Lean In: Becoming a Better Leader by Leading

One of my colleagues I greatly respect shared a valuable piece of advice with me earlier this month: you don’t get to become a manager by asking to be a manager. You get to become a manager when you show you can manage. Just do it.

This colleague is exactly my age, at my supposed ranking of seniority in the company (title-wise) and yet he has two direct reports. I, on the other hand, have none. And, as I told him, if for some reason we both had to leave our current positions today, he’d be set up for a VP-level role at another company (or at least one at the same level) whereas I’d have difficulty securing a position at my level due to not having direct management experience.

But that’s not the real reason I want to manage. I’m at a time in my life and career where I have ideas on how to move the needle that are bigger than what one person can do. I also want to learn how to be a good manager, but it’s so challenging as I wasn’t brought up in the most socially normal family and my general “how to relate to other people sense” is always lacking. I’m really working on that, and hopefully it shows. I figure I’ll always be ADHD and sometimes not think before I talk completely, but as long as I keep a positive attitude and am not afraid to be relentlessly enthusiastic, it will get me somewhere in life. Well, it’s gotten me where I am today to a point. Still, I’m no cheerleader.

I’m about 1/3 into Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In about women and leadership. The more I read, the more I relate to Sandberg. I think it’s because she comes from a typical Jewish second-generation immigrant family which lays on the guilt and criticism hard. She writes about when she was listed as #5 most powerful women by Fortune Magazine, ahead of Michelle Obama, and her very own mother said “I know you’re powerful, but do you think you’re really more powerful than Michelle Obama?” Our parents implant scripts in our mind about how we’re allowed to trust ourselves and our success. When you don’t feel like you deserve accomplishment you’ll never accomplish all you can do.

When I started managing at my current company I was told I would be managing the bosses’ sister. Luckily she was/is a extremely intelligent and hard-working woman. But her heart was never in the role that she was hired for, because it was clear she was being hired into a position for the time until an opening was available in the field she wanted to pursue. That in itself was not bad — sometimes having people with different experiences can add to a team, and she was amazing at organization and management of certain elements of my job that I just couldn’t handle with my own personality and work style. In many ways we did work well together. There were a few ways where I went wrong, and also where my company, you could say, did me wrong as a young manager. I was never told her salary, so for all I know she was earning more than me, and without knowing someone’s salary that reports to you, it’s hard to figure out how to motivate them over the long term. I also was learning a new space myself (it was my first straight-up marketing position to begin with, and first position in a non consumer company) so actually being a mentor in areas I was trying to figure out, even though my gut told me I had good ideas, was just not working. This, along with a short stint managing two Ivy-league interns with a chip on their shoulders, has led my company to put me in the “not a manager corner.” And I really don’t want to stay there.

I’ve written before about how “maybe I just don’t want to lead,” but that simply isn’t true. When I’m in my comfort zone — managing projects which I feel capable of performing myself — I love to manage. When I have someone working with me who is highly intelligent and motivated, or really good at a specific area which they are in charge of, I’m happy to let them run the show and motivate along the way. I’ve learned the hard lesson that it’s better to fail due to not having enough time to get everything done yourself than to delegate tasks to the wrong people. Failure is not the best either, but it’s better than getting yourself into a situation where you find it’s much easier to start from scratch then try to explain to your direct report how to fix things. Moral of the story, even with the world’s greatest team as a manager you have to delegate smartly from the get go.

What happened with my first and only real direct report was highly unfortunate. I watched our relationship unravel in just six months. Although I was a terrible manager, we accomplished a lot together for a small team. I wish there was a way I could have instilled more of that in my six months of supposed leadership. Instead, I had a frustrated direct report who wanted to do a good job, who was amazing at some projects, and not yet ready to work on others without someone who knew what they were doing teaching her at the same time.

I admit I also struggle with determining how much to “give” in the work world, and these days I’m leading to “a lot.” It’s very interesting, in Sandberg’s book she cites research that if a woman helps others professionally – men or women – they feel less indebted to her than if a man helps them, because women are just supposed to want to help whereas a man is going out of his way to provide help. I wonder how true that is. The book probably offends a lot of people because it calls out these stereotypes, but there is research behind them. There’s a whole chapter on “Success and Likeability” where she cites numerous studies around how women who are successful are seen as not likeable and women who are likeable are seen as less competent. There’s all these negotiation tactics that have been researched for women which basically say “you just can’t negotiate like a man because you won’t get what you want it you do.” Sandberg doesn’t want the world to be like this forever, but to get more women in leadership roles, she sees this as a necessary evil.

My greatest challenge then is how do I get over this fear of helping others succeed. Managers never do. I realize a lot of this is due to insecurity in my position and as I mature as a professional it will become less of an issue. But as a 29 year old person who is actually relatively senior in my company (yet managing no one directly) I find that I often am given the opportunity to help someone who is often older than me and usually male get the spotlight. When women have to fight so hard to prove their competence, it sometimes feels like you almost have to show that what you do isn’t easy, and have someone to point to in order to prove this. Which is terrible — it’s no way to manage or be a colleague, it doesn’t help the company, and it doesn’t help me in the end. It’s just frustrating that I feel like my boss only appreciates how good I am at writing (speed & quality) because he’s seen how hard it is to have anyone else do what I can do. That makes me more valuable to the company, but wouldn’t it be great if I could train more people to be able to do this?

Right now, I have the opportunity to both show my leadership and stop being so selfish in hoarding the skills I actually do have. One member of our team, who really should be directly reporting to me but isn’t, is a good writer but he’s struggling a bit with the business and product language, as well as the flow of overall stories. As my boss refused to have him report directly to me and and instead decided to take it on himself to be his manager, a part of me wanted the situation to fail, because I wanted to show that I’m actually suited to managing a person focused on content, an area where I’m actually competent. It’s not that my boss isn’t capable of managing him, but he doesn’t have the time to effectively manage either, and really for the sake of our team and the company he should be focusing on higher level strategic challenges vs the day-to-day management tasks that I really could do.

I guess I’ve given up at the idea of being given a direct report, and instead I’ve now decided that my wise-for-his-age colleague is right, the best way to become a leader/manager is to just be a leader/manager. At some point, I hope, this will be recognized and rewarded. If not, so be it. Ultimately, if I’m at a job interview and someone asks “have you managed anyone” I can make the choice to flat out lie or to explain that I’ve managed large external teams (which is true) and co-managed direct reports (which is also true.) I’m pretty sure this won’t secure me a VP-level position, but honestly if I’m going to get a VP-level position it will be for my skills of building a brand from the ground up, not because I’m the world’s most experienced manager. I need to look at my opportunities now as a time to learn how to be a good manager, so when I actually am one, I can knock it out of the park.

My aunt, who is a high-level manager at a media company, told me that managing is the hardest thing she has to do. “It’s really like parenting,” she says. And she should know as she has two young children. It takes patience, constant positive feedback, and carefully placed constructive criticism to encourage growth and improvement. Even that doesn’t always work. But you can do a lot by using the right tactics. That’s what I need to work on. Heck, even if I’ll never be a manager, I’ll one day — hopefully — be a good mother for it.





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One thought on “Lean In: Becoming a Better Leader by Leading”

  1. I’m not really sure what the culture of the company you’re working in is, but if it were at our company – if you’re the most qualified person for a task, you take the lead. We’re generally all subject matter experts so it’s very task specific. But we’re a very flat organization…

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