My Difficult, No-Fun First Few Years as a Manager
January 23, 2017
Today, I’m the head of global talent at LinkedIn, running a team of approximately 475 people, creating and implementing recruiting, culture, learning and compensation strategies for 10,000-plus employees around the world. It’s an awesome job and one I’m thankful for every day.
To an outsider, it may appear like I’ve cracked the code on leading teams. That isn’t always the case, but I feel fortunate about where I am. I love to lead and am honored to be a part of such an amazing team.
That said, my journey into management certainly didn’t start in a smooth way.
My first few years as a manager were exciting and a huge learning opportunity. I made mistakes, I didn’t do a good job of communicating with my team or setting a clear vision and, most of all, I didn’t treat my employees the way they deserve to be treated. I focused on the work and not enough on the person.
Every employee deserves an amazing leader, and I can honestly say that my first year or two were not my best years. I did, however, learn from my mistakes.
I bring this up because I see many new managers today going through similar struggles. My hope is, by telling my story, it’ll take the pressure off new managers to be perfect and realize that, to be great at managing people, we need to always be learning and we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.
My start as a manager
When I first became a manager in my early 30s, I was a mother with three very small children. I was also our family’s primary breadwinner, as my husband chose to stay and work at home with our children, which further fueled my focus on my career. I was torn.
Like all mothers, I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my family. Work was very important to me but, naturally, my family came first. With that said, I struggled early with managing my boundaries at work and at home. I didn’t have balance. I felt like I was failing on both fronts.
Besides being a new mom, I’m also an introvert who needs alone time to recharge throughout the day. It was difficult finding that time to recharge at work and at home. Of course, I communicated none of this to my team, assuming I had to play the part of strong leader.
Within that first year of being a manager, problems started to arise.
I had to travel a lot for work, and I missed my children desperately during the long periods away from them. The fatigue of travel, pressure to deliver on my commitments at work and missing my family caused me to be short with employees and co-workers. I wasn’t my “best self.”
In addition, I rarely ate lunch with my employees or co-workers. I wasn’t good at socializing in the morning over coffee, lunch or going out for drinks after work. This again was largely due to being an introvert but also because I wanted to spend time with my family when I did have discretionary time. Fundamentally, I wasn’t fully “present” socially for my team when they reached out, which made it hard for them to connect with me on a human level as their leader.
The consequence of this? Although I managed around 25 employees and worked with over a dozen co-workers on a regular basis, I didn’t “click” with every member of my full extended team. Resentment and concern started to build among some of the members of my team, as well as with my peers. They didn’t truly know me. They got mixed signals. I felt them pulling away, taking longer to respond to emails, giving shorter answers and experiencing less joy in their work.
Soon, it became clear that there was a collection of employees who had pulled away from me. The common denominator with all of them: ME. They worked in different functions, in different offices across the globe. That caused me to ask – what was I doing wrong?
My first step to fixing the problem – hearing the worst
I knew I had to make a change. I met with a leadership coach and gave her a specific task: reach out to the 10 employees who had the biggest issues with me, hear their complaints and report back. A 360 evaluation of sorts aimed at the employees I felt disconnected from the most.
The leadership coach protested. A clearer picture would emerge, she said, by listening to the whole team, including people who didn’t pull away and remained highly engaged. But I pushed back, saying let’s focus on where the problem is, as I need to fix this issue. I know it’s me. I’m the link, I told her, show me my mirror.
Well, she showed me the mirror. And it was hard.
We met at a Mexican restaurant for lunch so she could report her findings. As she talked, I tried to blame my eyes watering on the spiciness of the salsa, but there was no denying it – the lunch left me in tears. Sometimes learning is hard.
The employees said that I isolated myself, that they couldn’t connect with me. They said I was short with them, particularly when I traveled for an extended period of time when they had the least amount of visibility to me. When they felt like they gave their best, I didn’t thank them enough for their work efforts.
On top of that, they didn’t know me. Most notably, they didn’t know I had three young kids or that I was an introvert. We never connected on a human level. At the time I didn’t think they had to know my personal life or my personality style to trust me as a leader; boy, was I wrong.
Clearly, my behavior had to change, and I needed to do a better job of communicating. I also knew they deserved a better leader.
How it helped me become a better manager
After meeting with my leadership coach, I knew I had more work to do to fully grow as a leader. I met with those same 10 employees to thank them for their feedback. I echoed what I heard and listened to their concerns about me and my style.
Most were appreciative that I took the time. Others saw it as an opportunity to critique me further when I was my most vulnerable. I got it - they were hurting. Bottom line, I wanted to hear the truth.
After they talked, I shared who I was. I let them know my fears and struggles. That I can’t do this alone and that I needed them. I remained open and vulnerable. In the absence of me sharing who I was, they made up their own interpretations, instead of building trust.
Then I told them that they deserved more. I told them that if I had shared who I was and what I was struggling with in a more open way as we formed our team, they wouldn’t have struggled as much with my style and hopefully felt more appreciated. I would have paused more often to give positive encouragement and get to know them better. Instead of making them feel great and inspired to grow in their roles, I had let these 10 employees down.
All that caused me to realize something – that managing is a privilege. You don’t have to be a manager to be successful in your career. It is a career choice; a choice that you need to take seriously should you go down that path. As a manager, you have a tremendous amount of impact on your employees’ lives. And I needed to take that privilege more seriously.
I had to drop the notion that letting people in and showing your vulnerability wasn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. I learned to communicate with employees about why I did certain things – for example, not going to happy hours or eating lunch by myself. I shared that I wanted to spend valuable time with my family and recharge during the day. It’s how I get my balance.
That’s not to say you can make excuses for every action you take. But if people understand who you are and your priorities, they’re far more understanding. They are also more likely to give you feedback along your journey to help you become a great leader.
I learned that relationships do matter - at home and at work. It now sounds obvious, but both need to be nurtured. I made it a priority to spend some time socializing with my employees and co-workers while at work. And, most importantly, I started communicating with them more often about my thought processes, and why I made certain decisions.
The result? Better relationships! Relationships that lasted.
Eventually I left that company for another job. And six of the 10 people who had such a terrible experience when I first started as a manager wound up working with me in future companies. That was the best compliment - I had earned their trust and respect.
And that felt good.
Why I’m telling this story
After talking with people and looking at the research, it’s clear I’m not alone. In fact, one study found that becoming a new manager is one of the most stressful things a person goes through, professional or personally.
To all the new managers out there, you shouldn’t try to do it alone. The reality is that you can’t simply will yourself to become a better manager.
So find a mentor. Bounce ideas off other managers. Be vulnerable. Be open. If your company offers management training, take it. It probably won’t fix all your problems, but it’ll help. And it’ll make you a better manager over time.
Your employees will appreciate it. And so will you.