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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The Leader’s New Clothes

(Posted on LinkedIn on Nov 8, 2014)

As a child, I thrived on an endless supply of fables, legends, and stories. Many of them have stood the test of time, and are amazingly profound in their relevance to human behaviour even today. One such short story is Hans Christian Andersen’sThe Emperor’s New Clothes. If you haven’t read it already, I would recommend that you do! It’s a brilliant story about an emperor and his people who are worried about keeping pretences at all costs, even at the cost of denying the obvious that even a child could see through. (Pun unintended!)

As I read this story once again today, I realize we all behave like the emperor and his minister, or his subjects. We look for outward traits and behaviors in leaders and when we don’t find those traits or behaviors, we assume that we are unfit and that something is wrong in ourselves. Overt negative behavior like shouting or abusing is obvious to everyone. But how do you recognize the signs of implicit negative leadership?

We assume that an individual’s title, designation, qualification, or outward appearance or mannerisms indicate his character. We live in a visual world where food is delicious because of the way it is presented, or a woman is beautiful because of the way she looks. Like the emperor and his subjects, when we see something in that individual that does not resonate with leadership behavior, we ignore our inner voice and believe our perception to be incorrect.

How do we become like the child in that story who can clearly see the truth? Like the proof of the pudding is in its taste, here are a few examples of unsavoury behaviours that makes the child in us see the truth.

Expressing helplessness

Leaders are humans, and all of us do feel helpless or powerless during certain situations. But throwing up our hands in despair and shrugging hopelessly when our teams look up to us for a solution, is an extremely disappointing behaviour. There is always something that can be done to improve the situation. The very least a leader could do, is show some signs of optimism and demonstrate willingness to listen and resolve the situation.

Badmouthing

As leaders we represent the company to our teams. We all definitely have our moments of frustration with upper management, but it’s pretty uncool when a leader constantly keeps complaining about “the deplorable state of affairs” before his or her team. Similarly, maligning or ridiculing clients or other employees especially behind their backs, is another sign of a chink in the armour. It is always preferable discussing issues objectively with a view to find a solution.

Making inappropriate or unethical requests

Over and above requests that can trigger a sexual harassment complaint, there are other inappropriate requests from a leader that can ring loud warning bells. One of my friends during a coaching session talked about how a high level leader in the company asked for his personal bills to be entered as official bills in the system. My friend who worked in the Accounting department politely declined the request. The leader joked about it, but my friend was afraid about being fired. Of course that didn’t happen, but I did feel sad because the leader in question was very highly respected and admired in the company.

Self-centered or opportunistic behaviour

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

I think this describes perfectly what I’m talking about! There are managers who don’t even respond to emails unless you copy someone from the higher rank. Speaks volumes about their character, doesn’t it?

Conflicting messaging

The leadership talks about non-tolerance towards certain behaviour but does not take action when their employees complain. The company boasts of an open culture, but the HR team never proactively reaches out to frontline teams to get their feedback and check whether everything is okay. And so on.

Insensitive processes

We expect leaders to be humane and capable of cutting through the red tape where it comes to employee policies. Layoffs are an unfortunate reality in today’s corporate scenario, but there is always a way of doing it that makes an employee walk out with his or her dignity intact. Your company may have a prolific leader at the helm, but if the exit process is not handled sensitively with empathy, then there are others watching and judging the leadership! These are the employees that the company still needs after all.

Poor response during calamity

I have already discussed this in a previous article “Leadership during Adversity”. Like they say, when the going gets tough, the tough hide!

“But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Like the child in the story, we must be able to see things the way they are. There are plenty of clear signs of a mediocre or poor leader if we only look and trust our own discernment. However, rather than passing judgment or worse, getting disillusioned, spotting these behaviors makes us conscious about what we shouldn’t do. There is a moral in every story after all.

#leadership #behaviour #behavior #exit #selfish #opportunistic #leader #topmanagement #integrity #ethics #mediocre

Employee Engagement – The ties that bind

A lot has been written about employee engagement. There are blogs galore and articles abounding the Internet about this topic. Over the recent years, employee engagement surveys have become critical tools for determining how happy and connected employees feel with the company. Some of these survey rankings are also mechanisms for companies to build their brand amongst their stakeholders.

As I see it, employee engagement is a formal term for the connection or attachment that an employee has for his company that makes him want to not only continue working for the company, but also visualize himself in the company’s future. Note that the key word here is “want”. Employees do stick on for long periods but that does not mean that they are necessarily engaged or that they are willing to commit themselves to the job or the company. Having worked for 20 years spanning five companies, I can say this for sure: So long as I can see myself as part of the company’s near future up to 3 years, AND feel optimistic about it, I’m an engaged employee.

The hooks of engagement

So what makes one feel a sense of attachment towards the company’s present and future? There are actually five “hooks” that attach us to the company. Most of us need more than one hook to keep us attached! employee-engagement

Brand and Image

This hook is true for well-established large companies or companies that have recently created a buzz with their innovative ideas. Some employees feel a sense of pride when talking to the world outside about their company. It’s the pride of being associated to the brand and the image projected by the company.

Job and Role

Individuals who have mapped out a career development plan for themselves usually get hooked with the right kind of job description and role. They feel excited about the learning opportunities in store and look forward to gaining some skills.

Team and Synergy

People who love working with other people usually look for a work environment where they can make friends. This is also true about the kind of leadership they experience. A good boss and supportive colleagues are the top two items on their list. Give them both and they stay hooked.

Culture and Values

People-oriented employees who seek to grow into leadership positions highly favor companies with a positive employee-friendly culture. It is a well-known fact that companies with a great work culture have great leadership. These employees look for harmony and role models within the company, and like working for people they could look up to, or someone like who they could aspire to become. Companies with a strong work culture and values are also those that promote a culture of recognizing and appreciating committed employees over and above high performers.

Outlook and Growth

Growth could be in terms of compensation, vertical or lateral promotions, or diverse roles that help build the employee’s repertoire. Ambitious individuals usually scan the horizon for possibilities of growth. Even more important would be the forward-thinking practices that the company follows or new technologies that the company adopts that would provide the employee that continued growth.

Employee engagement cannot be faked

Perhaps the most underlying hook that truly builds trust and loyalty within their employees is the power of intent. Employees can see through quick-fix policies or stop-gap arrangements. Whether it is building the culture or defining the strategy or instilling values, a company would need to invest a good two to three years to really bring about a change that is deep-rooted and all-pervasive. A closer look at the five hooks reveals that it takes different kinds of leadership at different levels and of different competencies to create those hooks. It cannot be innovation alone or culture alone that can engage employees. Employee engagement is a commitment by the company that is sensed by their employees, who in turn demonstrate their commitment by not only continuing to perform, but also act as ambassadors for the organization.

Job satisfaction – is it possible?

bored

As I go through the host of articles available online on leadership, management, motivation, and happiness, I’m struck by the following facts about the corporate workplace today:

  • People are discontent
  • People are disinterested in their jobs
  • People feel “stuck” in the present
  • People want to feel motivated
  • People want something exciting to happen

The lure of the bubble

It happens to most of us. We graduate and want to be selected by prime organizations hoping that would be our big ticket to the great career. “And what is that great career?” No one has a clear answer. “Good pay”, “great work culture”, “growth opportunities”, “good position”, and so on goes the list. We are all those eager hopefuls that walk out of a college campus into another one that is centrally air-conditioned feeling all important and charged. The fact that we are similar to a hundred other people does not faze us. In fact we feel proud on being part of such a big company. On the surface we feel we are poised to do something exciting, whereas in reality, we know we are in that safe “job security” zone. This false sense of excitement is what lures us to the big companies.

When the bubble bursts

We are swept along with the flow in our secure life-jackets in the happy boat for the first three to five years where we learn new skills or accomplish our daily assignments without realizing that something has changed. All of a sudden, we see a few of our co-workers on a different, shinier and bigger boat, and reality strikes. These co-workers decide to do something daring like jumping into the sea and swimming to a different boat. We are left adrift in the sea of routine and think, “Oh no! I would like to be on THAT boat!”

Eventually, after the initial excitement of the new job or new role fades, routine sets in. The same safety blanket now becomes a stifling chain that has us trapped. Boredom sets in, followed by discontentment and finally, disengagement.

In our initial years, we are part of a larger group. As the organization expands, new opportunities arise and before we know it, some of our select co-workers get chosen for higher positions as team leads or managers. Some of them leave the company for better roles in other companies.

Is it possible to stay excited?

Job satisfaction is that profound yet clichéd phrase, similar to happiness. Like happiness, job satisfaction is not constant, but rather a state of mind. Is it possible to stay happy all the time? Can we ever get a role that gives us job satisfaction all throughout? Is it possible to sustain excitement? It isn’t easy and needs work, but it is possible. Here are some of the ways we could manage our expectations and understanding of what makes us happy in our jobs.

Ask yourself: What do I want?

Growing and changing is an inevitable part of our lives. The things that made us happy even a couple of years ago, may not cut it today. As circumstances change, our requirements change, and so do our wants and needs. However we need to be careful about not wanting something because someone else has it. Remember that adage about the grass being greener on the other side? You need to put yourself, your uniqueness, and your strengths into the equation.

It helps asking yourself the following questions every year:

  • What is great about my current situation?
  • What isn’t great about my current situation?
  • How do I want to see myself this year?
  • What could I do to get there?
  • What are my fears? What happens if I fail? What happens if I succeed?

These questions have helped me gain perspective on my current position and where I wanted to go at crucial junctures of my career.

Take charge

It doesn’t help getting on a career boat just to enjoy the ride. You need to keep looking at the horizon to check whether the boat is taking you to your destination. Rather than wait passively for things to happen, you need to proactively steer your career the way you want it to go. Talk to people who have done it, read articles, participate in discussions, take a few courses if required, whatever, but do something. If that doesn’t help, you may want to throw the life-jacket and jump into the sea. There is no point complaining about the boat and the life-jacket! Your needs have changed, and you need to take action and take charge of your life.

I reached my first growth plateau after I completed five years in my job. I felt unhappy and stuck in my current role. At that time I felt that I stood a better chance of reaching my sweet spot if I opted for lateral growth opportunities. I took on a role that no one had taken before. It was considered a risk at that time, but I never regretted it. While I may not have reached an executive level in these twenty years of my career, I was fortunate I got opportunities to take on new roles, new responsibilities, and getting to learn something new.

It’s your choice

Here’s a popular quote that is one of my favourites. “The 3 C’s of Life: Choices, Chances, Changes. You must make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.” Here’s a fourth C – Courage. It takes courage to make a choice. Throwing off a life-jacket and diving into unknown waters is not going to be easy. If you find that intimidating, here’s another quote by Karen Salmansohn – “What if I told you that ten years from now, your life would be exactly the same? I doubt you would be happy. So, why are you so afraid of change?”

It is possible you might find that the risks of change outweigh the excitement, and decide to stay back in your safe boat. Don’t be too judgemental about yourself. Remember, staying back is also a choice. Once you decide to stay back, accept your choice and look at things you could do to sustain your enthusiasm.

I had to quit from a prime and prolific position in a growing start-up as I faced a dilemma in my personal life. I had to look after my children who I felt, needed me. Being a full-time home-maker was a new experience, but I’m glad I took those three years off to do the usual mom things like baking, playing with my children, and helping them with their homework. Today I have a great equation with my daughters. I believe they consider me their friend and confidante and a great sounding board. While I may have lost some ground in my career, I got a chance to invest precious time with my children during their growing years.

Create magic in the mundane

At times circumstances are such that you may not want to take risks. A baby, elderly parents, tight finances, or unplanned expenses could hold you back in your current job. Is it possible to work some magic in your mundane life? There are ways in which you could make your job more meaningful. Here are some ideas that always work for me.

Innovate

Look at your job and your responsibilities with a critical eye and ask yourself, how could I make this work more creative? Can I write a mobile app? Can I deliver the project with extra features? How can I reduce the time to deliver without impacting quality? Why don’t I initiate a series of training workshops? Once you get started, you will be surprised at the ideas that flow.

Give

The law of Karma states that you get what you give. What goes around comes around. Start contributing to your circle. You could volunteer to train new employees, conduct knowledge sharing sessions, or coordinate events. You could also pitch in for community service or volunteering activities conducted by your organization. Try doing something for someone without expecting anything in return. Well, you get more than just something in return – a sense of purpose and inner joy.

Lift

Lift your spirits and others’ around you. Energy, whether positive or negative, is contagious. It is easier sliding back to negativity about your boss or your job, but takes effort to lift yourself above the negative pattern you’re languishing in. If you have decided you are going to have to continue in your current job, then look at your situation positively. Ask yourself – what am I benefitting by continuing here? If you can’t see any benefits, don’t kid yourself. Get off the boat, but don’t weigh others down with your negativity. Lifting your spirits isn’t difficult just a physical effort. The effort is psychological, spiritual, and mental as well. Indulge in humour, or some recreational activity like games or exercise. Spiritual activities like meditation, yoga, prayer, or soul music can work wonders on your sense of balance.

Rediscover yourself

When was the last time you used your talent? It could be cooking, photography, dancing, music, drama, or painting. If it has been ages since you last picked up the brush, try. The first stroke is possibly the toughest, but once you get past it, the sense of liberation is pretty exhilarating to say the least. I was a singer during my college days, and somehow over the years, I lost the habit. I have attempted to practice singing again; although I may not sound very great, I feel wonderful. It’s all about fulfilling the gaps in other aspects of your life. We dedicate a huge chunk of our lives to our careers and families forgetting that we need to nurture other aspects of our selves too.