I just got done reading ‘Elegant Warrior’ by Heather Hansen – finished it in an afternoon. I’m a slow reader, and one who gets distracted easily, for me to finish a book of any size in one afternoon is quite a feat.
Once I got into Hansen’s stories from the courtroom and how they apply to real life I was amazed at how many of them I had experienced both in my professional and personal life. I couldn’t put the book down. As I read on I learned that I made a lot of the same mistakes Hansen has made in her own career, interestingly enough my learning lessons were very similar, just not in a courtroom thankfully.
Doing the right thing at the right time while keeping your class, elegance and respect isn’t easy. Especially when you’re in a leadership role and everyone’s watching your every move.
“Leadership is easy!” said no one ever.
Why is it that leadership is so difficult and hard to master? Well, for starters it’s a role that is largely trial and error, skill learning in the moment on the job. That means a lot of what we know and learn over time about being a leader comes from mistakes and blunders people have made before us. We learn from watching others, Hansen’s ‘Elegant Warrior’ talks about this as well.
My career with leadership was no different. At the age of 23 I found myself in my first ‘management’ role and was scared out of my mind. Notice I used the word ‘management’, not leadership. There’s a big difference in the two. The spark of a great leader is someone who acknowledges and accepts they don’t know it all and asks for help. Simple, yet incredibly difficult to put into practice.
As the years went by and my leadership prowess developed, I began to grow more and more confidence in my ability to lead others, influence and develop those around me. Though my confidence grew, I found as time went on the challenges I was faced with grew in size and significance. Confidence, or an inflated level of confidence, can be a big black eye for managers as it can cause people to overlook basic ways of leading that should never go unattended.
My father has always told me, “You come from the school of hard knocks, it’s in our family, so don’t fight it, just learn from it.”
And learn I did…
Looking back on my earlier years in leadership there were three incidences I encountered that go down as the biggest mistakes of my career. While they were indeed mistakes on my part, the learning lessons that came of these situations were priceless to my overall learning and education in the art of leadership.
Mistake #1 - Hiring the Wrong People
I was a couple years into my leadership role overseeing a technical division. We were growing and seeing some good success and needed to hire people to keep the growth curve climbing north. After interviewing a variety of candidates I became inpatient (a lifelong battle of mine) in that I had not found the ideal person to join our mob squad of high performers. Throughout the interview process there was one person, we’ll call him Negative Norm, who had most of the characteristics I was looking for however it was plain as day to see that he had a hug ego and it was all about what Negative Norm was going to get from us, not what he was going to bring to the team.
With my lack of leadership experience leading my decision making I hired Negative Norm and did the ole ‘cross your fingers and hope for the best’ routine.
Dang it! What a dumb mistake that was. I still cringe about that experience today even though it’s been years since it happened.
Not only did Negative Norm come in and create all sorts of disruption to the great culture we had worked so hard to develop on the team over the years but he also soured one of my best employees. We end up firing Negative Norm six months into him joining our team, which probably cost our company a boat load of money in tangible and intangible costs, as well as gave me a disenfranchised team and culture. I then had to deal with a declining all-star on our team who had become transfixed with the notion, thanks to Negative Norm, that he was working too hard and didn’t feel like this was the right place for him. Prior to disruptive Negative Norm entering our team this all-star employee was the quintessential idea of what a great employee should be.
Lesson #1 as a Result of Mistake #1 – if you can’t find the RIGHT person, don’t make a hiring decision at all. You’re better off waiting and being patient to find the right person rather than settle for someone who could really make a mess of what you’ve worked so hard to build.
Mistake #2 – Not Dealing with Conflict Head-On
Have you ever had two employees get into a WWF battle royale at your office? If you haven’t, pray you never have to deal with that because what I witnessed was a linguistics slug fest that would make even the strongest people shiver, or send HR running for the hills.
Two employees, we’ll call them Jack and Mort, worked together constantly. Both were high performers with a lot of potential and equally disciplined when it came to their work ethic. Mort had an affinity for talking down to people and really making those around him feel awful at times. Sometimes it was intentional, other times it was a complete lack of awareness on how he was coming across to others. Point being, he had a nasty proclivity for making others feel bad which lead to all sorts of not so delightful challenges on the team. I was doing my best to deal with it and had thought we were making progress.
One day Jack finally decided he had enough of Mort’s verbal shenanigans and after bantering back and forth unleashed a verbal assault, letting Mort have it. The may lay interrupted the entire office causing employees who were uninvolved to scuttle into corners near the water coolers to talk about the events. It was a rather big distraction if you catch what I’m throwing down here.
What did I do? I took action immediately and called each employee into my office, one at a time, to get their side of the story so I could then come up with a solution to the issue. What do you know, their stories were completely different from one another. Shocking. After talking with a variety of people who were ‘expert witnesses’ and my two lovely employees, I finally deliberated on our course of action to move forward with and presented it Mort and Jack individually.
Big mistake that was!
While I still stand behind my course of action decision, even today, it wasn’t the decision that got me into hot water. It was the fact that I never brought BOTH Jack and Mort into a closed door office to hash out what had happened.
Lesson #2 as a Result of Mistake #2 – If you are in the middle of a conflict resolution issue between two employees and their stories don’t add up the best thing to do is bring both of them into a closed door office and get to the bottom of it. When people are in front of the other person the issue exists between you’ll find that their recollection of what happened changes as they can’t embellish, finagle or distort the truth. You also then have a better opportunity, in this case Jack and Mort, of talking things through, with you the leader as the mediator guiding the conversion to a safe landing.
Mistake #3 – Allowing Mediocrity
Similar to mistake #1 however this one had a far bigger impact than what I expected. I had previously written about this particular mistake along with steps on how to deal with conflict resolution which can be accessed by clicking here. I had an employee, we’ll call him Dr. Evil, who loved to say all the right things yet his actions never amounted to his words. Dr. Evil would show up consistently late most mornings, would be up from his desk socializing often during the day and enjoyed a consistent ‘sick day’ every other week, typically on Mondays.
Dr. Evil was a smart cookie. He knew how to play the game well enough to where he wasn’t on the firing guillotine but also wasn’t on the winners’ podium as a result of his work. Dr. Evil was mediocre. His work ethic was lack luster, his results were average at best and his participation on the team was, like old worn in wallpaper, almost unnoticeable.
After finally building up the courage to put Dr. Evil on a performance plan, which ultimately led to his demise, I felt good about my ability to deal with him and ultimately get him off the team. Until an employee said this to me…
“Wow, I’m shocked we fired Dr. Evil, that was long overdue. I was beginning to think he would be with us forever and I’d have to pick up the slack.”
Ouch. That hurt. What hurt even worse was the employee that said this to me was my top performer!
Lesson #3 as a Result of Mistake #3 – allowing mediocrity on any team is a killer in more ways than one. Not only does it broadcast that you as a leader aren’t willing to deal with underperformers, it also signals that your expectation for the team and culture of your company/ department, etc. are that of averages. Nothing special. No pixy dust. No special sauce. What’s worse is that the people who are routinely most impacted negatively by leaderships inability to deal with mediocrity are your top performers.
When in doubt – move them out. Jim Collins, author of the book ‘From Good to Great’ says, “Get the right people on the bus and the wrong ones off otherwise it will begin to negatively impact the right ones.”
Leadership is synonymous with making mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes, people don’t expect leaders to be perfect, so long as the leader doesn’t try to act perfect. Owning ones mistake is a powerful move as it shows you are humble, honest and live realistically. What isn’t okay is to keep making the same mistake, not learning from them the first time around.
Key Take Away:
You’ll never be an expert at leading, it’s an evolving art form that takes practice, tons of patience and a willingness to listen. Learn from your mistakes and learn quickly. When in doubt, don’t make a hiring decision. You’re better off continuing the search for the right person rather than settling and doing the old ‘fingers crossed, let’s hope this works’ routine.
When dealing with conflict in the workplace it’s best if you’ve had experience with tough situations before they occur. Lot’s of time the result of a conflict at the office has a lot to do with how management handles it. If you’re cool, calm and collected you’ll stand a better chance of navigating through the conflict and coming out the other side feeling good about the situation and your involvement. Practice ahead of time! Get a buddy or a colleague and role play difference conflict resolution scenarios. Try being both he employer and the person in leadership. Mix up the scenarios and really test your ability to be patient, ask great questions and most of all LISTEN. Practice will help immensely with how you deal with future situations.
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.