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Stephen Miles is the founder and chief executive officer of The Miles Group. Previously, he was a vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles and ran Leadership Advisory Services. With more[…]

The “CEO Whisperer” discusses some of the most common leadership mistakes and offers strategies to avoid them.

Question: What are the most common mistakes made by CEOs?

Stephen Miles:  So one of my main businesses is coaching first-time CEOs and I coach many around the world and the mistakes- the common mistakes that new leaders make as they go into a position are number one; they define their position in terms of an arbitrary timeline like my first 90 days or my first hundred days and it forces them to behave badly because they try and do too much too quickly.  I think the first 90 days is a good proxy, but not something you should push everything you need to get done into, so what I coach CEOs around is look let’s look at your first year, let’s break it down into four quarters and let’s break it down into short, medium and long term objectives.  There are going to be watermelons on the ground.  Everybody looks at those watermelons and says, “You know what?”  “We all know you need to do something about them.”  “Go do them.”  So take the watermelons as the first things.  That is the short term stuff.  It’s no-brainer.  Everybody knows you should do that.  The medium term stuff is really about understanding the company, understanding the dynamics, the people and what are the opportunities and it’s going to take more than just the no-brainer stuff.  You have to go beyond the no-brainer and then the long term stuff is really about you sort of thinking about what do you want to get done in 2012 now that it is 2011 and what do you need to put in place in order to achieve those objectives.  The mistake people make both in politics and in leadership roles is they try and do way too much and constrain it around this arbitrary defined timeline as opposed to thinking broadly about their transition into the role, so that is the first thing.

Another mistake that new leaders, new CEOs make is they don’t evaluate what their predecessor’s leadership style was, so oftentimes I'll come in and do the initial interview with somebody who I'm going to coach who is a new leader, new CEO and I'll say to them well how did the former leader lead, what was their style and they’ll look at me with a blank slate and say I have no idea or they’ll say you know what, they were a micromanager and so I need to be this, something opposite of that and my coaching to people is first you need to understand what your predecessor’s leadership style was.  Is that complimentary to yours or divergent?

So let’s take the extreme example. Let’s say your predecessor was a micromanager and you’re truly this empowering leader. If you come into a micromanaging environment and that typically means people have been told what to do and you try and be this empowering leader that has everybody thinking around them and coming up with ideas and going and doing stuff guess what, the organization is going to go into paralysis because the defined leadership style that they’re used to which they’ve operated effectively in is now completely different, so what people need to do and what I coach people on is you need to have a hybrid style. In order to get to your preferred style, which is a more empowering style you have to start out sort of with a micro aspect to your leadership and then as people prove that they can think and act differently from a leadership point of view that allows you to extend the rope, but you can’t go all the way to your preferred style instantly or you’re going to put the organization, your team into a state of paralysis, which is no good.

Another very important aspect of being a new leader, a new CEO is doing your diagnostic and when you come in from the outside you’re often afforded the opportunity to have a diagnostic period. Where that doesn’t happen typically is when you’re promoted from within, so what happens when you’re promoted from within is you’re looking up at that job. You’re boss says you know you’ve been looking at that job for the last six months and on day two I want you to start making decisions and getting stuff done and you’re not afforded that diagnostic period. My coaching to people is you have to create the diagnostic period for yourself. It’s really, really important because you need to look through the lens of the business as the leader. You need to evaluate your team as the leader, not as a peer or somewhere else in the organization and you need to understand what the opportunities and threats are in that business through your diagnostic and the diagnostic is really about sitting with people, listening, asking questions and having a dialogue with people, not trying to come in as many internally promoted people do with the answer, so again making sure that you whether you’re inside or outside come in and do a diagnostic, A. B); in that diagnostic pay homage to the past because the authors and coauthors of everything that has come before you usually are sitting looking at you and are threatened by the changes that you want to make and you need to earn the right to lead change by building relationships and building a dialogue and a team with the people around you. What I find is a lot of type-A people come into these roles internally or from the outside and want to prove, prove, prove, prove, prove and what they prove is that they’re not an effective leader and that they need to leave the company and what you need to do is make sure that you afford yourself this diagnostic period.

The final thing you need to do in there is really establish the bar. The bar is going to be set for you if you don’t establish it and you need to come in and make sure you’re not sandbagging, but you’re realistically establishing the bar so you can exceed it and don’t have the bar set for you and you have one chance to set the bar, so make sure you take the opportunity to A); do the diagnostic, B); set the bar and then you can be wildly successful.

Recorded January 12, 2011
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd