Learning from mistakes and growing as a leader

Each time I take on a new role or area of responsibility, I get a little better at being a manager and leader. I improve on the tasks I’ve done before, which leaves plenty of room to make all sorts of new mistakes.

When that inevitably happens, I write it all down. Everything I promise myself I‘ll be better at next time. This helps avoid the imposter syndrome that sometimes creeps in and redirects any “I screwed up” internal narratives and self doubt into something productive and proactive.

Strong leaders are reflective and self aware. But reflection and self awareness does not automatically equal strong leadership. Acknowledging mistakes, failures and room for improvement doesn’t help anyone unless it translates into action.

Emotionally intelligent leadership requires both self-awareness and deliberate action.

As someone who can overthink things, it helps to create a circuit breaker, like my list, to stay future-focused and avoid dwelling on the past.

My list has become increasingly more important with each new role and responsibility I’ve taken on. I’m quickly learning that job roles get less and less descriptive and the challenges more unique.

So here is my own personal position description – the things that worked well, and the bits I missed.

This worked! (Remember to do it again)

1. Be friendly and curious
With any change in leadership or direction, most people are trying to answer two questions: Do I feel listened to? Can I trust the leadership? As a new leader, focus on building relationships and connection. Put away your ‘expert hat’ and be genuinely interested in learning about your people and their work. Ask questions, explore, dig beyond what’s on the surface.

2. Identify low hanging fruit – and act
Build confidence and show you’re listening to the ideas and concerns the team have. Identify what you can act on easily and bring that to fruition (pun not intended).

3. Don’t change too much too early
Refrain from touching anything structural before you understand the unique context and big picture. Acting too quickly on large issues might result in addressing the symptoms, not the cause. Instead, start to untangle the web.

4. Set expectations
Be open and upfront about who you are, what you’re focusing on, and when things will happen. Capitalise on the disruption at the beginning of a new role or project by resetting expectations for performance, feedback, and communication.

5. Focus on communication channels
How do you want to communicate with people? How often? What type of information is conveyed via email or internal updates? What necessitates face-to-face conversations? How are you embedding two-way communication and feedback loops? Think about this early in the piece and keep your communication flowing.

6. Work out what’s real
It’s common to hear “this is the policy”, “we do it this way” or “we’re not allowed to do that”. I don’t doubt the people saying this believe it to be true, but often multiple truths emerge. Find the source of that truth – the policy, funding requirement, management decision, feedback survey, or Board directive that makes the statement true. If there’s nothing formal to back it up, treat it as a cultural truth, something unconsciously made true over time by the team or the organisation, and give it a closer look.

7. Read policies, procedures and all the reports
Take the time to read allll the policies, procedures, handover notes, previous funding reports, annual reports, financial statements – everything that you can get your hands on.


Eek, missed this (Make sure to do better next time)

1. Understand the history of issues
While new perspectives and fresh eyes are helpful, it’s important this isn’t your only lens. It’s easy to dismiss or downplay the significance of issues when they’re new to you, but while they’re a blip on your radar things like staffing challenges, access to training, resource shortages, frustration with systems and process may be a long term concern to others.

2. Reviews and audits
Most compliance and regulatory matters aren’t urgent day-to-day, until suddenly they are. This is the type of thing you’re expected to manage, but unlikely to receive direction on.

It’s a very good idea when taking on a new project or role to familiarise yourself with what’s required, then conduct an audit. This changes depending on sector and location, but in a broad Community Services / Youth Services context this includes:

    • Clearances and mandatory training (Working with Children, Police Checks, industry specific requirements and training modules)
    • Insurance (what’s insured, how, with who, how are changes made to policies)
    • Risk and safety (risk assessments, fire safety, first aid, external audits)
    • Payroll (roles, rates, award conditions and details, consistency across teams)


3. Asking enough follow up questions
When you’re new, people are unlikely to open up immediately and spill all their secrets. Make sure that you ask follow up questions – lots of them. Phrase questions in different ways and frame issues from different angles. This will help you get accurate answers, not just what people think they should be saying.

4. Balance what you focus on
Challenges, problems, messiness – these things invigorate me. I love looking at the tangles and finding solutions. Without context this can come across as focusing on the negatives and problems, and be (unintentionally) very disheartening for hardworking teams and individuals. Just as we need to make conscious efforts to celebrate our successes, we need to make conscious efforts to bring attention to the positives and strengths we see.


Authentic leadership

Unless you have clarity on who you are as a leader, the above list is unhelpful. Without a solid foundation to work from, your actions won’t have the desired impact.

This is something I’ve learned over time as I tried to mimic the actions of others and replicate leadership styles I admired.

Beneath my lists is now a strong, unwavering belief in the type of leader I want to be.

It’s something that I ummed and ahhed about including here, because it sounds a little wanky. Hopefully it’s a useful prompt for you to think about your leadership approach.

At my core, I am a leader who:

  • is passionate and compassionate
  • speaks truth to power, frankly and as respectfully as possible
  • delves into the WHY behind actions and decisions
  • takes a big picture, future-focused view

This guides my thinking, my decisions, my actions and what I prioritise. It’s how I lead authentically

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