Becoming “In Charge”

keyboard with glassesI’ve been a manager for about 5 years now (I know–for some that will seem ridiculously short a time) and it is a journey that always interests and enlivens me. How do I inspire folks to do their best work? How do I best be a receptive person who meets the needs of her team?

When I entered my role, I made a commitment to myself to try to be the kind of manager that I would want to report to. Someone who cared about me, demanded my best, understood my strengths and played to them, and who always–ALWAYS–saw the person doing the work as a person, not as someone I controlled or a mere cog in the wheel of the organization. Most of that has seemed to work. Some of it hasn’t.

Many of my feelings about managing come from my education to become a secondary school teacher. I taught middle- and high school for 7 years, and what I learned in the classroom has been invaluable in my work since. Many days, I still miss it.

<Begin Rant>: Treasure the excellent teachers in your system. They work harder than you will ever know. Yes, they get summers “off,” but the good ones put in so many hours during the year that they really only get 10 days vacation if you count their time in hours. So lighten up. </End Rant>

What I learned about teaching is that it is reflective practice. Reflective practice is just what you might think: you consider what you are doing, you analyze what went well (and what didn’t), and you decide how to alter or tweak what you are doing to improve it.

As a former teacher, I began using reflective practice almost immediately, the minute I was assigned to my role. And to be frank, that assignment was bumpy. I had moved from a role previously that was not a good fit, and, while I was working with a number of people I knew (though not by far the majority) and had considered colleagues prior to this, when I arrived in the unit I was their peer. Two months later I was their interim boss. It happened like this: I was recruited by the director of the unit (I’m pretty sure that, knowing me and knowing he was leaving, I was part of his succession plan, but I don’t know that I’d ever get him to admit that). I arrived, fresh and ready to be a good worker with the team. Two months in? He announced that he was leaving for a job with an international corporation, and that the assistant director would be the interim director until the position was filled. Oh, yeah. And I would be the interim assistant director.

You can imagine the angst on the part of the people I didn’t know in the organization. The majority of folks. “Who the hell is this?” “She’s been here only since January!” and the inevitable “WTF???” Here I am. My first managerial role and people are not at all happy about it. It was like I had entered and completed some ridiculous coup that they had completely missed. Think about it. Someone joins your team in January. She seems nice, but you don’t know her all that well. By March, she’s announced as the interim assistant director and her peers appear to have been passed over. How would you react?

As the person in question, how did I react? What did I do? Well, I decided, in conjunction with the director who was leaving as well as the interim director, that I needed to have frank conversations with each and every person in the unit. And…oh God, I was dreading it.

But I began. I made a list of every person in the unit, and I went from office to office, person to person, sitting with them and listening. I started with, “I understand that my new role has been a shock to a lot of people here, so I wanted to sit with you to hear your concerns.” I heard a lot of things during those conversations. Everything from “You can calm things down by refusing to take the position” (My answer: I fail to see how that would help anything, at this point) to “Wow. You’re pretty brave to come here and ask me that.” (To which I said, “if I can’t do this, then I shouldn’t be in the role.”)

From my perspective, and as stated above, I believed strongly (and still do) that if I couldn’t do those difficult conversations, I sure as hell wasn’t qualified to be an assistant director, interim or otherwise. So I did them. All of them. It took weeks, and it was emotionally and physically exhausting. Never once did I think of quitting, however, because I sensed on some level how important it was for these folks to express their thoughts and feelings on the change.

Today, I look back on those conversations as the first step to becoming a good manager–and leader–in my organization. Not that I’m perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but if I hadn’t made it through those first steps–if I hadn’t faced the criticism head on and listened to people’s concerns, I think the last few years would have been far more rocky.

Today, when I ask my colleagues if they would have had similar concerns today, the response is “Of course not.” Then, I was an unknown quantity. New. An interloper. Of course, maybe they’re lying to me, but if they are, I’ll count on the comments from this post to tell the tale. But I kind of think they’re not. I think that those initial conversations–where we confronted the awkward, where I listened, and where I honestly responded–is where we also set the bar for honest conversations during the last five years. Was it comfortable? Hell no. Not for me and not for them. Was everyone honest about their feelings? I’d be an idiot to think they were, especially at that time. Would I do it again? Hell yes. Those conversations laid the groundwork for hundreds of honest conversations, debates, and strong discussions that have occurred since. We know where we stand with each other, and that has made for a much more honest workplace.