I often go into new leadership roles to drive scaled transformation. Particularly in those situations, people are the all-important priority so I’m sharing 4 mistakes I’ve made in a new job, and hope they help you on your own leadership journey.

Don’t hire too early without understand the job, global culture, or stakeholders.

You might understand the challenges ahead and the work to be done. You may even have found the perfect candidate to lead the work. So, why wait before hiring? Because here’s what you don’t know: the culture of the place. You don’t understand how people collaborate (or don’t), or the best approach new folks ought to take when driving change management. Even if you know WHAT needs to be done and have identified the WHO, hiring before you fully understand the HOW can lead to failure.

When I joined IHG, one of the biggest issues was clear to me: we needed to renegotiate most of our contracts with online travel agencies. We had too many rooms locked at static rates that were too low. However, this pivot required more than third-party negotiations; we needed to bring hotel owners along. It was also important to help existing company leaders understand the change needed, without making them look like they had signed bad deals.

The guy I brought in to spearhead the work was brilliant: he totally understood what needed to be done, and had extensive experience negotiating third-party partnerships. So, what did I underestimate? The finesse and bridges that needed to be built internally. Two months in, this outstanding talent experienced the equivalent of new organ rejection, and much of the fault was mine. I hadn’t thought to help him integrate and manage internal communications; we were both too focused on the work to be done.

In sum, don’t hire before you know the person is right for the job, and that the individual can harmonize with the broader group.

Don’t keep under performers too long.

High performers will feel undervalued and may question your judgment. Personnel issues fester and soon, under performers are no longer inherited issues; they become your people and your problems. A rule of thumb? It depends on your proximity to the individual and frequency of interaction. After all, human beings have families and related decisions must be thoughtfully made. Assuming you have regular engagement with the talent, make a list by 45-60 days and validate your hypotheses by 90. By month four, enroll HR and any managers who need to align, then take action by the six month mark.

At IHG, we needed to change our operating model, so a lot of good people who had delivered against their previous job expectations were not equipped to do what we needed in the future. With this kind of scaled transformation, I worried about changing too many people too quickly.

As a result, I left one gent in place too long. He wasn’t very good at his job, but seemed to do no harm; he remained in role while I made other, high-priority changes. The problem? I’d underestimated the morale impact of keeping him on our new high performers. In fact, he saw the writing on the wall and found a new job shortly after.

Yet I’ll never forget the lesson I learned – problems you’ve inherited when left unaddressed too long, become YOUR problems.

Avoid team building activities before the right team is in place.

Including team members in an envisioning offsite who may be leaving, only strengthens existing team bonds and creates issues down the line.

At McCann, I walked into the job knowing the company had a number of senior leaders on an exit plan. However, many new leaders had joined and were craving a clear vision for the future. So I set up a half-day envisioning session for our leaders to define what we wanted to accomplish. We enjoyed a fun, passion-infused, unifying experience and walked away with both our mission statement and action plan for the year.

However, this made the remaining few we had to exit, bitter and angry. They bought into our plan for the future and wanted to be a part of it! Exiting them after the session was so much more difficult, and it’s not a chronology I will repeat. 

Don’t trust people too early, but don’t go it alone.

This one is about striking a fine balance that requires wisdom and judgment. This is going to sound a bit “Art of War,” which is very much not how I choose to live. But we are in the real world, where people are driven by their own myriad motivations. I’ve discovered a few archetypes:

1) The “Collectors” show their hand in the early days. They often take the BFF approach, trying to earn your trust by showing what a great resource they can be to you. True, they MAY be authentic, OR they may be collecting intel to see how much you share. And what you share today may be used against you later.

2) The “Boxers” come out swinging, watching to see if you duck, block, run, or fight back. Often when taken unaware, our instinct kicks in. But if we know to expect a boxer or two, we can prepare our reaction accordingly.

3) Then, there are the “Allies.” Those who take a vested interest in your success. They offer valuable perspective into the org, its culture, and people. Difficult to come by, but wonderful beyond measure!

When I joined Starbucks as CMO, I was paired up with the CFO as my onboarding buddy. Wow did I hit the jackpot! Weiwei was thoughtful, considerate, and helpful. She became my ally, coach, and friend. To this day, I’m so grateful to have met and befriended her.

Have you made similar mistakes? Or do you have other lessons to share with the class? I’d love to hear them!

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