissed. Moreover, the priority of senior executives to benefit themselves at the expense of other stakeholders had a profoundly toxic impact on the organization, leading to other destructive behaviors.
In addition to the lack of strategic vision, moral failures, and the suppression of dissent, there are a variety of other destructive management behaviors incompatible with agility. Chief among them is micromanagement. Delegating authority requires confidence in people and tolerance for honest mistakes and failures. When leaders become overly risk-averse in the face of uncertainty, they often excessively centralize decision-making and execution authority, which deprives organizations of agility and decimates engagement and trust. This phenomenon can be exacerbated by advances in surveillance and communication technology that may create an illusion that the fog of battle can be effectively penetrated from the comfort of an executive office.
When executives deliberately undermine trust, refuse to take responsibility, or practice fear-based or transactional management styles, the long-term damage to the firm’s culture, exploratory thinking, cohesion, and agility is profound. In a well-known case in point, F. Ross Johnson, the chief executive of RJR Nabisco vividly portrayed in Barbarians at the Gate, used to openly boast how he deliberately withheld information and kept employees off balance by unexpectedly buying and selling businesses and changing organizational structures.
In another example, a toxic culture at a well-known international firm proved incompatible with agility. From its inception, the firm’s senior executives designed processes and systems that reduced the firm’s dependency on specific individuals, with the express intent to make most employees easily replaceable. The firm remained committed to this philosophy through many years of skillful execution and exploitation of market opportunities. By all metrics of financial performance, growth and prominence, this firm has been unequivocally successful. However, the culture of stress and distrust has manifested itself in one important respect: most of the firm’s forays into products and services that require original thinking, ingenuity and specialized talents have been largely unsuccessful. To this day, the company “thrives” only in the realm of commoditized activities performed by replaceable and disengaged employees.
In addition to the intensifying technological change and uncertainty, our organizations operate in a very tough societal environment. The disregard for evidence, expertise and accountability is palpable. What may seem to be just basic common sense regarding the ethics of truthfulness has been under assault. The breakdown of trust permeates key social contracts, undermining faith in institutions fundamental to our values. Our privacy and trust have become commodities to be bought and sold.
All of this presents an invaluable leadership opportunity for managers and executives – across public and private sector organizations, big and small. If we lead by example, show unwavering commitment to the pursuit of truth, and nurture a culture of accountability and trust, we’ll end up creating purposeful and cohesive teams and organizations where engagement, initiative, creativity, and smart risk taking lead to remarkable outcomes.
Photo Credit: PeopleImages/Getty Images