Seven First Year Mistakes Senior Executives Make

Posted 09.25.2012

One of the comments I hear most often from rising, high potential leaders in our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program is “I’m so glad to know it’s not just me.” Being in the leadership crucible can be a lonely experience. The group coaching participants quickly learn and take comfort from the fact that they are not alone in the leadership challenges they face every day.

I thought about that when I received an email last week from a reader of this blog who was promoted about a year ago to the Senior Executive Service (SES) of the U.S. federal government. We had the opportunity to meet at a conference earlier this month and he told me had some leadership lessons learned from the past year that he wanted to share with me in writing.

When I read his email, I immediately wanted to share it with the leaders who read this blog if for no other reason than to let you know that you’re not alone. With my SES friend’s permission (while honoring his request to remain anonymous), I’m sharing seven mistakes he thinks he made in his first year as a senior executive.

In his own words, here they are:

Going it alone. A good friend remarked to me that she was surprised how often she heard that SES jobs are lonely jobs. After this first year, I’m not surprised. With no established mentoring program or real guidance on who I could depend on, I often toiled away in my siloed organization. Also, I admit to often being too proud to ask for help. The result was I felt completely lonely and exhausted trying to figure my way out of a myriad of issues.

Not figuring out the real trust trigger for my team. In my previous management role, I hated not being part of the decision-making team.  So my early goal was to foster a collegial and collaborative team. Creating transparency in decisions would lead to trust. We have achieved the collaborative team for the most part. However, I have found out through trial and error that my team most valued information sharing. Through the course of four to six meetings a day, I found it impossible to convey everything and, on that count, any time information did not make it back to managers, trust suffered. 

Misreading the room. My initial conversations with my management team revealed frustration with the previous manager who they perceived as a micro-manager. Problem solved. Never my style. Three months after beginning, the management team complained that my hands off style conveyed a sense that I wasn’t engaged in their work. 

Lack of accessibility. I went from having three to four meetings a week to having the same number of meetings in a day. Then, there’s the 200 daily emails and don’t forget the need to get through the 200-page document that’s been on my screen for a week. The result is that there is little time to effectively check in with managers thereby compounding the disengagement perception.

Not being clear that changes will take time. Former Campbell Soup Chairman Doug Conant recently said that it took him three years to get his vision implemented. Many disaffected folks in my organization wanted me to make changes immediately. Some places need a shock to the system but my organization frankly didn’t. However, keeping morale and hope up during this time while I’m continuing to evaluate the organization and make incremental changes is a significant challenge.

Not dealing with “that person”. There is always “that person” who thinks that they should have gotten the job. I used an accommodation strategy that did not establish clear roles and did not send a signal that I was in charge. The lack of clear roles created more tension not only in my relationship with “that person” but also conveyed lack of clear roles among other managers.

Failing to prepare and engage your family. Coming from a field office, Washington, DC is different in every way. (6:30 p.m. conference calls anyone?) That was not only the case for me but also for my family. Dragging my family here for my job made me feel like I couldn’t complain about the stress of the new job at home. It took me a long time to fight that and be honest with those I love. I was showing it anyway so I might as well have been open about it. 

Not all has been bad. We have had some amazing successes and have churned out a ton of work in the past year. Also, from several levels, I have heard that I’m growing into the job. Most importantly, I’m self aware enough to acknowledge and recognize areas of growth and in the vein perhaps I’ll pass along my second year mistakes.

Which of these leadership lessons learned resonates most with you? What other mistakes have you made as a leader that you can share for the benefit of others who are new to their roles? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.