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Strong mentorship key to develop leadership skills

Throughout my career, both in technology organizations and now as a principal consultant focused on the organizational health movement, I have seen experienced executives and rookie leaders alike make the same leadership mistakes over and over.

In fact, I made many of those same mistakes both as a junior leader and sometimes now, as a veteran leader. I can say with conviction I could have avoided many of my errors, had a seasoned executive or two offered a little advice or shared a relevant experience as I chartered those new leadership waters.

I remember the day I thought some of the guidance might come:

When I started my career in management about 20 years ago, I was working as a sales manager for a software technology startup in Silicon Valley. It was a great time to be in technology sales and a great time for startups — the heart of the dot.com run-up.

One day our CEO called me into his office unexpectedly. In the office already sat three additional members of his executive team, awaiting my arrival. This was going to either be really good or really bad!

One of the four executives shared that our company’s senior sales leader was leaving to go to another startup called “Gogle”— that’s really what he said . . . Gogle! — and wondered out loud why any person in their right mind would leave our great start-up for that little, oddly named company.

Last I heard that departing leader was living on an island somewhere — his island.

The executive leaders had called me into the office, hoping I would consider taking over that significant leadership role in our organization. The role meant not only that I would join the senior executive team in leading the sales and support teams, but I would also take responsibility for all customer relationships across multiple geographies.

I was understandably nervous. I asked what I’d need to do to be successful.

Those top executives collectively looked me in the eye and spent the next several hours taking turns sharing the specifics of the thoughtful plan they had jointly crafted specifically with my success and the success of the organization in mind.

It included an assessment geared to help determine my strengths and weaknesses as a leader as well as a thorough development plan I would follow to help me grow in my new role. They had set aside a significant budget for classes and coaching as I learned and crafted my skills as a world-class leader. And, best of all, each of them committed to taking personal interest in my success by setting aside time, each week, to mentor me.

The intent of the mentoring was to provide guidance, open dialogue, and to help me learn from mistakes they had made or seen made in the past. With a generous pay package and equity position offered and their insistence that I take an all-expense-paid trip with my wife to Tahiti to consider their offer, I gave them each a big bear hug and left the office excited about what the future would hold.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really happen that way.

Those senior executives really did call me into the office and offer me the job that day. But there was no personally crafted plan, no assessment to gauge my readiness, no resources set aside to help me learn and grow, and definitely no commitment to mentor me as I took on this role.

The stories of the mistakes they made were never shared, and I was left to figure the job out on my own. In response to my inquiry regarding how to be successful, one of them said, “It’s really not that hard. You are selling more than everyone else; just have everyone do what you do, and we’ll be in great shape.”

That was the extent of the training and coaching I received. So, armed with that minimal guidance — and that guidance alone — I was left to flounder through my first significant leadership role.

Because of the lack of direction and support, and my “trial and error” approach to leadership, I made a lot of mistakes as a new leader. I cringe to think that most of those early errors could have been avoided, had I been offered even the most basic guidance.

Some of the mistakes I made included allowing confusion to reign in my organization by not being clearer about purpose and priorities; failing to admit my mistakes and apologize when I made them; failing to trust the people who worked for me; hiring too fast and firing too slow; running truly boring meetings; and failing to give honest feedback.

That’s just a small sampling of my many errors.

But I wasn’t all bad. There were things I did right, early and often throughout my career as a leader, that thankfully prevented even more errors. The first was actively seeking out guidance from leaders I respected.

The guidance I received, both on things I should do as a leader and things I shouldn’t, often came in the form of stories. These stories brought the coaching to life, helping me grasp the importance of the guidance and how it might be applied to the teams I was leading.

After leading organizations and teams for the better part of two decades, I founded my own consulting business and simultaneously aligned my business to The Table Group, a Patrick Lencioni company, working with that business as a Principal Consultant. This business and role have afforded me the opportunity to work with hundreds of CEOs and other executive leaders and their teams over the past several years.

It turns out those leaders also made mistakes. The best leaders admit their mistakes so that others might learn from them. This makes everyone on the team and in the organization better.

Mike McHargue is a local organizational health consultant and author of “Rookie Mistakes: Advice from Top Executives on 5 Critical Leadership Errors,” which was released Oct. 16. Information can be found at Mike-McHargue.com.

About Mike McHargue