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Three (Incredibly Stupid) Mistakes I Made — And How You Can Avoid Them

In my last post where I talked about three incredibly simple questions the best leaders ask to change the world, I said intelligence is learning from your own mistakes and wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others.

640x480-criteriaSo it’s in the spirit of contributing wisdom that I share three mistakes that I’ve made and unfortunately see other leaders making every day.

My hope is that this leaves you with a few less lumps on your forehead and a few more bucks in your pocket.

Incredibly Stupid Mistake #1: You assume the best ideas in your business will naturally win

This one may surprise you because most leaders trust their team to do the right thing and make clear, unemotional decisions—especially when it comes to good ideas. Unfortunately, most leaders are wrong.

By assuming the best ideas will rise to the top, leaders often throw the best ideas to the wolves, and they are truly shocked to find out months later the great ideas have been forgotten and marginal ideas are still alive and kicking.

What happened? Fear. The best ideas are often the scariest for the people who have to support and implement them. For them and their teammates, big ideas often mean dramatic change, lost jobs, new responsibilities, unknown futures—all of which are frightening and hard to do. Instinctively, we avoid danger. So it is safer and easier to find ways for the status quo to win and danger to lose. Presto, the ecosystem just killed the best idea.

So how can leaders make big ideas happen? Match words with actions, such as comp models based on metrics that measure the change instead of rewarding the status quo. Don’t stop championing an idea until it comes to fruition. Kennedy did more than say, “We choose to go to the moon.” He made sure it happened. He ensured NASA had funding. He wouldn’t let go of the idea until it was real.

As a leader, you simply must champion and support big ideas. Otherwise they will die a slow but almost certain death.

Stupid Mistake #2: You hire proven, industry experts to shake up your market

We’d been in business for about 11 years when I decided we were ready to take it to the next level. So I went on a talent hunt to find people who had successfully helped grow a firm like ours from small to big. My logic was that they’d come to our company and repeat a learned pattern of success.

Cue the something bad is about to happen music.

There was only one problem with my idea: We were in the middle of building an Agency of Innovation—an unproven, new-to-the-world category that would rely on a creative new business model and offerings.

Needless to say, bringing in proven “experts” turned out to be a disaster. At first I was mystified by the fearful, slow-moving monster I helped create. After all, we hired four, incredibly smart, very seasoned and well-meaning leaders…who were fighting changing our business model tooth and nail because they knew what worked, and it didn’t look like the agency we were becoming.

Three years later, after two of our worst years in business, the wisdom of this lesson finally sunk in: Expertise can be your Achilles’ heel. Unfortunately, all too often our expertise keeps us from seeing possibility that is right in front of us. We know what worked in the past, what we can afford, what business we should be in, what our customers want…but we know all of this from experience that may no longer be aligned to the market. The market changes, and sometimes experts don’t want to.

As my friend Marshall Goldsmith is fond of saying: “What got you here won’t get you there.”

The solution is not to avoid experts. Use them when you have a specific or common legal, technical or industry challenge to solve. They will absolutely help you solve it more quickly.

But you’ll need to import experts from other industries if your mission is to change the rules of the game. Look for experts who have delivered similar solutions in a parallel way. It was fashion and beauty experts who revealed teeth whitening as a business opportunity, not dentists.

Stupid Mistake #3: Hiring your strengths instead of weaknesses

In our latest book, Free the Idea Monkey…to focus on what matters most!, I point out that every Walt Disney needs a Roy Disney and every Steve Wozniak needs a Steve Jobs. Wherever you find great innovation, you will find symbiotic relationships like these. The challenge is that we like to be around people who share our strengths—people who are like us. So unless we are very aware of our strengths and weaknesses, we often go looking for the wrong relationships.

You see this with entrepreneurs all the time. The inspiring, creative entrepreneur hires an inspiring, creative operating partner, who hires an inspiring, creative sales lead…before long, you have a whole company of inspiring, creative people who are too busy using their inspiring “Sparkle Fingers” (think jazz hands) to notice the P&L is completely screwed up. Small wonder that Sparkle, Inc. is out of business in 18 months.

By the way, the same thing happens with highly analytic operators who hire similar folks. The results are similar, just less sparkly.

The solution? First, know thyself. Next, hire the proven “anti-you” as a partner.

There you have it. Three huge mistakes I made. When I spell it out in black and white, I can’t believe how dumb I was.

I’ve learned from my mistakes. I hope you can too, by not making them.

First published on Forbes.com September 10, 2012.

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