I was blissfully going about my career, believing that all those years of reading every book on leadership was finally paying off.
I was convinced I was the kind of leader people wanted to follow.
Until the day I heard, “You suck as a manager.”
I had just fired him, and he had a right to be upset. But it was also true.
I sucked as a manager.
And here’s why: I’m the dysfunctional product of a dysfunctional family.
I spent my youth as a go-between for grown-ass adults who refused to solve their own problems. I kept them happy by putting bandaids on their problems for them and thus maintained peace around the house (though not for long).
I’m also an introvert, and I tend to form deep and meaningful relationships with the people I work with.
I love a good long heart-to-heart, but I’ve had to work on my listening skills because of my history. These days I can be present and listen without getting the urge to start plugging holes like I had to on the leaking ship of my childhood.
This skill has served me well personally but has been the fly in my soup as a manager.
That means people listen to you when you say something.
To build that, you need to have trust, influence, and a track record of meeting mutual expectations with your team members.
The easiest way to do it is by forming productive personal relationships.
Or so I thought.
But leading each person on the team while, at the same time, leading the group as a whole didn’t work out.
Now I know that good managers harness the power of the team, not the individuals because focusing on one-to-one relationships alone undermines productivity.
Yes, productive personal relationships are both emotionally and professionally rewarding for all involved, but that alone doesn’t build a high-performing team.
Some more stupid-ass mistakes I’ve made in my hubris.
While I was busy building my individual kumbaya and making each person feel heard, happy and satisfied, I was paying little attention to building a culture for identifying and solving our problems together as a team.
Hindsight being 20/20, I can now say that doesn’t work for individual team members.
And it doesn’t work for you as a manager because you’re making decisions based on limited information.
Despite taking the time to talk to each individual separately, gathering information and cross-referencing it, I wasn’t creating a forum for the same people to talk to each other.
Because every decision about an individual affects the team.
Like I was proud of the guy I’d hired.
He’d been a senior exec at a global tech company and consultant before he applied to join my team.
And despite his track record, he wasn’t afraid to pull his weight.
Of course, he had quirks – like being used to leading his projects and going rogue now and again. But everyone has quirks.
And being the individual relationship forming manager, I was sure I’d manage any issues one-on-one.
What started as a weekly catch-up chat turned into daily conversations and tagging along to his client meetings to ensure that he didn’t throw a colleague or a client under the bus.
And as soon as I stopped, not a day went by without someone in the company complaining about him going rogue.
He was still just as sharp, competent and cooperative as he’d ever been. But outside our direct relationship, his sensibilities didn’t match the team, and that’s what mattered.
Deciding to let him go was the right decision.
But I could’ve saved both of us the heartache by not using individual relationships as a management tool.
I’ve learnt my lesson now.
I wouldn’t be half as good at what I do if I stopped giving people that time and attention.
And stopping yourself from forming personal relationships isn’t the answer.
After a year of trial and error, I’ve finally figured out how to have good individual relationships without compromising the team.
1) Personal plans
Asking these three questions can be the difference between high performance and mediocrity:
- What do you want to do more of?
- What do you want to do less of?
- How do you like to be led?
I schedule two sessions, one in the beginning and one in the middle of the year, to ask these questions from everyone on my team.
I record the answers and reference them anytime I need to match the right skills for a project.
Or when making hiring decisions to ensure that different team members complement each other as a whole.
I’ve learned that it’s common for one person not to be interested in a particular task, e.g. copywriting, while someone else can’t get enough of it.
Updating this list twice a year allows me to keep up with the career aspirations of my team members.
It helps me push myself harder to make sure I’m creating the opportunities that help me make the most of the skills available to me.
2) A shared team plan
My notes from individual sessions are confidential. (Only shared with the person they’re about.)
The team’s shared plan is available to everyone.
I like using OKRs, but at my current job, we use VMOST.
The choice of the tools doesn’t matter as much as ensuring that your plan is open to scrutiny.
Our MD shares a quarterly update on the VMOST plans of each team and takes questions from people from the same team and other teams. This ensures that everyone is aware of what we’re doing.
3) Regular long lunches
I value having heart-to-heart conversations with my colleagues too much to give up on them.
And having learnt my lesson, I also remember to keep them physically separate from our work as a team.
I schedule one long lunch per quarter with each team member. The lunch is usually 90 minutes long because I want to allow enough time for both eating and talking.
Shoptalk is inevitable when you’re sitting across from your boss, and that’s okay.
To steer the conversation away from work, I start by sharing something personal about myself.
More important than how long it takes is the quality of your conversation about yourself as a person and not a manager.
4) Quarterly reviews
The quarterly session is to go over revenue and the company’s financial state as a whole.
We also discuss the strategic progress and the direction the company is moving in.
I want to foster an understanding in my team of the big picture.
The experts that I have love doing what they do but don’t have much to do with the business in their day to day work.
Quarterly sessions give us a chance to reflect on it.
It’s important to talk about how we make money, how we fit into the market, what we can do to improve and how our work as a team impacts the company.
I’ve received an excellent response from the younger and more inexperienced team members who might not know as much about the business side of things.
People still come to me with complaints.
Though this happens less than it once did.
But you can’t get away from everyday skirmishes or someone rubbing someone else the wrong way.
My job is to listen and hold the space for whoever needs to talk.
I no longer jump in to start plugging holes.
Instead, I ask if they’ve had the time to talk it over with their colleague or if they’d like my support in mediating a session between them.
9 out of 10 times, they just needed to vent and choose option number one.
If I’d still be jumping in to fix their issues for them, I’d be robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to deal with things themselves.
That makes me feel confident that when they decide to leave for new adventures, they’ll leave with better skills and an improved understanding of themselves when they go.