What Nobody Told You About Becoming a Manager/Leader

Of the many millennial clients I coach, at least 80% of them aspire for managerial positions after completing 6 to 7 years of work experience. While it is definitely an exciting and exhilarating experience with opportunities to grow and learn, it is not without its challenging and stressful moments. There would be situations that would frustrate you so much so that you miss your glorious and carefree days of being an individual contributor! Managers by their role definition, represent their team before their management and vice versa. Being the mediator is never easy, and managerial positions are by far the most stressful roles one can take on in a corporate setup.

As a first-time manager, I was aware of what I assumed were my expected roles and responsibilities. The first three years were a revelation. There were so many aspects and challenges that nobody told me about. There were days I used to dread Mondays and then there were days I felt like going back to an individual contributor role!

Here are some truths I have attempted to list down, with a few tips on how to deal with these challenges. Some are based on personal experience while others are based on experiences shared by other managers/leaders during our coaching and other discussions.

Fact #1: You are constantly being judged

Like a laboratory specimen, you are constantly under scrutiny. While there are a few who would encourage you, the sad reality is there are many who would love to see you fail. Being a first-time manager, you are likely to make mistakes. These mistakes would be blown out of proportion or used against you.

The one way you could ensure you have more support from your team and your supervisor is to constantly communicate and share your decisions. Admit your mistakes, however do not feel shy about expressing your accomplishments no matter how small they may appear to you. Provide regular updates and most of all – make sure you are highly visible and build a strong rapport with your team, your peers, and your supervisor.

Fact #2: You cannot take people at face value

Our corporate system still follows the age-old hierarchical process where the manager’s verdict holds more than 70% weightage in the employee’s performance rating. Naturally you will fall prey to office politics. The introverts and the shy ones might fall behind while the louder ones will be more successful in attempting to influence you. Some would flatter you while others would pretend to be on their best behaviour when you are around. Being new, you might want to implement new ideas. You may find many Yes-men (or women) agreeing with you. The flipside is, the others who see you succumb to the manipulation would feel disillusioned and become easily influenced by your detractors.

You will have to find a way to have objective yet personalized one-to-one interactions with everyone reporting to you. You will eventually be able to see an emerging political pattern. While it would be tempting to rely on those who seem to be your ardent supporters, it is important that you also focus on those who appear withdrawn during meetings and discussions. If it isn’t already implemented in your organization, you might want to consult your HR department on whether you could conduct an anonymous feedback survey within your team to help them voice their concerns or observations about you. It is never easy hearing negative things about oneself, but you have to bite the bullet if you want your team fully supporting you.

Fact #3: You have to put up with whiners and naysayers

This is perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of being a leader, at least for me. Most of us, (including myself), personally enjoy having team members who bring up counter-arguments to ideas on the table. Healthy opposition and debates, besides building trust within the team, also help in implementing a plan that has everyone’s consensus. It is the whiners and constant complainers who weigh you down with their negativity. A whiner is someone who always has someone to blame for his or her own mistake. Then there are those who resent a new boss and resist any changes proposed. They may not complain, but behave in a passive-aggressive manner that clearly shows their obvious disapproval. Perhaps what is frustrating about them is not the fact that they object to your ideas or suggestions, but that they seem to take everything personally.

You might want to get to know such people and show your willingness to listen to their ideas. Lending an empathetic ear helps – especially for those who might be affected by the changes you implement. However if you find this person constantly against you at every turn, it might help having a heart-to-heart talk with the individual letting him or her know how you need his or her support. You might want to let the person vent their views and listen with an open mind. At the best you might be able to turn around the situation. At the worst, you may have to assertively let them know you are the boss and that much as you appreciate their skills and contribution, you will not put up with negativity. In any case, it is important to keep track of any insubordination and make sure you communicate any warnings to this employee in writing.

Fact #4: You are the bearer of all bad news

Once a manager, you represent the executive leadership and the organization in every way. Be it a performance appraisal review feedback, the sunset of an old technology, organizational changes, or impending layoffs or salary-cuts, you have to be the one communicating unpalatable news in a diplomatic manner. Of course the most difficult job of all is letting people go if the business situation so demands. It would take immense amount of patience, tact, sensitivity, and most of all, compassion in communicating to the people affected by the decision.

Under no circumstances should you ever communicate bad news via email. Always get everyone together and maintain eye contact when you communicate bad news. After the group meeting, set up individual face-to-face meetings to demonstrate your willingness to listen. Your team will never forget the way you handled crisis situations, and you will win their support based on how well you faced the crisis and stood up to your people.

As for performance appraisals, I personally believe in monthly reviews. This ensures that your team is provided goals and a performance update on a regular basis. Also, you get to know how your team responds to your leadership.

Fact #5: You are lonely

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Lonely is the employee who wears the leadership mantle. Wearing a mask of control and poise at all times can be quite burdensome. You can never get too pally with a team member. Even a harmless lunch with your supervisor or team member could be perceived as political by others. It is even tougher when you get promoted to a managerial position from within the same team. At least in India, it is difficult for people to separate the role from the individual. You can never be too close to people who report into you. You have to maintain a professional balance in your relationship.

It helps tremendously having a leadership mentor or coach on board, who acts as a sounding board for leaders and enables them to confidently deal with challenging situations and behaviours by coaching them on a regular basis. As a manager, you could also form a forum with other similar first-time managers where you could meet together on a monthly basis to discuss and share common areas of concern.

The Importance of Having a Coach on Board

I can never stress enough on the importance of having a mentor or coach who can be the “go to” person for all managers. Having a robust leadership development vision is not enough. It is absolutely critical for growing organizations today to implement a leadership development framework that not only develops and nurtures budding leaders, but also provides them with need-based and timely support to help them learn from the challenges that arise. Today’s leaders also need to be change agents who influence and facilitate major transitions and transformations within the organization by effectively dealing with day-to-day tactical challenges, similar to those listed above. This can be a very tough role to play. Having an experienced leadership mentor and coach on board is no longer a desirable option. It is a vital requirement for today’s organizations if they want to sustain and grow their high potential leadership talent.

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Are You Being Judged?

My friend shared an article on Facebook with me today that set me thinking on this topic. While the article talks about discrimination based on someone’s English speaking prowess in India, it addresses our intrinsic habit of being judgmental in many other areas.

When the Left tries to be Right

The left part of our brain that dominates logic and rational thinking, does so by separating and classifying information, memories, and our experiences. Which is why when we see a white-haired elderly woman, we immediately classify her as “safe” and “harmless”. This is because our left brain has associated her with a dear grandmother or an elderly aunt. On the other hand while walking through a fairly lonely street in the dark we chance upon a heavyset tall man with soiled clothes, we are careful to avoid him. Our left brain has tagged him as “dangerous”, no doubt thanks to the movies or stories that describe unsavoury characters! Our left brain is classifying and tagging facts for us so we could be safe.

Judging is a process of assessing and evaluating to understand whether something is good or bad for us. We are constantly judging when we eat, shop, dress up, work, or take care of others. Judging helps us take better decisions and make the right choices.

Are you “Judging” or “Being Judgmental”?

Several years ago, I used to work with a colleague. He was charming and friendly, and we got along fine at work. His boss was a good friend of mine, and one day my friend confided something about this colleague that changed my behaviour towards him. Apparently he was misusing expensive office resources for personal use. We all have our own little integrity radar, and mine beeped an alert hearing that. The next day when I saw him speak to a co-worker, I found him a tad patronizing. Slowly, I started putting a different spin on everything that he did, and I somehow realized that I disliked him. I stopped communicating with him unless it was absolutely necessary. I was polite of course, but he realized something was off. Eventually, he left the company and I forgot all about him.

When I evaluated his action of misusing office resources as improper, I was judging him. However when I changed my behaviour towards him, I was being judgmental. It is true that his unethical behaviour was incorrect. However he had many other good qualities that I somehow overlooked, and had this warped perspective where he was concerned.

Today when I reflect about my past, I have been pretty judgmental towards several people in my life. It was not that I only judged their behaviour. I passed judgment on them as people, and concluded and justified my behaviour with them.

The blindside of being judgmental

What happens when we obscure our own view? We don’t get the complete picture. That is exactly what happens when we are judgemental in our behaviour. Thanks to my sanctimonious judgemental high horse, I lost some good employees and friends. I was annoyed with an employee for always being late for meetings and decided that she wasn’t good enough to be a team lead although she was good in her job and had great interpersonal skills. I’m ashamed to admit I thought less of a friend because his English vocabulary was less than average. I refused to regard his enthusiasm and never-say-die attitude. I didn’t think too highly of one of my neighbours when I saw her waking up more than an hour later than her kids and making them wait for their breakfast. However this neighbour in question was a very warm-hearted and kind person.

Being judgemental blinded me in more ways than one.

  • It made me lose my objectivity and prevented me from having a holistic perspective of people and situations.
  • It lowered my emotional intelligence and my capability to respond positively.
  • I presumed I knew it all and knew it better.
  • I categorized people, generalized them, and in effect discriminated against them.

Perhaps the most insidious but lethal aspect of judgemental behaviour is the build-up of resentment and a completely distorted and negative persona we create of the other person. Ironically, the one who was negative and distorted was me!

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall!

When did I realize the source of distortion? Coaching was the mirror that showed me how warped my view was. In 2013, I decided to become a Life Coach as I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. At that point in my life I was recovering from an onslaught of negative emotions, poor health, and a depleted self-worth. The methodology I learnt was Power Coaching with Mind Kinetics (PCMK™) by CLI.

As the training progressed, I got an opportunity to practise the techniques on myself and others. I also got a chance to be coached. Being coached was huge tidal wave of self-discovery for me. As PCMK™ coaching is all about answering left-brained and right-brained questions pertaining to the goal or challenge in question, I realized that the root of over 90% of my problems was – you guessed it right – being judgmental!

During my training, I learnt about universal truths in the form of Universal Laws. There was one law that hit the nail on the head.

The Mirror Law (Like Begets Like): What you see in others, is a reflection of what you see in yourself. “When we point fingers, we have three others pointing back at us.”

I realized that just as I was being judgmental towards others, I was being judgmental with myself too. And if I could be judgmental, so could others be towards me!

As we pass judgment on others, at a subconscious level we start being judgmental with ourselves. Over a period the cross gets too heavy to bear and we are left with a highly eroded sense of confidence and self-worth.

Discernment clears the fog

Judgment and Discernment are two sides of the same coin. Discernment is what we practice when we make a wise decision by honestly weighing all possible facts.

How do we practise discernment? Ever since the time I have had success in improving my life over the past couple of years, I have been consciously working towards practising better discernment.

  • Separate the individual from the behaviour. Don’t personify a negative trait. That way we focus ourselves to consciously respect the individual, at the same time deal with the negative trait in the best possible way.
  • If you are a coach, it helps to coach yourself in the form of self-coaching. If you aren’t a coach, you could consult one. Since coaching by design is all about answering questions constructively and objectively, your coach would be able to help you look at the entire issue in a way that helps you find a solution.
  • Maintain a journal where you make daily notes of any unconstructive behaviour on your part. If you find yourself being judgmental about someone, or yourself, write down “How” you would be able to release that judgment constructively.
  • We are all part of a bigger scheme of things whether we like it or not. I believe we have answers within ourselves if we only look for it. For me, deep reflection or meditation in a quiet place has helped me become more compassionate and empathetic with people.

Release judgement, Unleash positivity

Judgmental behaviour lies at the root of so many problems we face today right from gender and ethnic imbalance, racial discrimination, toxic politics, breeding discontentment and employee disengagement, to stress. The “Us versus Them” mentality that is counterproductive and debilitating us today, is primarily because we pass judgement on people instead of respecting differences. Negative thoughts and negative behaviour create a build-up of toxic stress that further leads to ailments for which the causes seem unknown.

Releasing judgement is not only rejuvenating, it is also critical to our sense of wellbeing. There is nothing to stop us from sprinting lightfootedly towards our goals if we could just let go of this dead weight that is judgement.

Are we hiring people or headcount?

hiring

As managers and leaders, one of our most crucial decisions is selecting the right people in our teams. There are decisions to be taken at every stage from initial screening to the final interview stage. Unfortunately, hiring is perceived as a number filling game where we don’t look at candidates as people but as profiles or headcount.

What’s wrong with “headcount”?

Like the words “resources” and “headcount” that have replaced the more humane term “employees” in the corporate workplace, candidates are now called “profiles”. A profile essentially indicates a snapshot of the candidate’s skills, experience, and attributes that help us ascertain a candidate’s suitability, just like resources indicate people with the necessary skills for executing a project.

There’s no problem referring to people as “profiles” or “resources”, so long as they are used in the right context. For instance, when we discuss the suitability of a candidate to an opening while discussing the hiring process, using the word “profile” is appropriate as we are describing the individual. Headcount is fine so long as we are talking about the number of people we need.

However, we tend to forget that we need an individual or a group of people with values and skills that align with the organization’s work culture and business goals. It’s more than just filling a spot, and that’s where the term “headcount” is very limiting.

A whole-brained decision

On the face of it, hiring seems to be a left-brained activity. However when we actually delve deeper, it needs to be a whole-brained activity. Filling a number needs little or no decision skills. Checking whether or not a candidate fits into the required skill set can even be automated. However, deciding whether or not a candidate works for the need and determining whether he is going to add value, involves right-brained thinking.

Hire in haste, repent at leisure

One of the root causes of employee disengagement is lack of long-term alignment of the employee’s skills with the company’s business goals and strategy. Note that we’re talking about goals and not targets. The tendency is to hire people for a project or an immediate business need, rather than selecting them for a long-term purpose. Hire in haste, repent at leisure. Okay so I have twisted an old proverb, but that is so true today! Headcount, profiles, resources – all these are terms that make sense only in a temporary context.

Idle brain YouTube’s workshop!

We hire engineers and MBA graduates for jobs that don’t really demand more than 10% of their prolific degrees. For instance, I know of companies that hire MBA graduates for market research that actually involves collecting information using Google search. I have also heard of software companies that recruit fresh engineering graduates who expect to get their hands into coding but generally end up monitoring reports or testing small functions. As these tasks aren’t challenging enough to keep the employees on their toes, we find them with plenty of idle time. No wonder there is heavy traffic on YouTube, Amazon, Facebook, and their likes! In the haste to complete hiring, managers also end up hiring “white elephants” who no longer serve any future purpose or requirement within the organization. Yes, we are talking about folks who are “on the bench” long after the project is complete.

Negativity and conflicts

Finding the right talent is never easy. It requires painstaking effort and a huge process of elimination at the time of short-listing. Unfortunately, the compulsion to “close the position” leads to short-listing of candidates by only considering their job skills. Consequently, the hiring manager ends up with “problem employees” who have an “attitude problem” or become “bad apples” in the team. Having such individuals puts unnecessary stress on the manager as they become overheads rather than assets.

Immediate gains, long-term loss

To understand the heavy cost of recruitment and its impact, here’s an interesting article on a survey conducted by Careerbuilder in2013. India alone had 84% companies reporting adverse impact due to bad hiring decisions. The loss isn’t the bottom-line alone. Loss of employee morale, loss of time in training and induction, reduced business opportunities, dwindling sales, and reduced repurchase from existing clients – all these are a result of poor hiring.

A dearth of talented successors

The tendency to be hasty in hiring also leads to lack of succession planning. A majority of players with talent and potential leave when they realize the company does not have a long term growth strategy. That leaves us with people who may or may not fit the bill as future leaders. And so begins yet another unconstructive cycle – bad managers leading to unhappy employees and dissatisfied customers, and so on.

Hiring ‘em right the first time!

So how do we zero on the right people and not just add to the headcount? Over the course of my career, I have had my share of hiring blunders that have helped me improve my ability to identify and select the right people.

Versatility versus virtuosity

What kind of team do you have? Is it a startup team that has been newly formed, or a team that is already well-established with a more or less well-defined roles and responsibilities? A startup team needs versatile players who can work with ambiguity and have the ability to lay down foundations for future teams. More than qualification, you need strong entrepreneurial skills and out-of-the-box thinking. People with experience in working for startup or small scale companies would usually best fit this requirement as they have the ability to deal with the unexpected. Mavericks would do a great job here. However, people with this profile are restless and would need to be provided challenging roles once the team eventually settles down to becoming an established center.

If you have an established team, then you probably need people with the required skills and experience for the job. You also need them to follow instructions and be diligent. Knowing that your team may not expand significantly in the coming years helps you pick up dedicated individuals who feed on job security and are happy being team players.

Global skills

If you are hiring for a global team with a matrix reporting structure, then communication and collaboration skills are a must. I would any day opt for a strong and persuasive communicator over a highly skilled individual, provided the job does not demand high-end skills.

Visualization helps!

A job opening is always your need for a problem solver. Look at the job description and try to imagine a person with these qualities. Does it seem like your chosen candidate would be able to solve your problem? Visualize your team working in the office. Can you picture your chosen candidate as one of them? If you cannot, chances are that the person will not fit into the team.

Trust your gut

Intuition is one of the most needed abilities for a hiring manager. Here you have a dream candidate. She has the right skills and the right experience. Except that you are unable to decide. Whether or not you believe, your intuition is trying to tell you something. One of my managers taught me, “When in doubt, reject!” This has always helped me. There are times when I have doubted my gut-feel and felt tempted to close the position. Nine times out of ten, I have hired the wrong people when I did that. Don’t worry about the ageing days or the follow-ups from your recruitment team. Wait for the right person to come along, and no matter what, listen to your intuition!