The Seven Mistakes New Managers Make

In this episode, I spoke to author and leadership expert Janet Polach about frontline leadership and some of the challenges that managers face. We framed our conversation around the mistakes in her book that we felt had strong links to diversity and inclusion as well as sharing some practical tips for avoiding the mistakes. 

For this conversation, I was joined by the author Janet Polach. As well as discussing her book, I’m also interested to hear about her leadership experience from a career in the military and how inclusivity became a feature of her work.

Janet’s book is called ‘The Seven Mistakes New Managers Make: How to Avoid Them and Thrive’ and you can get a copy on Amazon. We will be going through three of the seven mistakes that managers make, and we’re also going to throw in a bonus topic as well. 

To get started I asked Janet to explain a bit about herself, her background, and what led to this point in her career. 

‘I graduated from college with a degree in education in the middle of the calendar year, in the middle of a recession in the United States. I am American and I have grown up and lived here most of my life, although not all of it. I couldn’t find a teaching job, so I looked around and I thought, “What should I do?” Peace was breaking out all over the world, so I thought “How about the United States military?” I looked at all four of our major services and the Marine Corps recruiter was good at connecting me to mission and vision and purpose.

So, I joined the Marines. I spent a total of 20 years on active duty, and also in the Reserves. I was activated during the first Desert Storm in Iraq. I met my husband in the Marine Corps. We have been married for many, many years. 

The United States Marine Corps spends a lot of time developing its leaders. There’s something called service schools; once you get a commission, you spend nine months at the basic school, and then as a captain, you spend another nine or ten months at amphibious warfare school and up and up the ladder. That also goes for non-commissioned officers or enlisted ranks. 

The Marine Corps gave me an underpinning of what leadership looks like and how you develop it. Since then, I’ve worked in corporate roles in human resources and human resource development, and then have been out on my own for the last several years, living and working in the Midwest and helping leaders become even more effective. Along the way, I had a medium stint, living in Shanghai, China. My husband taught at one of the international schools, and I worked at a company called Korn Ferry International, where I got to work with leaders all over the world, helping them fine-tune their leadership skills.

What I discovered is, that regardless of where you’re living in the world, when you work particularly for a for-profit company, leadership is leadership. Connecting with employees one-on-one, helping them set the direction for their career, helping them access stretch assignments where they’ll learn and grow. Those are all critical, whether you’re living in Great Britain or Ireland, or Iceland, or Puerto Rico, or Shanghai, China.’

So, Janet has written this great book. When we were preparing for this interview, we discussed the seven mistakes that are covered in the book. We hand-picked three of them for discussion, because I think they lend themselves to diversity and inclusion particularly well. 

Mistake Number 3

Mistake number 3 is not developing your team. I asked Janet ‘What are your thoughts and experiences around that, particularly when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion?’

‘In business across the world what we do is find individual contributors who are doing a great job because they deliver results and exceed expectations. We say, ta-da, I bet you’re going to be a great manager. We don’t give them any training. We don’t give them any insights. We just say, “Well, you are good at that, so you must be good at this.” 

However, if we drew a Venn diagram to say, “Here are the skills of an individual contributor and these are the skills of a manager” we’d see that there’s not a lot of overlap. That’s why I wrote the book, fundamentally, to help all those brand-new managers figure out what it is that they do.

We might think, “Okay, if I have to do some team development, I’m going to send them off to a training course”. There might be an industry one. There might be something down the street. It may or may not be relevant to their job. What we know from research is that people struggle with taking a course off-site and then applying those same concepts to their job, because their job is very different, and that training off-site is very generic. 

The challenge with developing your team is taking time to help them learn in their role. You find out what’s interesting to them, what they aspire to, and then give them opportunities to learn and grow. This is knowing that they may make some mistakes, and that’s okay because that’s part of learning and growing.

You might pair them with somebody else who knows how to do a task well, or you might teach them how to do that task yourself. Essentially mistake 3 is the mistake of not developing your team in their role, on the job. It fits into inclusive leadership because so often as leaders, when we’re busy, we go to our go-to people – one or two individuals that you always can depend on. Yet if we just go to them over and over again, a) we’ve overloaded them and b) we’ve under-leveraged everybody else on our team.’

I cover that exact last point Janet has made in some training that I run, where we look at bias. There’s an organisation in the States called the NeuroLeadership Institute, and they’ve created a useful model for categorising bias called the SEEDS model. A lot of bias training looks at the bias that we have in favour or against different groups of people, which I think can be quite unhelpful because if it’s managed poorly, people can often leave that training mislabelling themselves as being racist or homophobic or sexist. In the SEEDS model, one of the biases that they talk about is expedience bias, particularly going to the same person on your team to get a job done quickly because you know that they can do it quickly with minimal supervision. Especially if you’re a line manager that’s overloaded with things on your to-do list already, you’re particularly prone to that bias.

Janet described her approach to this mistake. ‘I talk about delegation in the book, and when I do workshops about delegation, I encourage leaders to start with the task. Often, we start with the person, and that’s where our bias comes in, but if you start with the task, you ask yourself, “How do I share and train on that task? How do I pick whom I’m going to delegate that task to?”  I think it’s one way to try to start minimising that bias that I think we all naturally have, especially like you said when we get so busy.’

We’re particularly prone to expedience bias when we’ve got that high cognitive load and we’re working under stress and pressure or to hit a tight deadline. Often, we see a couple of biases working together in tandem. Not only do we have the expediency bias, but there’s that similarity bias as well, that we like to hang out with people that are just like us, and we create in-groups and out-groups, and then we might overlook the skills and abilities and attributes of people that we deem to be in our out-group. It’s fascinating how they work together.’

Janet agreed, adding ‘We’ve all had that experience of finally dipping our toe into that out-group and discovering the conversation, the different perspectives, the unique orientations that the group then brings to the table. Then we kick ourselves and ask, “Why didn’t I start there? It would have been a lot quicker.”

Mistake Number 4

Our discussion moved on to mistake number 4, which is the failure to take time to give and receive feedback. I asked Janet to give me a sense of her experience of giving and receiving feedback. 

‘I think we struggle with giving feedback because we think we’re going to hurt someone’s feelings. We’re worried about how they’re going to react and we’re worried about alienating them, especially if we don’t know them very well. I encourage people to learn how to give good feedback, and I use a framework of talking about what you observe and saw with specifics, describing the impact and then figure out the way forward together, so you’re not ploughing over the old ground and saying, “Well, you shoulda, woulda, coulda done this differently.”

Often when someone makes mistake in the workforce, they’re aware of it and they don’t feel good about it. Bringing it up again, hammering back to them that this didn’t go right doesn’t add anything. Instead, I like feedback to talk about looking forward, asking, “What are you going to do next time? How might you do something differently?” Letting them figure out what that way forward is rather than dictating, “Well, next time, you need to spend three hours preparing for your presentation and practising in front of four people.” 

The person may not have the capacity to do that and it may not be their style of preparation. Better to be thinking with that individual, “How might you be more prepared next time? “What do you need to do? What are the routines that will work for you?”

Janet describes a very coaching-like discussion, which helps a colleague identify for themselves how to improve as well. She went on to say, ‘I think that’s the essence of the brand-new frontline leadership role, to adopt a sense of working through others. Remembering I’m not getting it done myself and when we work through others, we have to accept that those others may do things differently. That’s great because we come up with different solutions, we come up with novel ideas, and we come up with things that may be more efficient. They may not be the way we chose to do them, but they certainly will help us think about things differently.’

What Janet says reminds me of Deloitte’s six signature traits of inclusive leadership. One of the things that they talk about is being collaborative in your team, but the other thing that stands out for me is courageousness and personal risk-taking. I think when it comes to giving feedback, particularly if you’re talking to somebody whom you might, quote-unquote, perceive to be different to you, you might have some fear about saying something that might cause offence that might be attached to one of their identities.

For example, I have a physical disability and I’m in a wheelchair. I’ve had managers in the past who have been afraid to give me direct feedback because they were worried that it might be perceived as something to do with my disability and that maybe I didn’t do a task quickly enough, and they might think that that’s because I’m disabled. But you’re denying somebody that growth opportunity if you don’t have that boldness and you don’t have that conversation with them.

Janet was keen to stress that good feedback is not about the person, but about the action they did and the impact that it had on somebody else. ‘That’s a business conversation, not a personality conversation. Even when you interact with someone that you may perceive as being different from yourself, if you can keep those two things in mind, that will start the conversation on a very productive route.’

Mistake Number 6

Mistake number 6 in Janet’s book is about sticking with the status quo. I like this one because I can see a direct correlation between that and diversity and inclusion. I asked Janet to share her key takeaways from this mistake. 

‘The chapter about sticking with the status quo is all about innovation, and how teams think about innovation. What we know about brain science and the way we work is that we can’t have a ten-minute segment in a regular meeting to say, “Okay, now we’re going to innovate”. You have to set time aside, and you have to use tools to help us think out of our regular mindset. This chapter has a lot of great tools for helping leaders think, use tools to get people to think about a problem, a situation, or an issue differently.

One of my favourite tools is called make it worse. The team together thinks about the problem or the issue, and what would it take to make that problem worse? What are all the things you could do to make that worse? It’s a lot of fun. I’ve used it many times. People tend to laugh and giggle both at themselves and their organisation. You list all of those first, and then one by one you say, Okay, now how do we make it better? Out of that, you can get some real gold. I think it allows people to contribute as they are comfortable, and maybe they don’t want to talk about how to make it worse, but they’re more inclined about how to make it better. It looks at a situation from two different perspectives, and I think it creates some breakthrough thinking.’

I like the sticking with status quo mistake because, again, going back to the NeuroLeadership Institute model, they talk about experience bias, and really, status quo comes into that. So, when you hear people say things like, “We tried that 10 years ago, it didn’t work. We won’t do that again. Or this is the way that we do things around here” then you know that that experience bias is kicking in.

Also on the status quo, is that we know that diverse teams and perspectives and people coming from different walks of life and lived experiences, that helps with creativity and innovation. Many of my clients want that creativity and innovation, because it means that they’re going to come up with better solutions for their clients, and design better products and services and that kind of thing.

Janet said, ‘I try to make the point in the book. Innovation isn’t just for the R&D team, it’s not just for those guys over there. It can be done in all the work that we do, and sometimes it can just improve a process that is broken or irritating. Sometimes it can create a big breakthrough for the organisation that can be advanced. Innovation has to happen at the team level.’

Mistake Number 7

Mistake number 7 is all about not getting ahead of the change. I asked Janet to explain this to me a bit more.

‘This is all about managing change. As frontline leaders, we often get change done to us rather than implementing a change ourselves. I think an automatic reaction is to roll our eyes and say, “Look what they did to us again.” I think often our team is then allowed to pile on. That defeatism will not get us anywhere. 

Not getting ahead of change is all about the tools and techniques to help you think about a change that your team is facing and how you manage through it. How do you think about the stakeholders impacted? How do you think about how they might react? What do they need to know about and learn about so that they will feel invested in that change and then actually do something differently?’

I’m so pleased Janet wrote about this because I hear it so often from people. They feel like diversity and inclusion is being done to them by the HR department. A lot of organisations are just lacking the rigour and the structure to drive change in their organisation, so often those responsible for implementing diversity and inclusion just end up feeling overwhelmed. It’s as if they’re chasing their tails, that they’re just so busy, being busy and doing stuff, but then they don’t have the desired impact. 

In my book, I’ve dedicated a whole chapter on change, so I think I am on the same page as Janet with this topic. I asked Janet what her advice for readers is when thinking about how they can go back to their own organisations and apply these practices to develop their frontline leaders? 

‘I think you can do it in several ways. One way is to just get some new leaders together and start to have a conversation. You can read articles, or read my book, discuss a chapter at a time, and have a conversation. The book has a lot of plain and simple approaches describing how to do these things. I think another step is to get people together and have someone like you or me who knows some of these basic tasks and how to do them and teach people how to do these things.

I think managers of managers don’t often think about how they do what they do. They think about how to run the business, which is getting the supply chain fixed and delivering to customers and so forth, but they often don’t think very deliberately about how to be a good manager. Partnering with people like yourself and myself, I think often helps come up with the basics about how they do these kinds of things well.’

We closed out our conversation by asking Janet my usual question which is ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you, particularly your perspective of developing frontline managers and great leaders, and avoiding those seven mistakes that you talk about in your book?’

I think it’s about bringing everybody along. The problems that we face in businesses today, whether we’re recovering from Covid or recovering from supply chain issues or potentially recession on the horizon are difficult problems, and we need every single individual on board helping to solve them. If we’re not bringing everybody around, we don’t come up with the best solutions. We come up with solutions that worked five or ten years ago. So inclusive growth for me is to make sure that everybody at the end of the day can feel that they contributed something today, and that felt really good.’

I enjoyed my conversation with Janet. What I like about her book and the mistakes listed, is it takes a very practical approach with things that people can put into action. We covered three out of the seven mistakes, and we discussed the risks of not developing your team, the failure of taking time to give people honest feedback that helps them grow and develop, and then also sticking with the status quo and some of the biases that might be tied up in that, and the lack of creativity and innovation that might come from sticking with the status quo. Finally, we also discussed how you can implement change, or not going ahead with the change, as you state in the seventh and final mistake in your book.

To read more of Janet’s book visit her website where you can download the first chapter for free and also order your copy of ‘The Seven Mistakes New Managers Make: How to Avoid Them and Thrive’.

The Seven Mistakes New Managers Make - Mildon