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Vulnerability Time: That Time When I Was a Terrible Manager

Before I was promoted into my first management role in a technology-related capacity, I was a senior analyst/team lead. My role was supposed to be mostly individual contributions with some team coordination. However, I spent about half of my time on my individual contributions and the other half working with my teammates not just coordinating work but on how to make work better so that everyone could learn and grow in their careers. I felt safe exploring my leadership skills. I got to influence — what I now know as — group dynamics, to influence team culture. I used my education in psychology to connect with teammates and support their success. But I was not accountable for the work of other people. It was fun! I felt what I now know as psychological safety to emerge as a leader. I was promoted to manager.

As a manager, I cared about the people on my new team. I connected with each person and was committed to their success. However, I felt a different pressure to deliver — produce more, solve problems faster, and make sure everything looked good. I was promoted to manager right before a time in the organization during which people felt unsafe. What was valued was either the status quo to maintain a false sense of certainty, or competition coupled with knocking others down to prove one’s value. Resources felt scarce. I reacted by focusing on task performance instead of people and relationships. I managed tasks instead of leading people. I over-managed and overworked focusing on line items on spreadsheets and workback schedules instead of creating a vision and leading through influence to achieve outcomes.

That sucked.

I was not happy. My team was not happy. I had over-managed and forgotten to lead. From a business perspective, my and my team’s performance was solid. But it did not feel that way to me.

I am grateful for the wake-up call I received through candid feedback from a trusted colleague. She helped me see the impact of how I showed up.

I went back to what I knew to be more important: leading. Yes, all aspects of management — planning, organizing, leading, and controlling — are important. But I argue that for people leaders, leading in today’s context of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, a people-centric leadership practice is most important. I shifted my focus from task management to people and relationships. I reconnected with how I first led as an emerging leader that felt safe. I shifted to spending half of my time managing (strategic planning, business problem-solving, etc.), and the other half leading — connecting with and empowering people, encouraging collaboration, talent management, and serving.

And then, everything changed.

Team members collaborated and debated more, generating fresh ideas. The new safety enabled more creativity, experimentation, and innovation. Everyone was enough. The possibilities were endless and potential unlimited. Everyone was engaged in the team goals and helped one another with their individual goals. Almost every team member was a self-leader. One team member was killing it in his role and finished his bachelor’s degree. Another team member was promoted to management. The team was diverse and inclusive. We met or exceeded team goals and individual professional goals. We had fun at work and celebrated the small and big wins. Bonus: I suddenly had the time for strategic planning and keeping up with how the big boulders were coming along, not because I was task-managing but because everyone did their part. I was promoted to senior manager.

I learned a lot from my mistakes earlier in my management career.

Just managing, task-managing, sucked, for me and everyone.

Management and leadership are not the same.

Management: planning, organizing, controlling, and (some) leading. It is task-oriented.

Leadership: the process between people of influencing one another toward common goals. It is people-oriented.

Leaders manage business and lead people.

I developed a leadership practice, of trusting and investing in people, and a posture of continuous learning as a leader. It made all the difference.

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