Sunday, March 27, 2016 Gabby Bill 0 Comments

It's been stated a hundred times, so this particular thought isn't anything new, but it's worth repeating to get this blog post off to a good start: In business you get promoted because you're great at executing a specific task, but the more and more you're promoted, the less you're actually asked to complete the task you were great at in the first place. 

It's a fascinating dichotomy, because if we look at our educational systems, we spend 12+ years learning tactile, specific, repeatable skills designed to help us succeed in the workplace, yet we're given very little direct training in teamwork, communication styles, leadership and managing people.

This might be fine if you're a research chemist, and you literally spend every day performing experiments in a lab by yourself, but if you're an entrepreneur, in any business or corporate field or are in any company where there's a supervisory capacity, chances are the day is going to come when the skills you've been taught become obsolete.

If we think about it this way -- that functionally most of us just simply aren't taught how to be good bosses -- it becomes less of a surprise as to why so many people suck at it. I've seen dozens of co-workers who excelled as individual contributors completely lose their shit when it comes down to managing a team. They either don't understand how to delegate properly, or they aren't sure how to coach rather than critique. They're confused when it comes to building the skills of those around them, and perhaps worst of all, they don't know how to truly play as a team where the "rising tide floats all boats" mentality is prevalent.

I'll never forget this life-changing piece of advice that I received from my boss, Richard, when I was temporarily back-filling a marketing strategy role for Disney Cruise Line. Richard, who was one of the gems I've worked for, advised me to be a leadership sponge. He told me to watch the leaders around me and to take note when they did something great. He said to pay attention to my own feelings in the work place and to analyze when a leader made me feel good versus small. Over time, he said, I'd start to understand the difference between smart, strong leadership behaviors and those that should be avoided.

He was right.

When I became a people manager myself, I proactively went back to my internal book of leadership notes, and although I was by no means perfect, I think my years of observation helped me apply a thing or two that worked. Now I want to share these learnings with you!

Your direct reports are humans, just like you and me, and humans are destined to screw up sometimes. But just like a dog will start to shy away from an outreached hand if you smack it as a form of discipline, your direct report will start to a) shy away from you and b) shy away from risks if you use sharp criticism and negativity as a means of shaping their behavior.

Here's an example. When I was working for Capital One, I misunderstood a direction that my manager had given me, and therefore I replied to an email that I shouldn't have, CCing a group of people that I also shouldn't have. I made a mistake -- there was no doubt about it -- but rather than addressing it calmly, my manager shot me a harshly-worded, anger-laced email chastising me. I reacted just like that hurt puppy would: I recoiled, felt terrible about myself for the rest of the day, and my productivity plummeted. Furthermore, in the future, I defaulted to asking for her permission before doing simple tasks or sought to repeat instructions multiple times, all because I was now terrified of awakening the dragon.

You could say I just didn't have tough enough skin. But why put someone in a situation where they need thick skin when there's an even better way to handle it that results in them feeling supported and empowered?

My favorite boss ever, Bryan, who I worked with at Disney Vacation Club for two years, was the absolute expert in stuff like this. Although I did plenty wrong during my time there, I never once felt as though I failed. If Bryan had critiques to offer me, he did so a) in person, b) after hearing my side of the story first and c) by delivering it in a kind, thoughtful manner whereby he reassured me he had my back and would work with me to fix the issue the next time. I always left his office with a smile on my face and feeling inspired to tackle a task, rather than dreading it.

In my first marketing role at Disney, my manager Belinda gave me this direction: "You go on out and swim, swim, swim. If you go too far, I've got the fishing rod, and I'll just reel you back in." She understood that her role as my manager was not just to make sure that I got my work done, but to give me the opportunities I needed to grow and develop, while also having a cushion to fall back on.

Bryan understood this too. If I was in a meeting and at any point felt unsure of how to answer a superior's question or tackle a challenge set before me, I had only to glance at him, and he just knew. Without hesitation, he jumped in and had my back, but just as quickly would pass the reins back to me when he knew I could handle it.

This is unlike other bosses I've seen who either keep their direct reports on such a tight leash that they stifle their growth -- oftentimes done out of insecurity that someone else's success will usurp their own -- or they sit back and let their direct reports flounder, only jumping in when doing so makes them look good. This behavior might make the manager feel like they're the smartest person in the room, but it won't win them any long-term favors. When their direct reports aren't happy and either leave the company or seek to transfer to another team, that'll reflect poorly on them. And don't even think for a minute that they'll be safe from developing a poor reputation around the office. Tales of crappy leadership spread like wildfire.

This is a tough one to grasp, particularly for new leaders, because as we mentioned at the top of the post, you become a manager because you're really good at a certain task. And now you, oftentimes, have this wide-eyed junior employee sitting at your feet, and they know nothing about doing this task that you're an expert in. It can be all too tempting to sit up on your high horse and instruct your direct report time after time, but the reality is that real learning often comes from them figuring things out on their own.

There are some cases where instruction is necessary. If you need to teach them a new program, define a concept for them or show them an example of a finished product that they've never seen before, by all means, instruct away. But if they're running into a challenge, aren't 100% sure how to proceed or want feedback on something they're about to do, ask them what they think before you ever offer your opinion.

The truth is that your direct report probably isn't too far off from the right response. After all, you hired them because they had some baseline level of qualifications that, at least in your estimate, would set them up for success in this role. By you allowing them to express their thoughts, you're reinforcing their critical thinking processes and instilling confidence in them. If they're way off base, you can chime in and course-correct, but by acknowledging the smart thinking they did first, you're teaching them that exploring options themselves and coming to you with a recommended plan of action is smart.

Listen, being a great leader isn't easy. It's why, when you work for a great boss, you hold onto them for as long as possible and seek to learn as much from them as you can. It's also why, when you become a people manager, it becomes critical to ask for, and be open to receiving, feedback. Some of the leadership behaviors that we discussed here are simpler to proactively apply than others, but we can't forget that any management position is a two-way street, and you'll need to customize your approach based on who you're managing and how you best communicate. You'll prime yourself for the ultimate levels of success if you're willing to meet your direct reports halfway and continue improving yourself as you go -- after all, it takes two to tango!


Now it's your turn. What else have you experienced as a manager or someone who was managed that has built you up or torn you down? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Gabrielle "Gabby" Bill is a career coach and consultant who believes everyone should be working in a job that leaves them feeling fulfilled. She coaches groups and individuals through a reflection process, uncovering often hidden motivations, values, goals and skills as they relate to their career. These reflections are then parlayed into concrete action plans to guide clients through the process of finding, creating and landing their dream jobs. You can learn more about her services by visiting