You’re Only Human*

Growing up, my Dad taught me that work was serious business. There was no room for fun. It was his way of teaching me to develop a good work ethic and responsibility. He was my dad and my role model; he had built his own business “from the ground up” and was a success. I worked in his business during High School. I got to see it first hand. This serious work ethic was ingrained in me and, after all, I had observed him being successful with it. I patterned my own approach to work after his. I never questioned that work should be serious with no room for fun. I just accepted it as true. To be fair to him, I also know I was too young to discern all the subtleties of what he was trying to teach me.

At first, that really helped me in my work life. When I got out of college, jobs were scarce. When I landed my first job, that work ethic paid off. That led to a couple of more jobs before I landed in a successful and growing company.

About 5 years in, I was promoted to a manager. I was so excited and thought “I have arrived!”  

I could not have been more wrong. 

Most of my team were my co-workers the day before my promotion; the next day, I was their manager and they were reporting to me. The previous manager had largely been absent except for strategy meetings where we laid out the big picture. I thought at the time the day-to-day stuff was boring for him. In reflection, I think he knew he had good people that would just take care of the day-to-day and details were not his strongest skill set.

So, with no model that was obvious to me, I leaned on what I did know which was how to be a good single contributor. I tried to get the team to do what I had done the way I had done it. That was a big mistake. I thought everyone should come in when I came in, stay until I left, and work the long hours without breaks that I did. Add to that the pressure to “improve our numbers”, and I had a recipe for disaster. 

My team were growing more unhappy every day. They had gone from a “hands off” manager to a “very hands on” no-fun manager, who had no managerial experience.

I was provided no leadership or manager training other than the mandatory legal (can’t say this, can’t do that, so we don’t get sued) training. That was important, but it was not going to help me develop a high-performing team. There was not a mentorship program. Coaching was not available to me. My own manager continued to be “hands off” and perhaps thought I had to learn it on my own. I don’t really know what he was thinking. I wish I had asked.

I knew what I was doing was not working, but I did not know what I was doing wrong, and I could see no help in sight. I was lonely. My former colleagues—now my staff—no longer wanted to lunch with me; they no longer wanted to associate with me. There were no peer managers located near me with whom I could go to lunch. I liked having fun, but I believed there was no place for it at work. 

My team had it hard too. I had really high standards and I was hard to satisfy. I wanted everything done my way because I thought it was the best. After all, I had been the one promoted. I couldn’t see it then, but I can now: I was an insufferable taskmaster.

And when I thought it could not get worse, my manager called me into his office and angrily said I had to move my desk by the end of the day. I was not managing my team any longer. I was given no explanation, no opportunity to improve — just out. I did not know what I would be doing next; it did not seem as though I was fired, but I was not 100% sure.

I was devastated. 

I was embarrassed. 

I was angry. 

I was confused. 

I was sad. 

I was scared. 

I was ashamed.

I felt I had utterly failed.

Thank goodness for my amazing husband. He helped me gain some perspective and supported me when there was none at work.

With more time and distance, I began to wonder: what can I learn from that experience?  What gift or opportunity could I take away?  I wanted the opportunity to manage people again, but I did not want to repeat my previous experience. I wanted to do better next time; I wanted to be better next time. But what did “better” look like?

I started reading leadership material. I started observing other leaders —good, bad, and mediocre. I got a fabulous coach to help me navigate the choppy waters. With reflection, lessons appeared. Reflection did not come easy or right away. It was quite hard at first. I found it hard to revisit such a traumatic experience. I did not think any good would come of it. It was daunting to revisit those experiences; it was heartbreaking to realize that I was the problem. I had only been trying to “do right” by the company that hired me, paid me, and promoted me. With the help of my coach and my husband, I learned the distinction between “re-living” the past and “reflecting on” the past.

As I learned to reflect, there were many lessons I received from this initial managing experience. And even more as I tried, failed, fumbled, and eventually had some success in being a manager. 

It is still hard to share my failure stories. I cringe at how unprepared I was and how much my team suffered because of it. I do it anyway—because, had I read a similar story as I was struggling with my first foray into management, I would have at least known I was not the only person to make these mistakes; I was not the only new manager to feel this way. And if I could have gotten an experienced manager’s insights to give me a jumpstart, I would have been ecstatic.

So, I will share a few of my most important lessons here.

The first and most important lesson I learned was not assuming that I am right or that my way is best. Just because it worked for me does not mean that it will work for others. Everyone is unique with different strengths and experiences. I needed to leverage those differences. A diverse team is more effective than clones of me. Extra tip: I have found this to be very helpful in all aspects of life, not just work. Wisdom is all around us, if we dare look.

The second lesson I learned was to question what I don’t know. It was hard for me to grapple with “you don’t know what you don’t know”, at first. Here is one of the places my husband would shine. He would take what I was complaining about and the “story” I had made up about a situation and give me 5 examples of an alternate “story”. This was the gift of perspective. Eventually, I learned to do that for myself, mostly — I am still a work in progress. And he still helps when I get stuck.

The third lesson I learned was to ask questions, solicit discussion, invite contribution, and help everyone have a voice and shared ownership of solutions and outcomes. No one likes to be told what to do. When I had a hand in designing my own outcomes, I was more invested in those outcomes and both happier and more productive. So I imagined that others would have the same experience. That was a game changer for me.

There were many other lesson seeds planted from this experience. Some had to be learned more than once or from a different experience such as work-life balance and learning to bring my whole self to work — to be authentic. But those are stories for another day.

* ”You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” by Billy Joel