My first management job was a disaster.
I was one of four analysts working on a client account. My boss was getting annoyed dealing with all of us and our silly just-out-of-grad-school questions. He didn’t like editing our client memos because he had more important things to do.
He liked me and thought my work was solid. I had been there longer than the others and had more personal experience handling clients. So he did the worst possible thing to me he could: he put me in charge of the others, gave me responsibility for everyone’s work with no authority over them at all. I was excited that I finally had minions, but I fell victim to the Peter Principle right away, promoted for my technical skills with no grounding in how to handle my minions as people.
Our small office became a shark tank overnight. I was the bait.
Did I mention we were all women? They all had sisters. I only had a little brother. This left me completely unprepared for the mean girl backstabbing I experienced over the next 6 months before I got out of there.
I swore off management after that job, getting another analyst and advocacy role where the only things I had to manage were my policy portfolio and client relationships.
Success brought me more management opportunities as my career progressed. For a while I continued to believe that I hated managing people. Except that I didn’t. I actually like people, and slowly but surely I began to understand that I could have a broader impact on the business if I took the time to work with the people who worked with and for me to help them accomplish their jobs. I never had any management mentors, though, and I think as a result it took me much longer to learn the lessons of good management than it should have.
Looking back, here are the 3 things I WISH my boss had helped prepare me for in my first management job as a mentor instead of tossing me to the sharks.
- As a manager, I had special access to the boss and I should have used it more skillfully. Sure, my minions went around me as often as they could, but I had more access and more credibility than they did–at least at first. I should have used it to put myself on the boss’ level, accepting the responsibility I’d been given more fully. I should have invited him to strategize with me as a colleague. With this positioning, I could have better insulated him from their complaining about me. Instead, I was just another voice complaining to him and he felt he had to listen to all of us equally. Within weeks I’d lost my minion manager status in his eyes.
- I should have had more confidence in my technical skills and used it to deal with the people problems. I was reasonably confident in my analysis skills and knowledge, but not enough to use it wisely. I didn’t do a good job bridging that into helping them succeed and feel successful. Instead I used it to show them where they were “wrong” and needed to “improve.” This meant that I made them feel stupid, which only made me look more like chum in the water from their perspective. What I should have done was help them see the good work they were doing, and learn to do more of it, because…
- I didn’t understand that people aren’t minions. As a manager my job was to mitigate the organization’s risk by ensuring my minions did good work, but I forgot that they weren’t minions who could be ordered around. My father had been in the military where orders were followed so to the extent I’d had a management role model, it was sorely lacking in understanding personal motivation and basic human psychology. I should have spent more time understanding them as humans and identifying what they were doing right. I would have gotten farther by recognizing them for their good work and enrolling them in wanting to do more of that. Focusing on their strengths might have helped them be open to working on improvement.
Now to be fair to me, my boss was a terrible manager. He prided himself on being a great mentor, and on the technical aspects of our work, he did a reasonable job. He was also a decent mentor in helping me understand the interpersonal dynamics of relating to our clients and the larger stakeholder community we were working in. But when it came to managing me, and the people working for me, he was a disaster.
What I really needed back then was a coach to help me understand the people dynamics that my own boss was blind to. Back then (fax machines were new!) no one had heard of coaching so I guess it’s no surprise I didn’t think to ask for a coach, but I sure suffered from the lack of one.
Is it any wonder I’ve become a coach?
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