Leadership Lessons

The Corner Office (3)

I like to think that I am good at what I do. I have been working in my field for over nine years, I still have a lot to learn and new skills to develop but I get the work. I strive to do the best that I can for myself, the organization I work for, and the people we serve. As an independent team member I excelled at knowing my role, doing it well, and creating new opportunities to extend my work. As I moved up the ranks from Lead, to Supervisor, to Manager my ability to do all of those things diminished and I was, once again, put in the position to refine my skill set.

Four years into my professional non-profit career I was promoted to Supervisor. I was, for the first time, responsible for the team doing the work instead of actually doing the work myself. I was out of my element, terrified, and cocky. Having been working in the program I was now supervising for two years already, I thought I was fully equipped to be responsible for the program. Looking back now, as my sixth anniversary in this organization looms, I was so incredibly naive and had no idea what it meant to be a leader.

I went through some growing pains. I hired new staff, made some programmatic changes that I thought were important, and tried to define myself as a leader. The problem was, I thought being a leader was all about me. How I did things, what I needed, and how I wanted things to be done. In reality, it’s just the opposite. While I was responsible for the direction and implementation of the program, I had to ensure that my team had a voice and were invested in what we were doing. A lesson I definitely learned the hard way.

I am, by far, not done learning how to improve my ability to lead a team of people, but I feel as though I have shifted my focus and am more confident in my ability to excel in my role. Recently, while cleaning out some of my files at work I came across a document that changed a lot for me as a supervisor. It was an exit interview from a former employee, someone that I had a lot of conflict with. She was young, inexperienced, overconfident, and not right for the role she was in. My inexperience as a supervisor resulted in a lack of support in helping her build off of her strengths and allowing her to find her own comfort zone in her work. Instead I tried to mold her into the professional I thought I was the year before. When she got frustrated she became disengaged and her disengagement made me lose interest in helping her invest in herself as a professional. When she decided to leave for another organization, I was relieved. It was not the right situation for either of us. Our relationship was strained and no longer productive.

A few months later I was asked to come to my boss’ office. She had a document she wanted to discuss with me. It was the exit interview. We talked about what was true, what was fabricated, what was out of context and she asked me how I felt about it. At first I was frustrated and incredibly angry, and ultimately sad and embarrassed that those words were out there somewhere being used to influence the people I work with, and work for. Over time I realized that the words on the paper were her truth, no matter how inaccurate I thought they were, no matter how I saw the situation and our relationship, this was her version of everything. In the moment that I realized that, I felt bad for her. That this was the version of me that she got to work with. Not that I would do anything differently at the time, but that I hadn’t built up my skill set enough to think of other ways to support her and work with her. I suppose that’s part of the process of becoming a leader. Unfortunately, it’s a trial by fire, learn as you go role.

So, when I stumbled upon that that exit interview that was shoved in with all of my personal paperwork in my filing cabinet, I re-read it and realized it no longer stung as much as it had before. I had new skills, I learned from my mistakes, and I had made peace with the fact that we walked away with two different versions of truth. That was her version and she was entitled to it. I took a moment to appreciate the lesson and tossed it in the trash with the rest of my unwanted clutter.

Shortly after I took on this new role, almost three years ago, I wrote a post about some of the lessons I had learned in my short time as the program supervisor. Those things all still remain true, however I’ve added a few over the years.

Establishing boundaries with your staff is important. Spending 40 hours a week with people can cause relationships to form that seem more personal than professional. You bond with the people that you relate to and that support you. It’s natural. However, as the person responsible for the team dynamics, the programmatic structure, and the work, it’s imperative to remain unbiased, and objective. I’ve had to figure out how I can tread the line and ensure that professionalism remains the thread that runs throughout all I do. Pulling myself out of the social aspect of our work to solidify boundaries was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my professional career. It’s isolating and lonely, but it forced me to build better relationships with my peers and has provided a foundation for me to be able to do my job objectively and completely.

Build opportunities for your own professional growth. Don’t just become stagnant in your role and your skill set. Build opportunities for you to learn, to build your skills, and find a more seasoned professional to help point you in the right direction. Challenge yourself and be purposeful with your time. Don’t allow the tedious nature of administrative responsibilities force you into a work life of boredom. Remember your goals for yourself.

Take time for yourself. Go home at the end of the day and be present in your family life. Take a break throughout the day to recharge and regroup, learn to say no, take your vacation time, and shut off your work brain once you walk out the door.

Leading looks different for everyone. You have to find what works for you and the group of people you’re responsible for. Tactics change, strategy shifts, and motivation fluctuates. Remain flexible in your methods and take the lessons when you can. It’s a tough job but someone’s gotta do it.

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