12 Oct 1999  Research & Ideas

Right from the Start: Common Traps for the New Leader

In this excerpt from Chapter 1 of the their book, Dan Ciampa and HBS Professor Michael D. Watkins describe some of the common traps into which new leaders can fall.

Falling behind the learning curve

Not using the time before entry effectively can undermine one's ability to learn and to get on top of the job right away. The time prior to entry is a priceless period when the new leader can go beyond merely absorbing information about the organization to create a joining-up strategy for a successful transition.

Becoming isolated

It's easy for new leaders to isolate themselves from important relationships and sources of information about what is really going on. As one leader said: "There can be a tendency to say, 'Well, I'll lock myself in the room and I'll come up with a plan.' That is important, but you're not going to lay the groundwork to be able to speak and execute with authority until people feel like they know you."

Coming in with the answer

New leaders who show up with a single answer for complex organizational problems usually do so out of arrogance or insecurity, or because they believe they must appear decisive and establish a directive tone. Employees may hesitate to share information if they believe the new leader's mind is already made up. Typically, the result is less support for change.

Sticking with the existing team too long

Many new leaders believe subordinates they inherit deserve a chance to prove themselves. For some, this is a matter of fairness; others are motivated by arrogance ("I can make these people") or hubris ("All it takes is hard work, support, and leadership"). Whatever the rationale, retaining managers with a history of mediocre performance can damage the new leader's credibility and almost always slows the pace of change.

Attempting too much

It is important for the new leader to experiment to discover what works and what doesn't. But too much experimentation can deprive promise change initiatives of resources or the attention they need to reach fruition. Poor prioritizing and inadequate up-front planning can make a leader susceptible to being diverted by peripheral issues.

Being captured by the wrong people

Those who have exerted influence in the old regime will inevitably jockey for position in the new. It is all too easy for the new leader to waste precious time on people who cannot help because they are incapable or outdated, or even wish to mislead.

Falling prey to successor syndrome

At greatest risk is the new leader hired as second-in-command with the expectation that success will lead to promotion to the top position. In the absence of a solid working relationship, the CEO may feel threatened by the new leader's changes and resist letting go of the reins of power.

Excerpted from Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role HBS Press, 1999.

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