Before I started writing full-time in 2001, I was a corporate manager for a large consumer electronics retailer. I had a large staff, mostly writers and designers plus a few business analysts. Now nearing the 10-year anniversary of my exit from the corporate world, I’ve decided to look back and evaluate how I did as a manager.
In some ways, the passion and drive I have to succeed helped me get to a fairly high-ranking position, just one level away from the vice president of a then 50,000-plus employee company. At the same time, I realize now that my disposition and skills were no match for the vagaries of corporate life. Here are a few lessons I learned.
Many entrepreneurs I know suggest the old walk around the office to chit-chat with employees. It helps fuel discussions, they say, and helps you learn about your staff and their day-to-day challenges. I spent too much time applying this principle. I learned that, by walking around, I was communicating to my staff that I had nothing else to do. It was too easy for them to interpret my casual management style as a kind of introverted overlord. There are better, more intentional ways to get to know your employees than this free-form method.
I made plenty of mistakes with my staff, but the one that sticks out the most was how I tended to avoid building relationships. I was too busy managing and not focused enough on understanding what was going on in the life of my employees. I tended to treat them as a means to an end. The best managers have invested time in meeting employees for lunch, hanging out after work, and even helping them out in situations that arise—say, offering to help them move into a new apartment. I rarely met employees outside of work.
I grew up in a home that avoided conflict at all costs, so I overcompensated for this upbringing by addressing conflict at every turn. I’d discuss solutions to a work conflict for hours at a time, analyzing the core issues and coaching the employee on how to reach a resolution. Unfortunately, what I failed to realize at the time was that some employees will never resolve a conflict. In fact, some tend to enjoy conflicts and want everyone else to be a part of them too. If I rejoined the corporate workforce today, I’d look for signs for these conflict creators and avoid being dragged into every petty problem.
I was always told that managers get paid more for the sleepless nights. In reality, the entire staff holds the responsibility for projects—it is a shared effort. Every employee has to deal with the stress of completing projects, and everyone has a certain level of responsibility. The concept of a distant manager holding all of the burden implies that you’re not part of the team, that you have not delegated responsibilities effectively, and you have not communicated the goals of a project.
OK, those are my lessons learned. What are yours?