“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
English playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Author: Nobel Foundation; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Nobel Foundation; via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had one of the subscribers to my blog, and one who is also a very regular reader and commenter, ask me whether I had made any mistakes during my career. I was delighted to be able to tell her that I made hundreds of them, and that hopefully I had learned something worthwhile from most of them. I also said that I plan to keep making them for the rest of my life, and that I hope that I can learn much from these as well.

I have found that we can learn much more from our mistakes than we can generally learn from our successes, but there are some serious mistakes that some managers make as they climb the corporate ladder to senior management nirvana, and which are ones that should be avoided at all costs, or rectified immediately if already in place.

Here are just a few that can get in the way of becoming a successful senior manager and true leader.

– Becoming self-important … It’s not hard to become somewhat pleased with yourself as you start to climb up into the rarified air of senior management. As you start to accumulate a retinue of personal assistants, executive assistants and a general horde of people who will go out of their way to do things for you, it is no surprise that some managers can start to believe their own marketing. If you then add to this the visibility that is accorded through external government and corporate boards, media appearances, conference keynotes and perks such as cars and drivers, first-class travel and even the use of the corporate jet (for some), many executives start to see themselves as being “well above and well beyond the herd”. It is important to remember that the only real difference between you and your people is that you now also carry the responsibility for their future. I understand that the financial and physical rewards are greater the higher that you climb, but ultimately the only real differentiator is your job description and the added responsibilities that it carries.

Author: Gerry Stegmeier; Source:; GFDL; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Gerry Stegmeier; Source:; GFDL; via Wikimedia Commons

– Not communicating … “Scientia potentia est” (knowledge is power) may be true when translated into its true meaning of “wisdom is power”, but is a serious problem when used in its more common translation of “information is power”. While I do not advocate that you “wear your heart on your sleeve”, the more that your people know about what is happening within the company, the more they are able to understand the issues and opportunities, and then the more they are able to be part of contributing to what needs to be done. Managers who do not share their knowledge with their people do so either because they feel that this is one of their key power differentiators or because they do not trust their people. Neither reason is acceptable. This need for ongoing communication also includes one-on-one interactions to give your people regular and timely feedback on what and how they are doing, as well as giving you a chance to hear from them what they deem to be important.

Author: The White House photographer Pete Souza; Souce:; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: The White House photographer Pete Souza; Souce:; via Wikimedia Commons

– Believing in “do as I say” … Some managers seem to suffer from the delusion of believing that because they are senior “if they just say it, so it shall be”, when the reality is that people will always tend to copy the behaviour and attitude of their boss, irrespective of what public pronouncements s/he makes. The only way to set the values and standards for acceptable behaviour in your organisation is to live them totally yourself, without compromise. This also means that you have to spend a significant amount of time on managing the behaviours of your people as they are exhibited, re-enforcing positive behaviour and stopping negative behaviour at its beginning.

– Focusing always on the urgent … There will always be hundreds of urgent issues for a senior executive to address and, if allowed to, these issues will take up all the available time (and more). Sadly, some managers see this need for problem solving as the key skill needed in a management role. It is definitely one of the critical skills needed (see “Managers solve problems” posted March 11, 2013) but it is also critical that management spend time planning for tomorrow as well as addressing the problems of today; the need to address the important as well as handling the urgent. In the same way that managers will make appointments to meet with other people, it is critically important that they also make appointments with themselves, and that they treat these allocated times with the same priority as they would accord to any other important appointment. This means no postponements, no cancellations and no interruptions. This time needs to be spent on reviewing current status and planning on how you can move your organisation from where it is to where it needs to go, and managing your own goals.

– Not building a dream … It is a serious mistake to believe that people work just for financial reward in a pleasant physical environment, although these are good serious starting points. To motivate people to do great things it is critical that you can also give them a vision and mission, which are aspirational and inspirational enough for them to want to be part of, and to contribute to the success. I am not just talking about a mission and vision statement, which most companies have and which usually just parrot each other about customers, people and innovation (see “The 3 great business lies” posted August 2, 2010), but about one which paint a dream that really answers “Why are we here and why it’s important” as well as why they should want to be an important part of it all.

Author: derivative work: Neotex555; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: derivative work: Neotex555; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” American author John C. Maxwell


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