how not to be a terrible manager (part 1)

There was a moment, years ago, when I had begun to unravel. You’d find me storming around the office, disheveled, multiple gadgets in tow, prattling on about how a specific client was going to be my ruin. If I could take a pen and write along my body, it would be one word, repeated, and that word would be stress. My team watched as I roamed the office, listened to my voice as it climbed several octaves, and read my emails written at dawn. My stress was palpable. It was as if my emotional state was a piece of clothing I had not only wanted to shed, but was willing to drape across rows of computers and young women who bore the brunt of my frustration.

At one point, my mentor forced me to take a vacation and even changed my email password so I could take a step back and realize how I was my own ruin. That was the year I went to Bali. When I returned, I realized that the way you manage yourself directly impacts how others perceive you. That was the year when I finally understood that being a good manager, a good leader, is about being a parent: you never show fear and you always have a solution. I also learned that while I should be serious about my work I shouldn’t take myself, and the work, too seriously. I mean, I was advising makeup brands how to sell more makeup in the social space. It wasn’t as if I were changing and saving lives. No one would actually die if I responded to an email after I’d consumed a meal.

It’s okay to breathe it out. Seriously, let’s all breathe it out.

The last decade of my career I’ve been a manager who turned into a leader. I was someone who went from managing interns to growing and leading cross-functional teams. I’ve read dozens of articles on management and leadership (this HBR piece is a particular favorite, one of which I share often), have taken classes and worked with a personal coach, and I’m excited to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned over the years. Because I’ve made ALL the mistakes; I’ve fallen on my face, have endured some tough 360 feedback and emerged from it a better, compassionate, and capable leader.

1. Realize that delegation or micromanagement doesn’t mean management: Management is about motivation, about letting your team shine as you stand behind, basking in the glow. It’s about how you can leave a room, take a vacation, or space out and your team can thrive in your absence because you’ve empowered them, guided them at all the critical points, and provided them all the tools they need in order to be the best in their role. Management isn’t really about you, it’s about your team. I’ve often said that I can do any task you put in front of me, but managing, well, it’s HARD. Even after all this time it continues to challenge me because management is about people and everyone comes with a certain skillset, quirks, emotional and professional baggage, and one has to consider how to manage them individually AND in the context of a team. For me, managing teams reminds me of an orchestra. Collectively, we make beautiful music but it’s a result of everyone playing their heart out in their individual parts. A great manager manages individually and leads collectively.

Management is not about controlling every task, every part of the process, checking out or delegation. Doling out projects isn’t management, rather it’s you just ticking off a box. Controlling everyone says more about you than your team. Notice how micromanagers never really grow professionally because when do they have time to learn how to do their boss’s job when they’re too busy doing the work of their direct reports? I want my direct report to be hungry, to want my job. I hire people who are starved because the more we consume, the more we listen, the more we sit still in ourselves–the more we’ll grow. So consider yourself your team’s guide. Share what you know, be open to reciprocal mentorship, give your team the tools they individually need to grow in their roles (from both an acumen and professional growth perspective), and then shepherd them with feedback along the way. And more importantly, let them shine when it’s their time.

2. Let them fumble and fall forward: I used to work with someone who was a controlling, abrasive perfectionist. She was a micromanager who would bark at her team if they faltered, and god forbid they fumble–they had to endure her wrath and public rages. Her team walked on perpetual tiptoe, and quite frankly, didn’t grow. We all learn by fumbling our way through a first-time of doing something and realizing that it wasn’t as terrible as we thought it would be. We learn by falling forward, and seeing a challenge to its completion and feeling powerful that we made it out of the wreckage to the other side. Your staff will get stronger because of their fumble and your feedback.

This comes to the fore during presentations. If presenting is new to a team member, I’ll start with internal presentations so the team member gets practice. We’ll start with something simple–a new technology, an article that piqued their interest. They have time to prepare a presentation that will be shared in a “safe” environment (i.e. a staff meeting). Once they have a few internal hours under their proverbial belt, I’ll coach them through a client presentation (with slide creation, notes, mock presentations) and they know that I’m there if they miss a beat.

However, I’ll never immediately jump in to save. I’ll save when they’re in quicksand. I’ll save when I don’t see bubbles lining the surface. Trust me, the hardest thing for a manager is watching a team member fumbling when you know you can take over and correct, but DON’T DO IT. Let them find their way in their own way. Give them a few beats before you jump in. And then give them feedback when the meeting is hot. Start with all the amazing work they did, how brave they were, and then talk about how they can make the next presentation rock out that much harder next time. Position feedback not as what your team member did wrong, but how they can shine brighter.

But let them fall. Let them bruise. All cuts and scrapes will heal in time.

3. Your way may not be their way, and that’s okay: Fact: your way is not the only way, and it may not be the best way. Ego has a tricky way of clouding vision and just because you have more years under your belt doesn’t mean you’re always right and doesn’t entitle you to minions. This isn’t Gossip Girl, this is real life. Show your team your approach and the rationale for your approach but let them bastardize it. Let them question it, pick it apart and put it together again.

Allow them to interpret what you do. Encourage them to talk to managers in different departments to understand varying approaches, because how would you find innovation or play better music when everyone plays the same way all the time? Establish intellectual freedom amidst boundaries. Give your team guardrails, a roadmap and allow them to navigate their way from A to B, and then give them feedback on how they’ve adopted an approach, and then challenge them in their approach.

The idea here is that everyone learns differently. Some team members are visual learners, while others are more analytical and need facts, figures, charts and details. Some are inspired by The Bright Shiny Object while others are drawn to richer, potent storytelling. Being an effective manager is uncovering what makes your employee excited, what motivates them and how they prefer to produce. How are they motivated? How do they learn? Do they need time alone to create or do they thrive in a team? In my follow-up post, I’ll talk a bit about profiling, and while this term bears the weight of the pejorative, this is more about tailoring your style in order to get people motivated and working. Personally? I like lean presentations with few words and bold images because I’m drawn more to the power and eloquence of the presenter rather than a pile of slides. However, if someone on your team needs charts, needs words–there’s a way you can create an effective presentation by balancing styles. Because your path to B may not be the same as your employee’s, but who cares? They got to B. Your role is about getting every team member to B in their own style, on their own terms, in their own way. Your role is their guide and giver of tools, experience and knowledge.

5. Don’t scream at people. Never, ever. Don’t throw objects at people. Don’t get violent unless you’re acting in self-defense or someone kicks your cat (very valid reason to drop-kick a direct report, and I dare anyone in HR to disagree. KIDDING) because there’s never a need for rage. There’s never a need to haul your three-piece luggage set of issues into the workplace. There’s a place for that–it’s called therapy. While I’ll talk about this a bit in next week’s installment on professional modeling, it should go without saying that you treat people in the manner in which you want to be treated. You extend as much grace and kindness as you can muster even amidst the disgraceful. We’re not in the age of Sun Tzu–the office is not the place for mortal combat and warfare.

In the next installment, I’ll share some thoughts on:
6. Setting an example. Your team models behavior off of you, so act right.
7. Knowing that managing up is just as critical as managing down. Sometimes you’re not acting right and you need to let your team know that, publicly. Be open to feedback and change.
8. Toeing the line. Be compassionate. Mentor, but don’t be a best friend or get wasted with your direct report.
9. Managing conflict. How not to punch yourself in the face, or punch your team members.
10. Profile right. How to make sure you understand how people work so you can manage them effectively.

And…some of my favorite articles on management:
Managing two people who hate each other (been there, done that)
Managing your energy to manage your time
Managing boomerang talent strategically and with grace
How to motivate a team on a sinking ship with purpose (really loved the honesty in this)
Employee retention is not about pizza parties and lunches (eh-hem, all agencies take note)
Smart piece on managing millennials (I’m in GenX and have had the privilege of working with some smart young people. Be open to reciprocal mentorship as a means of staying fresh and being a better human)
Mentoring or Managing: Does it have to be one or the other?
Effectively managing conflict is one of the hardest tasks a manager faces

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

10 thoughts on “how not to be a terrible manager (part 1)

  1. Felicia such amazing timing! I recently transitioned at work and am taking on a training role- so, not management but I’m definitely going to have to work with a variety of learning styles and set an example. I’m scooping up all the advice I can get and your virtual mentoring is playing a big part. I can’t wait for round 2!


  2. Love these ideas! You are a wonderful writer; everything you write has been so true about my most fabulous manager!


  3. That was great, an honest insight into leadership. Having managed teams over a number of years, some who ended up becoming great friends, and others who hated me- one thing I learnt was that it’s more important to be professional and honest to people than to set out to be liked. If you set a good enough example and support your team when they need you, then that will bring the respect and camaraderie as a result..


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