Friday, 16 May 2014

Six mistakes young managers make

The great thing about being in my twenties was that I looked young, felt indestructible and was ready to take on the world. However it was this blind enthusiasm that would pitch me one of my earliest, and curliest, career curveballs.

Influencing for many is a complex and ambiguous art. For some, the skill is developed slowly through multiple experiences, whereas for others, it is a totally instinctive process. This latter group, in their early years at least, are at great personal risk, because their influencing capacity is far more developed than their personal maturity. This was me. I was blind to the implications of the mysterious trajectory my career was about to take.

As a young employee, I worked in an organisation that was habitual in its behaviours and intensely hierarchical in its structure. Consequently, the workplace culture was stifling and aggressive towards anything or anyone who was different. Communication at the best of times was inadequate and, when present, long-winded.

Within these confines, I did what I do naturally: I spoke with people, built relationships and attended most events that the organisation held. In a short time, the relationships I developed spanned the entire organisation and, before I knew it, I was appointed to the business’ most senior committee where I candidly shared my views about the organisation, and how it might improve, with its most senior executives. And they listened. Suddenly I wielded an influence that exceeded my rank.

This is something I should look back on with pleasure, right? Well, there is an element of pleasure, but it comes from the lessons I would eventually learn from the curveball my influence on the committee triggered.

Here is the play-by-play of how I misread it, and what to do to ensure your curveball does not end in a career strike out:

Play 1: I overlooked my managers
On the committee, I was now amongst the senior influencers. I had a value proposition – I knew the business on the ground level and I was honest with my thoughts. I was playing the big game – it was intoxicating. The implication on middle management, who weren’t ‘senior’ enough to be invited to the table, was lost on me (sometimes youth is wasted on the young!). In essence, I was privy to high-level information and conversations that my bosses were not.

Play 2: I got distracted
I found it harder to concentrate on the role I was employed and paid to do. I had tasted the flavour of influencing and because I was now privy to conversations about the whole business and its future, my role in context seemed so inconsequential. My focus was split.

Play 3: I provoked a negative backlash
My appointment to the senior committee incited a reaction in middle management that really began to take voice. They clearly struggled with my rapid trajectory so their reaction was, in hindsight, predictable. They added additional responsibilities to my role, required more regular reporting, and changed the way they treated me.

Play 4: I went to war
I reacted to these behaviours by doing what comes naturally to me. I sought alliances with colleagues, used my influence to push back on the additional requests and, effectively, drew the battlelines. What began as an inherently organic and curious journey spiraled into a contest that was impossible to win. I was still too immature to realise it – I was sure I was indestructible.

Play 5: I overestimated the strength of my influence
I became isolated. This was my battle. Realistically, neither level of management was going to support me. My colleagues did not want to get involved. All of a sudden, the well-meaning influencer found himself alone.

Play 6: I learnt some big lessons
Then the moment of truth arrived. My manager called me in and gave me two options: to come off the committee, go back to my job and toe the line, or, option two, as he put it, “shake hands and leave like a gentleman.” To this day I am proud of how I responded to this. I told him I had made some errors of judgement, which I had learnt from. I noted that I had learnt about people – the good and the not so good things about them. So I thought it best to leave and absorb the lessons, turn them into positives and start again somewhere new.

Now, as a chief executive, I recognise young people who like me possess that raw ability to influence. So I spend time with them, nurture and encourage them while providing a context of realism to the mix. During my experience, I did not have a mentor, no one to step forward and alert me to the consequences of my behaviours. This would have been a great help at the time as my actions were not driven by malice; I was simply oblivious to the circus they would create.

So now I am a battle-wary leader. I have earned my stripes the hard way and feel an obligation to help those who I believe need it.

Raw instinct is in some ways a gift, but when it comes to influencing, I would swap it for a more staged development based on exposure to the trials and tribulations of the workplace. Learning how to influence effectively, without inciting a riot, is one of the most important aspects of the leadership journey. Whenever I see my colleagues mobilising to a vision we share, I am quietly grateful for the pain of my curveball because it taught me so much. Once you have the skills to pick the curveball, you can hit it out of the park, so if you are currently in a state of professional pain, focus on what you are learning and how this will make you better.

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