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The Failures That Helped Me Become a Better Leader

The Failures That Helped Me Become a Better Leader

Years ago, I was thrust into a position where I had absolutely no experience. It would’ve been easier if I'd had a mentor to guide me along the way. But sometimes, the best way to learn is by making mistakes… or even failing.

Here are some examples that helped me become a better communicator, manager and leader.

Assuming Expectations are Met or Understood

Just because information is communicated does not mean that the message has been received. Was the communication too broad or not direct enough? Were expectations assumed?

Case in point: A third party was hired to develop new software and I was assigned to oversee its implementation. But things quickly began to fall between the cracks. The third party seemed extremely overwhelmed and became reactive instead of proactive. Stakeholders were frustrated that their questions were not being addressed in a timely manner and they did not know the current state of the project. Internal managers began to question my ability to lead the effort.

What went wrong: Team roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined up front. Assumptions were made on all sides and I could not provide the attention the project needed to be successful. It was an all-around communication failure.

How to prevent: A project kickoff meeting is an absolute must for any project, whether large or small. Communicating the goals/objectives—as well as scope, timeline, team roles and responsibilities—to all team members and stakeholders is critical. Also, having a candid dialog with your manager about your workload will prevent you from biting off more than you can chew.

Making Reactive Decisions Under Pressure

Have you ever been in a situation where you were asked to deliver a project within an impossible timeframe? Instead of panicking, I chose to round up as many people as possible to help meet the deadline. But it didn’t turn out well.

Case in point: I was asked to manage a team of engineers who were assigned to develop a new product within a tight timeframe. We quickly put together a project plan, scheduled status meetings and began working on the new product.

But after a few weeks, it became clear that the team would not be able to deliver the product as expected. Tasks were not being completed on time and stakeholders had their own ideas on how the product should be designed. Because we were under such pressure to deliver, I began recruiting other engineers to assist.

What went wrong: Decisions that were made in haste ultimately led to the cancellation of the project. Throwing more resources at a project in hopes that it will get done faster will not end well. Taking shortcuts will cost the company money and crush team morale.

How to prevent: Planning is crucial for project success. Taking the time to understand requirements, design the best solution and ensure that you have enough resources with appropriate skill sets will increase your chances of delivering a quality product that satisfies customer demand—in a realistic timeframe.

Making the Transition from Team Member to Team Manager

Transitioning from team member to team leader can be a challenge. In moving into a management role, my first concern was to preserve the personal relationships I’d already established. Big mistake.

Case in point: After being promoted to a leadership role over a team that had become friends, I noticed a shift in behavior. I was no longer being included in certain conversations for fear of reprisal.

I scheduled meetings with each team member and assured them that nothing would change and I wanted to be treated the same as before. I would simply be there to help resolve issues, answer questions, and achieve success. As a new manager, I thought this was completely reasonable.

What went wrong: My desire to be treated as a peer rather than a manager led to many authority challenges. There was an expectation of special treatment and a lack of urgency toward assigned tasks and deadlines. I also made the mistake of sharing too much information in hopes that it would help gain respect.

How to prevent: When moving into a management role, know that you were selected for your skills, leadership and drive and accept that existing relationships will change. Effective managers have to make difficult decisions and can’t be everyone’s friend. Your job is to support and develop your team and ensure that efforts are aligned with company goals and objectives.

There will always be roadblocks, setbacks and even failure during the course of your career. Just don’t let them deter you from achieving your career goals. As author J.K. Rowling once said: “Failure is so important...It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.”

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