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Sin #1: Haste Makes Waste

Extract from “The 3 Sins of New Leaders”:

In one of our one-on-one sessions, Dave drew me a picture. It was a badly drawn cartoon figure that looked like a weird dog: massive ears, massive eyes, almost no mouth. He put the picture in front of me and said, “This is something I came up with. Let’s call him ‘Bebems’.

You know what it means?”

I shook my head.

“Big ears, big eyes, small mouth.”

“Ok …”

Then he dropped a nugget on me that I should have kept in mind, always.

“I’ve taken on a lot of different roles in my life. And when I get to the new job, they always want me to act quickly. Fix things. Take charge. But what I would do, for the first three months, is just keep my mouth shut, listen to people, look at what’s going on, make sure I understand completely. Only after taking enough time to understand what needs to be done, I open my mouth and act.”

I wrote it down - this was gold. And I considered myself lucky to have this piece of advice, even though I was involved in the family business and it didn’t quite apply to me. The first nugget - regarding aligning myself with company goals - was something that I felt I did already. It was our business, after all.

Here’s what happened, though: My dad turned sixty and decided to cash out. Before my twenty-ninth birthday, I found myself an executive for a large, listed company, and within a year they transferred me to a larger division. Bigger, better, faster. More people, more glory, more problems, more opportunities.

And you know what I did? I came in, took a quick look around, listened to one or two people, then opened my mouth and started to take action. Within two weeks, people were saying things like: “A breath of fresh air!” and “Finally, some decisive leadership!” and “We’re so glad you’re here!” Man, I bought it all. Drunk on power and affirmation, I promoted people, closed deals, and tinkered with systems.

A lot of what I did would be bad choices. A lot of what I did I needed to undo within a year because I didn’t take the time to get a full grip on things. I didn’t speak to enough people; I didn’t do the work to fully understand the processes, principles, or priorities. I didn’t set the right cadence with my boss for accountability, and I didn’t implement the right systems of control versus autonomy for my teams. Again: I didn’t do the work.

The first deadly sin, of course, is giving in to the pressure to be seen to add value right away. Some problems will seem blindingly obvious: Your instincts will tell you who your best team members are and what your product/process/placement issues are. And you might be right. But you might also be wrong. You could go ahead and ring some changes and grab that low-hanging fruit, but there's something to be said for doing your homework first, even if you think you have all the required information.

This is where it’s important to be like Bebems: big ears, big eyes, mouth small. For at least the first month, listen and watch more than you talk and do. Let your employees, suppliers, and clients educate you, and show restraint in making any big calls until you understand what's going on. Below are four ways you can lay that foundation:

  1. Start with purpose: Be crystal clear on the organization’s DNA. Why are we in business? Why do we do it this way? Why do we service that particular market? Why do we choose to offer this product?

  2. Determine the North Star: Does the organization have a clear direction—an overarching long-term goal that informs decisions and behavior? And does everyone know what it is?

  3. Make a plan, do the plan: Are the systems that drive the business aligned with what we are trying to do, why we exist, and where we are going? Drill down by assembling and interrogating the business model.

  4. Stay narrow, go deep: Are we allocating resources in the right places, and are we crystal clear on what our priorities are? Does everyone agree on these?

Bear in mind that this framework will require continuous effort on your part, but points 3 and 4 are better addressed collaboratively during a quarterly off-site meeting.

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