I’ve made thousands of mistakes in my professional career. And that covers a wide variety of work. Over the years I’ve been: a salesman; a U.S. Marine; an employee of a large company; an employee of a small company; a teacher; a consultant; and an entrepreneur.

Despite my best intentions, I keep making mistakes. Many are repeated much more than I like to admit. But I have been able to identify and (mostly) correct several mistakes that seem to be especially bad.


Mistake #1 – Punishing publicly

When someone screws up, I want to call them out on it immediately. To me, that’s the best way to improve. Rapid feedback helps connect the mistake with the correction. Right? Wrong. I observed how often my “feedback” did nothing to correct the problem. Plus, my relationship with that person was strained for days or weeks afterward. I finally figured out that I was ignoring the difference between individual and group optimization. People need to be validated publicly, then taken aside to discuss specific ways to improve performance.

Mistake #2 – Praising privately

I offer plenty of compliments to my employees during our 1-on-1 sessions. They tend to leave feeling much better about their work, their role at the company, and the future in general. But I often forget how important it is also reward good behavior in front of others. Again, I confused the difference between optimizing a person’s performance vs an entire group’s performance. Everyone needs to know when they’re doing a good job, and public praise magnifies that justifiable pride.

Mistake #3 – Focusing on money

Everyone is motivated by money. It’s a powerful universal lever that can easily be used. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to compel people’s behavior. Generous compensation packages are wonderful, and I enjoy offering people the chance to help work toward financial independence. But if we’re all in it for the money, then performance drops in tough times. I’ve learned to keep people focused on several other internal motivators: developing skills that will keep them in-demand; helping solve customers’ problems faster and better; and setting them up for their next job.

Mistake #4 – Listening without hearing

I love to jump to conclusions. As someone who enjoys thinking for the sake of thinking, I’ll often come into meetings with a firm opinion. That makes it difficult for me to seriously consider alternative viewpoints. The best solution I’ve come across is to assume the fifth idea is a good one, and I’ve only had one. Now it’s up to me to solicit four good ideas from others to get to that good one. That flips the dynamic around. Now I’m excited to engage with other people!

Mistake #5 – Fogging the mirror

Some days I don’t have the energy to engage. Maybe I got no sleep because my daughter woke up early that morning. Or maybe I’m having financial problems. Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood. In any case, those days when I can barely “fog a mirror” are terrible days to engage with other people on a team. The net results is almost always negative, meaning we’re worse off at the end of that day! I’ll give bad advice, annoy people, and ignore or forget tasks. The best thing to do in that situation is to give everyone some time away, even if it’s only a day or a few hours. Whatever it takes to get some distance and perspective.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of my mistakes (I wish it was). Leadership is a never-ending process of self-improvement. But at least I can say with some confidence that these mistakes are behind me. I hope…


Hear William on the Whole Leader podcast on iTunes or download here.

Bio:  William Treseder is an entrepreneur, teacher, and writer. He trains international entrepreneurs as the head of the Silicon Valley Innovation Academy at Stanford, and the Executive Director of GE’s Garage program in Lagos, Nigeria. William focuses on developing the mindset and behaviors to help people take advantage of our hyperconnected world. LinkedIn | Twitter