By Jim Struck

Some time back the Harvard Business Review published a series of articles about transforming leaders. One of the articles, “Quick Wins Paradox” by Mark E. Van Buren and Todd Safferstone, is of particular value for those who are new to a leadership role. PAY ATTENTION, it doesn’t matter if you are a first line supervisor, a middle manager, or a senior level executive all are susceptible to traps surrounding early wins on the job.

It is sound advice for every leader to establish some ‘quick wins’ in order to garner the confidence of those who put you in the job. Those wins may be in relation to improving process, collection strategy, reporting capability, cutting cost, or improving the performance of personnel. Regardless of what is chosen the highest performing leaders are found to focus on results. Of those leaders who struggle, two out of five, or 40% tended to exhibit one or more of the following attributes:

  • Focus too much on details
  • React negatively to criticism
  • Intimidate others
  • Jump to hasty conclusions
  • Micromanage direct reports

These tendencies impacted the productivity of those around them by as much as 15%. More than 60% of the struggling leaders exhibited at least one of the five traps. PAY ATTENTION.

Stuck in the Details

My observations in my business coaching practice echo those of the authors. The most common tendency is for leaders to get stuck somewhere in the details (minutia) of their job responsibilities (often operations) and fail to see the larger perspective of their job responsibilities.

To avoid this, leaders must be clear about what is expected of them and how they are being measured. If you are unsure, ask. If you’re spending most of your time focused on e-mails, or look only at claims files versus dollars collected, make sure you understand the broader context of what you are managing/leading.

Negative Reaction to Criticism and Intimidating Others

It is common when we move into a new role that we are feeling less secure and as a result can be more sensitive to criticism. The opposite of this can also be true. Leaders can come into a new job so confident that they intimidate those around them with their knowledge and bravado. Both behaviors come from being overly “me” focused.

It is hard not to be very inwardly focused, but transition to a new leadership role is the very time to listen more, be more open to ideas and criticism, and include more people around us. Many very bright and talented people have had their careers derailed because they failed to master good interpersonal skills.

Jumping to Conclusion

Another trap that is a result of relying too much on our own skill and analysis is jumping to conclusions. If we are too anxious to demonstrate “how smart we are” we may move on information that isn’t complete. Take an extra moment to say, “This is what I see, what do you see?” Often I see leaders focused on what they can do to the detriment of a more effective decision by including others. All leaders are ultimately measured on how their group, department, division, or organization performs. We have to internalize this message well in order to have a more inclusionary approach. The authors make the statement that collective quick wins are “achieved with teams.” These wins add “measurably and meaningfully to the success of the business.”


The final trap is micromanaging. While the behaviors may vary, in the end it is about trust and control. Too often the leader is uncomfortable giving up control for an action that is owned by someone else. If you’ve ever worked for a micromanager things take longer to get done and the their behavior kills trust and teamwork.

Issues of control and ego often have leaders struggling in more than one trap. Remember… the data indicates that there are an equal number of leaders struggling with these traps whether you are a front line supervisor or a senior executive. PAY ATTENTION…your success depends on it.

Note: at the end of the HBR article the authors share a diagnostic tool you can use to target the right quick win. You may find this useful.