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Pitfalls ready made for new leaders

  • Story Highlights
  • Get out and about your organization quickly
  • New leaders should make themselves available to everyone
  • Embrace and express a spirit of inquiry
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By Rachel Zupek
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Editor's note: has a business partnership with, which serves as the exclusive provider of job listings and services to

Editor's Note: has a business partnership with, which serves as the exclusive provider of job listings and services to

( -- People make job transitions every day. Whether you're changing positions, cubicles, locations or careers, the transition can be rough if you're not prepared.

Perhaps one of the hardest transitions to make is that from manager into another leadership position, says Michael Watkins, leadership consultant and author of "The First 90 Days." His or her actions in the first few months can determine their overall success or failure on the job, he says.

"Transitions are pivotal, in part because everyone is expecting change," Watkins says. "But they are also periods of great vulnerability for new leaders who lack established working relationships and detailed knowledge of their roles. Those who fail to build momentum during their transition face an uphill battle."

Here are seven common traps new leaders often fall into -- and how to climb your way out.

Trap No. 1: Isolation

Leaders often rely heavily on reports and analysis rather than devoting time to meet and talk with new colleagues, Watkins says. The need to "know" an organization before venturing into it is often the root of this problem.

"Isolation inhibits the leader's ability to develop important relationships and cultivate sources of information," Watkins says. "If this practice goes on too long, the newcomer is inevitably labeled as remote and unapproachable."

Defense: Get out and about your organization quickly, Watkins suggests. "Impressions, ideas and strong feelings about how to deal with issues often are more important than form analysis in making crucial early decisions."

Trap No. 2: Always having "The Answer"

Too many leaders either come on the scene with "The Answer" (a predetermined fix for the company's problems), or they reach conclusions too early in their tenure. Many fall into this trap through arrogance or insecurity.

"Staffers become cynical if they think their leaders deal with deep problems superficially, making it difficult to rally support for change," Watkins says.

Defense: Embrace and express a spirit of inquiry, even if you're confident that you understand the organization's problems and the best approaches to dealing with them, Watkins advises. Give primacy to learning over doing.

"Time spent carefully diagnosing the organization's strengths and weaknesses is seldom wasted. The key is to be systematic and efficient at learning, establishing and refining an agenda, and adopting methods for gaining insight."

Trap No. 3: Staying too long with the existing team

Some leaders believe the workers they inherit deserve a chance to prove themselves, but Watkins warns that it's not recommended to retain team members with a record of mediocre performance.

"Leaders are brought in to improve performance by imparting new ideas, making tough decisions and instilling a can-do spirit of achievement," he says.

Defense: After a few months, it's the leader's responsibility to ensure he or she has the best team, Watkins says. "This is not to say that new leaders should be unfair, expect miracles or seek to terminate people summarily. They should impose a time limit -- typically two to six months, depending on the severity of the problem -- for deciding who should be on the playing field."

Trap No. 4: Attempting too much

"The theory goes, 'If I get enough things going, something is bound to click,'" Watkins says. "Such leaders are trying to send the message that winners are active and able to handle diverse challenges simultaneously. This approach renders an organization confused and overwhelmed."

Defense: The roots of this pitfall often lie in lack of prioritizing or poor planning. Early on, leaders must identify their top priorities for the first year, and then discipline themselves and their organizations to focus on those priorities, Watkins says.

Trap No. 5: Captured by the wrong people

New leaders initiate competition between those who had influence in the old organization. Among those vying for attention will be those who are incapable, well-meaning but out of touch, intent on misleading, or in search of power for power's sake; exercise great care in deciding who to listen to and to what degree, Watkins warns.

Defense: "New leaders must keep lines of communication open to balance that internal influence," Watkins says. "Just as one is known by the company one keeps, judgments about new leaders are based on perceptions of who influences them."

Trap No. 6: Setting unrealistic expectations

"It's easy to set unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished during transitions," Watkins concedes. "New leaders want to impress, and new bosses too often expect miracles."

Defense: New leaders should never assume his or her initial mandate will or should remain unchanged. They should devote considerable efforts to communicate with superiors and other key people to clarify initiatives and set expectations, Watkins says.

Trap No. 7: Failing to build coalitions

"Many devote too much time during transitions to the vertical dimension of influence -- upward to bosses and downward to direct reports," Watkins says. Leaders don't dedicate enough time to the horizontal dimension of peers, he adds.

Defense: New leaders should make themselves available to everyone, Watkins says. "Sooner or later (probably sooner), new leaders need the support of people who aren't under their authority." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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