How New Leaders Can Achieve Quick Wins

New leaders are expected to hit the ground running. Achieving some quick wins early on can help them establish credibility inside their organizations and give them the political capital they need to succeed long term.

The breakneck pace of today's business environment makes quick wins critical. But for 40 percent of new leaders, striving for such wins leads to failure. In this month's Harvard Business Review, Mark E. Van Buren and Todd Safferstone, practice manager and managing director, respectively, of the Corporate Executive Board, look at how the pursuit of quick wins affected the successes and failures of 5,400 new leaders. They talked with Kathleen Melymuka about their findings.

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Melymuka: Your research shows that the most successful new leaders secured quick wins. Why are quick wins so important?

Van Buren: The payoff is things like improved performance, but beyond that, there are significant business ramifications of not getting off to a quick start. In this economic environment, there is a really strong imperative on leaders moving into new positions to demonstrate that they are able to get the business to where it needs to be in a really short period of time.

We think this is especially critical for IT leaders, because many of them are in positions where they will be working on projects with a long payback, and it's important for them to establish credibility with business leaders as quickly as possible. That quick win can buy them the luxury of time for the more difficult challenges.

You also found that 40 percent of transitioning leaders fell short. What was the most common mistake they made?

Van Buren: We were surprised at the commonality of challenges people encountered, no matter their roles. It didn't matter whether they were coming into a senior position or their very first management role, nor did their function or industry [matter]. Almost universally, we saw the one mistake that seems most pernicious is having an excessive focus on details. It's important for managers to know the ins and outs of the projects they may be managing, but if it becomes excessive, they lose sight of the bigger picture of what's going on in the organization, and they lose the ability to prioritize. The urgent often outweighs the important. This is often true of IT leaders; heavy emphasis on details can be their greatest weakness. Given the highly detail-oriented nature of IT work, it's very hard not to be constantly supervising.

4 Steps to Collective Quick Wins

  • Make people believers, not bystanders. Get them engaged with skin in the game.
  • Understand uncertainty. Your people are transitioning too. Let them know it's a team effort.
  • Show humility. Demonstrate respect for team members and a willingness to learn by seeking their advice.
  • Get to know your team. As you lead people, learn their strengths, weaknesses and motivations.

Adapted from Harvard Business Review.

The second most common pitfall was reacting negatively to criticism. Why would a previously stellar employee—who just got a promotion, after all—do that?

Safferstone: Two dynamics are at play here. People can become intoxicated by their own success. We call it the "nothing to learn" trap. The fact of your promotion proves you're ready and insulates you from criticism. You are anointed and validated by your selection. The second dynamic is that you are insecure and uncertain, and therefore out to prove yourself. You fall into the same trap, but because of your uncertainty. You want the appearance of confidence. This is particularly dangerous for people with no previous experience in management, and especially for those stepping in from tech roles.

The third trap was intimidating others, and the fourth was jumping to conclusions. I seem to detect a pattern of hubris, or fear that looks like hubris.

Safferstone: Yes. Intimidating others and jumping to conclusions are very related. It's important to remember the very real need for speed that people feel, and they're effectively unwilling to delegate their success or failure to people they don't necessarily know or trust. It can fall into a vicious cycle: To the degree you're unwilling to trust your team, they don't trust you, and it's more difficult to build leadership to drive the team forward.

Jumping to conclusions is related to the need for speed. They push off to the side any analysis, thoughtfulness or even engagement with the team, because there is just no time for that. They need to prove that their selection proves that they have all the answers.

Finally, many of those who failed were guilty of micromanaging—similar to the first trap. What's going on here?

Safferstone: That traces back to the new manager's unwillingness to delegate his or her future to the team. The feeling is that it's not just a task or a project to delegate; it's ultimately their career. So instead, they do it all on their own, and the team is [put on] the sidelines. They become obsessed with owning their success and everything related to it. In IT leaders, all of that is exacerbated because they're moving to increasing management responsibility and away from their core areas of expertise. They feel the need to go back and make decisions at every level because they used to be the guy who made those decisions.

Given all these potential missteps, you say the real goal should be "collective quick wins." How does that differ from plain-old quick wins?

Van Buren: That's the most exciting insight that came out of this research. Quick wins were essential. People had to be results-oriented. The need for speed and to demonstrate results was very real and critical. But we found, unfortunately, that too often, people pursued results in a way that led to individual success at the expense of the people they worked with. They left in their wake a trail of people who were disengaged, no longer feeling a part of the work, not motivated and not making meaningful contributions to priorities critical to that leader.

The best leaders recognized that the success they would have would come as a result not of their own expertise but their ability to lean on others in pursuit of that quick win. So to the extent you get others to share expertise, you're able to get much stronger sustainable success because everyone is engaged in that. And you're also coming out in a better position because you have the support and engagement of the team going forward. True leadership is leading a team into the future, and you have to enlist the team in that process. It's not just getting results; it's working with others and building talent.

Safferstone: Do you sense a little irony there? They step into the leadership role and forget that they need to lead. It feels easier to get it done on their own. But the first accomplishment needs to be a leadership accomplishment.

You write that collective quick wins is really about change management. This should be good news to IT people, since change management is their life.

Van Buren: The type of leadership demonstrated in a collective quick win came down to critical skills in managing change. The best leaders recognized that what they were experiencing in the transition, everyone was experiencing, and they had capabilities to help everyone through the change. We often don't think of a leadership transition as a change like a reorganization or a merger. But the best leaders recognize that they can apply the same skills and discipline to manage their own transitions as they would to manage a change—with milestones, goals, the need to incorporate all the actors and ensure that each is playing a proper role in the process.

In IT, this is an especially critical advantage because of experience they have in change management. IT people recognize the challenges that any rollout requires, so it's an opportunity to export their expertise in systems change—from managing change in a project to managing your own change as a leader.

So the idea is to score a win but also to build something more lasting?

Safferstone: If you're able to score a collective quick win, you have not only achieved the value of the win itself, but far more valuable is what you win along the way: You learn about the team's strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, motivations, dynamics. You've built a platform for future success in a way that achieving an individual quick win would never provide you.

Read more Q&As with Harvard Business Review authors.

This story, "How New Leaders Can Achieve Quick Wins" was originally published by Computerworld.

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