Avoiding the Potholes: Common Mistakes of New Leaders

The selection process is over and you stand victorious among your peers as a new leader in the field of EMS. Then realization strikes: "What now?"

Don't panic. This is a new realm, and nervousness is to be expected. No one is expecting perfection. Following is a list of a few of the most common mistakes new leaders make and how to avoid them.

Do not think you are alone: Realize that there are many resources available, most prominently the person you report to, whose job is to help you succeed in your new role. When I worked for Studer Group, I learned about the four stages that everyone goes through when starting something new:

  • Unconsciously incompetent--you don't know what you don't know.
  • Consciously incompetent--you realize what you don't know.
  • Consciously competent--you've learned and are working at using your new skills as a leader.
  • Unconsciously competent--you know what to do and are doing it automatically.

Enlist a mentor to help you, not just through these steps, but someone who can assist you with issues you may come up against.

Be fearful of the friend factor: If you advance in the same place you've been working for awhile, chances are you've become friends, even close friends, with your co-workers whom you will now be supervising. This can be a potential hazard. Because of your new role in the organization, you will have to be able to keep your professional and personal life separate. This means not getting so close to your co-workers that you can't have a serious conversation with them that may include termination. It's not easy, but consider the military, where there are rules about no fraternization between officers and enlisted members for a reason. It's an enormous pitfall that can include allegations of favoritism, sexism, harassment and many others. If you're in leadership, re-evaluate the people you spend time with. Remember, if a frontline staff member does something embarrassing, it is not as serious as when a member of leadership does, especially now that everyone has a cell phone camera.

Ensure your alignment with your boss: Many new leaders think their priorities are the same as those of their boss, but oftentimes they are not. Without simple instruction about what's most important to the organization, new leaders try to solve the problems they "think" exist, which can lead to difficult conversations later, even if they had the best intentions. Within the first week of your promotion, ask your boss, "In one year, what would success look like to you if I exceeded your expectations?" Ask what his priorities are. They might be different than the issues you originally thought.

What you permit, you promote: Failure to deal with low performers immediately is one of the greatest mistakes new leaders make. If someone is doing something wrong, it must be dealt with immediately. As soon as your new career begins, people will test you. It's just a fact of life, and letting it slide to show you're an OK guy is the wrong answer. People need to know that you're serious about holding the standards high. For more information about how to have difficult conversations, I recommend my previous article on high, middle and low performers. Realizing you're always on stage is another reason why you should be careful about the company you keep off the clock. Word spreads fast, and you're always representing the company.

Don't hide from bad news: Finally, new leaders tend to "hide" when bad news is coming down the pike. Because it's a new, uncomfortable position to be in, new leaders often position themselves in a positive light while making administration look bad. If there is bad news to be delivered, don't wait for the perfect time...it will never come. You must share the news as soon as it's appropriate to do so. This will increase the employees' trust in the organization. Transparency is king in this respect. If the decision has been made that layoffs are required, share that news as early as appropriate. It's also very important to not say things like, "Well, I tried to say no, but you know how the pencil-pushers are. They just care about the bottom line." You are now part of "THEM." The organization's problems are now yours. You must explain the issues and accept the problems as if they are your own.

Leadership is not easy. Be proud that you have succeeded in your quest to better yourself and advance in your career. This is not an extensive list of mistakes, but I hope you can avoid them and be the best leader possible.

Thanks to Bob Murphy of Studer Group for his insights into this article.

Patrick Pianezza, MHA, NREMT-P, is a consultant experienced with Studer, HCAHPS, Gallup and Press Ganey principles. Along with nearly a decade of experience in the prehospital arena, he has worked for Johns Hopkins Hospital and Studer Group. He is currently the manager of service excellence for San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield, CA. E-mail ppianezza@gmail.com.