“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.
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 many moons 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.
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About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a medical device consulting firm, providing end to end engineering and compliance services. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years and has been recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.