“The first mistake in public business is the going into it.” — Benjamin Franklin, American politician, publisher, and inventor.
Despite Ben Franklin’s tongue-in-cheek observation, as quoted above, we Americans insist on “going into public business.” The tendency arises naturally from our capitalistic system, where we can make good lives for ourselves if we work hard and follow a few logical rules. But as organizations grow and age, institutionalized mistakes creep into the workflow. Some seem obvious with a little self-analysis, some less so. In this article, I’ll take a look at half a dozen that you, as a leader, should keep an eye out for.
1. Lack of a clear mission and vision. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? Formulate simple, clear-cut goals to share with your team, and implement the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve them. If you have problems articulating your mission and vision, look to your core values to guide you in your quest to reach the top.
2. Lack of priorities. This one follows naturally from the first. Once everyone understands the destination, divide the responsibilities into manageable chunks and divvy out the pieces to your team members. Focus on high-value tasks, so you can set priorities for both the team and individual members. This will help you establish the workflow processes required to achieve those tasks. Otherwise you’ll float rudderless in the organizational sea, bouncing from point to point without accomplishing much. Think of how Apple Computers drifted between Steve Jobs’ terms as CEO. During that time, the leadership did very little besides waste money and build new layers of bureaucracy…until Jobs returned, oiled the joints of his Juggernaut, and got it moving again. It’s hard to believe now that the inventor of the iPod and iPhone almost fell to pieces in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
3. Hiring the wrong workers. Replacing workers is an expensive process; even entry-level workers cost thousands of dollars to recruit and get up to speed. Not surprisingly, we tend to want to get someone in place quickly, especially when the need is pressing. But hiring just anyone can be even more painful in the end, especially if they don’t know what they’re doing and you have to replace them as well. So take your time in the hiring process. Sometimes companies deliberately hire the wrong workers as a cost-cutting measure. In the early 2000s, the electronic retailer Circuit City laid off its most experienced floor personnel and replaced them with minimum wage workers with little knowledge of what they were selling. People who needed electronics help couldn’t get it and stayed away in droves. This factor helped lead to Circuit City’s bankruptcy and disappearance soon after.
4. Micromanaging. About 75% of us have suffered under the heavy hand of a micromanager, who watches you like a hawk, tells you how to do every little thing, and then punishes you when you don’t get it exactly right—as if anyone could with someone constantly glowering over their shoulder. Many of us have changed jobs as a result; and the rest simply lack the desire or initiative to do better, because they get slapped down if they make the slightest mistake. If you have micromanager tendencies, control them. How can you get any of your own work done when you do all theirs for them, or hover next to them, constantly watching?
5. Lack of training. Change represents a constant in any modern workplace environment, so keep your team up to date on the latest software, methodologies, and systems to ensure their continued productivity. You can’t expect them to learn it all on their own. Training smoothes out the sharper learning curves, gives them a better understanding of what they’re doing, and improves their chances of success. One caveat here: if you’re going to send them to training, be willing to listen to what they’ve learned and implement the changes. Give them the power and opportunity to own their jobs; otherwise you’ve just wasted your money.
6. Failure to recognize performance. Don’t forget: your people appreciate a little recognition every once in a while, especially when they’ve gone above and beyond in the line of duty. It doesn’t take much to motivate them to greater heights. They’ll always appreciate bonuses, but in many cases recognition won’t cost you a thing. A public pat on the back, a “good job” here and there, or even an employee-of-the-month award and a special parking spot can work wonders.
Keep It Between the Lines
No matter how much experience you gain, you’ll make mistakes when exercising your leadership role. You, like your employees, are only human. Leadership offers constant opportunities to learn and tweak your performance to a higher standard. Just be sure that once you recognize a mistake, you fix it and learn your lesson. If the mistake proves systematic, root it out and rebuild the system. If you learn nothing, if you just keep making the mistake over and over again, you’ll hamstring yourself and your team—and never achieve your maximum potential.