Author's Name: Stephen Lake
Date: Mon 12 Oct 2015

Common Mistakes New Leaders Make

Assuming leadership of an organisation is tricky. You may arrive in a period of turmoil and be forced into crisis mode. Vital information may have been hidden before the election and not revealed afterwards. Depending on how you were elected there may be disaffected Board Members. Volunteers may be disaffected and withdraw their labour. Others may become onlookers or critics instead of participants.

Here are some of the common mistakes to avoid:

Trying to do too much too quickly – when you arrive in the leader’s job you may have formulated an agenda of problems to fix. One temptation is to try to do it all in your first term. How change ready is your organisation? How much support do you have for your agenda? Are you increasing the risks by trying to do too much?

Banishing the previous leader – many new leaders are uncomfortable with active oversight from the previous leader. Perhaps your views or styles differ? Perhaps you do not hold your predecessor in high regard? Perhaps the previous leader struggles to let go? It is essential that you get a thorough and complete handover from your predecessor. Recognise that they may be spent and tired so arrange it at a reasonable pace. If they are to remain on the Board, agree a protocol where they do not criticise your direction or style in Board meetings but share any concerns with you directly. If they have left the Board, seek their support not to criticise from the “back benches” and to positively support your leadership. Those who have done the job before you have experience that is valuable to you. Find a way to access this.

Fail to grasp the situation on arrival – irrespective of your plans you must strive to quickly appreciate the true position you are starting from. Find out about the finances, the membership, the state of projects and the current issues facing the organisation. Then re-evaluate and re-prioritise your plans with regard to your true starting position.

Ignore history and don’t test assumptions – they say those that ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Don’t be one of them. Behind all current projects and initiatives will be some assumptions. Find out what they were and test them. Are they still valid? Do the business cases still stack up? Are changes required?

Initiate change for changes sake – the pressure is often on from day one. Are you effective – a person of action – or ineffective? Too often leaders initiate change for the sake of appearance. A wise leader makes change when change Is needed having regard to the organisation’s ability to change, the tempo that the organisation is moving at and the risks involved in the change.

Fail to heal any rifts caused by your election – not all your board may have been supporters of your election. Seek out those that opposed you or are not supporters and engage with them. What are their reservations? Are you able to address these in part or in full? What is the common ground where you can expect their support? How will they continue to contribute in a meaningful and effective way?

Don’t appreciate the views of your Board – don’t be overconfident in your own views. Check in with the rest of the Board and actively canvass their opinions. If they don’t align with yours then reflect on why.

Fail to set and communicate expectations – whether at Board level or organisation level it is paramount that you set and communicate your expectations as to timeline, quality, standards, budget, participation and reporting. Your expectations can only be met if they are known, understood, realistic and accepted. 

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