“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch
Their star has been steadily rising and they’ve finally been given a tap on the shoulder. A well-deserved promotion and a seat at the leadership table, a jump in pay and a team of their very own. Recognition for their unwavering commitment and can-do attitude, their enormous potential and exceptional ability to get the job done. But when the dust settles, what happens next? According to one major study, a whopping 38-50% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months, with many more failing to live up to expectations. These are the roadblocks derailing their success.
It’s absolutely crucial to invest in your emerging leaders. Nurturing their growth and providing them with development opportunities isn’t just critical for the future of your organisation, it’s also the only way to hang on to these superstars in today’s ultra-competitive hiring market.
So it makes total sense to promote within your own ranks, especially when you have an emerging leader that stands out from the pack. But what happens when things don’t go to plan? Statistics tell a story – and with up to half of new leaders struggling for traction in their new leadership role, this one reads like a cautionary tale.
Why are so many promising leaders finding it difficult to deliver on all that potential? The derailment of their leadership journey can generally be attributed to these five major roadblocks.
Roadblock 1: Impatience
“I want it all, and I want it now!” It might’ve been okay for Queen, but for emerging leaders? Not so much. While high enthusiasm is their hallmark, the flip side can be an overly hasty approach, an eagerness to tick the boxes and move on up the ladder. But just like you can’t make a flower bloom simply by willing it to, you can’t rush leadership experience.
There’s a process to move from novice to advanced to expert. And while theory can be learnt from a textbook, those expert skills only develop from applying that knowledge in a myriad of circumstances. Performing a task a few times simply won’t cut it – one popular theory even suggests you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something.
A new perspective…
New leaders need to understand that they have to experience all kinds of responses and scenarios before they can confidently claim to be able to expertly deal with them. It takes time… and patience. Take tough conversations and giving feedback. You can do it a hundred times and get a hundred different reactions (because emotions always play a part) – and you need experience dealing with all of them!
Likewise, new leaders need to reframe receiving feedback as an indispensable tool for improvement. They should welcome it, really question it, take the time to understand it and work collaboratively with their manager to implement it. Not only does this help address blind spots, it also powers huge growth. And it sets a great example for others!
The way through
By better understanding the required depth of a task and all the possible applications, new leaders will be more diligent and focused on achieving the right outcome, in the right way, in any scenario. They’ll develop the maturity and self-awareness to accurately evaluate their skills, and the ability (and patience) to take a step back and recognise when they need more time to practice and advance those skills.
Roadblock 2: Entitlement
There’s a big difference between demanding your place and earning it. New leaders can easily fall into the trap of making requests in a way that seems self-serving, with little consideration of the bigger picture of the team and wider organisation.
While individual accomplishments may have factored into their promotion, new leaders need to understand that their leadership journey isn’t just about them anymore. Requesting a pay rise, demanding to be put on a project, holding back resources rather than sharing them – they’re the actions of a leader who hasn’t yet learnt the real role of a leader. Until they can learn to be more team-oriented, empathetic and emotionally agile, their chances of leadership success are slim.
A new perspective…
While their impact as an individual contributor is valued, new leaders need to consider the Me (them), We (team) and Us (organisation) in everything they do. They need to understand they’re part of a wider system, and need to navigate working collaboratively, managing up and out to clients or other stakeholders and suppliers.
It’s about the business as a whole now, not just their individual function. And sometimes that business can’t oblige requests like a pay rise demand – some things just take time and prioritisation. New leaders need to be able to consider their position in the wider scheme and reframe their approach accordingly.
And if they slip up or get it wrong (as we all do), eating a little humble pie also goes a long way. As American author John C Maxwell said, “A true leader is one who is humble enough to admit their mistakes.”
The way through
By understanding that they’re part of a systemic organisation, where decisions are made to benefit the whole, not the individual, new leaders can have a much greater impact. They’ll learn that influence wins over demand, and they’ll fine-tune their emotional agility and ability to communicate effectively, approaching conversations in an appropriate way. It’s a powerful lesson to learn.
Roadblock 3: Focus and Accountability
Despite growing up being constantly reprimanded for not listening, always told to ‘focus’ when our attention wandered, we’re crap at it. Why? Because learning how to focus, manage time, delegate and prioritise tasks was never covered in school – and unless your parents were into mindfulness, they probably never taught you how to actually ‘do’ it either.
Whether it’s the constant bing of incoming emails, mobile messages or people stopping for a chat, employees experience an average of 56 disruptions per day. And for new leaders, this can be compounded with a larger team to manage.
The resultant lack of focus and clarity can lead to missed deadlines, half-baked tasks, stakeholder mismanagement, disastrous communications and – at worst, legal and commercial liability. If they’re not reading emails properly, are too distracted to absorb key points, missing details and having to repeat tasks, they’re not going to succeed on any level, let alone as a leader.
I often hear new leaders confess to working back super late to complete tasks they should be delegating to their team, as it’s ‘just easier’ for them to do it. This is over-compensating and stilting the growth of their team, and often leads to poor work and claims of micro-management. It’s also a slippery slope to burnout.
A new perspective…
New leaders need to be aware of which distractions are derailing their focus and actively work to combat them. There are a heap of productivity tools that can help with staying focused, but the number one focus killer is multitasking. The brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your time – it’s insanely inefficient!
New leaders need to reframe the way they approach work to avoid distractions, delegate tasks effectively, and maximise their impact by taking the time to plan. I suggest blocking out 15-20 minutes of focused time – carefully absorb instructions, understand the task, prepare the logical steps and implement them. No switching! It’s also critical for new leaders to ensure deadlines and expectations are clarified with their manager and team to help clarify priorities and keep them on (the right) task.
The way through
By being aware of the sneaky time thieves stealing their time, new leaders can put strategies in place to prevent it happening. Being fully accountable for the actions they are (and aren’t) taking, and how they’re communicating this to their team, will better equip them to make the right choices. Working out all the hats they need to wear as a leader will also help ensure they’re in the right mode at the right time, so they’re present and attentive to the current task or discussion.
Roadblock 4: Consistency
Research from the likes of Google’s Project Aristotle, Gartner, Gallup and Harvard Business Review reveals psychological safety to be the key to high-performing teams. With benefits of a psychologically safe work environment including 76% more engagement, 50% more productivity and 57% greater likelihood of collaboration, you can see why. But creating that kind of environment requires consistency and predictability – two factors new leaders can struggle with as they come to grips with their leadership role.
New leaders can fall into the trap of ‘reacting’ rather than ‘responding’ – letting the behaviour of other people directly impact how they themselves behave. Yelling one minute, praising the next, creating a volatile environment where people don’t feel safe expressing their opinions or ideas, or telling other people what they assume they want to hear to remain liked or keep the peace. It’s a total leadership no-no.
The late Stephen Covey summed it up best when he wrote, “Look at the word responsibility —’response-ability’— the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive leaders… do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”
A new perspective…
One of the only things in life we have full control over is how we respond in any given situation. As the wonderful Turia Pitt says in her blog, “A lot of what happens to us is outside our control. But how we feel, how we respond to a situation – that’s completely in our control. So, pick a way to feel that benefits you instead of playing victim to your challenge.”.
New leaders need to learn to control how they show up in the workplace. Being calm and consistent with their manner and their actions, not making assumptions or listening to gossip or falling into the trap of wanting to be everyone’s friend. Being fully accountable for their behaviour and holding others accountable for theirs. That’s the kind of consistency and predictability that creates a psychologically safe work environment where everyone can thrive.
The way through
By not letting the thoughts, feelings and actions of others negatively impact their own behaviour, new leaders can create a consistent, fair and harmonious team environment. A ‘safe harbour’ where ideas, issues and solutions are shared, and where every team member has the opportunity to blossom.
Roadblock 5: Comparison to Others
You know the feeling – that uncomfortable sensation you get when you don’t think you’re qualified enough or competent enough, despite all your abilities and achievements. When you look around and assume everyone knows what they’re doing… except you. Feeling like sooner or later everyone will work out you’re a ‘fraud’, even though you’re clearly not. It’s called Imposter Syndrome, and while 70% of people will experience it at least once, new leaders are particularly susceptible to it.
When new leaders compare themselves or their achievements to others, it can lead to damaging behaviours like perfectionism (over-working on a task), people-pleasing, procrastination and paralysis (inability to take any action) – all of which can derail their leadership aspirations.
A new perspective…
New leaders need to be clear about what they value in life, so they can work out what success looks like for them. They need to realise success isn’t about ticking off standardised goals, and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. As Jim Rohn once said, “The ultimate reason for setting goals is to entice you to become the person it takes to achieve them.” It’s all about the progress being made against their own values, and they can’t measure that against someone else’s ruler.
It’s important that new leaders don’t devalue themselves and their experience, or let their inner critic take over. They’ve been promoted for a reason, and they need to believe that all their contributions are valued. They can play to their strengths and relish the role that lets them help other people find theirs. And if they can see ‘achievements’ as not about doing more, but becoming more, they won’t be so prone to comparisons. They’ll be much better leaders for it too.
The way through
By having confidence in their own version of success, new leaders can run their own race without being plagued by comparisons. They’ll be better able to identify and develop the strengths in others, value the diversity of their team members and take pride in the unique leadership journey they’re on.
Oprah Winfrey was so right when she said, “Lessons often come dressed up as detours and roadblocks.” And there’s no doubt that the path to successful leadership is riddled with them. But by adopting a different perspective, one that embraces humility and self-belief, consistency, patience and focus, emerging leaders can rewrite the ending to this cautionary tale. They can navigate their way around those roadblocks. And who doesn’t love a scenic route anyway?!
If you’d like to learn how to better manage, lead and inspire your team, check out my ‘Manager to Leader Coaching Program’. It’s been designed to help you level up your leadership skills so you can build a more effective team culture, create team cohesion, drive productivity and empower your team to succeed. You can download a program flyer for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!