Today I want to talk about this question: “Can anyone be a leader. Is anyone capable of being a good manager?” As we talk about some of these deeper concepts I urge everyone to keep in mind a couple of things: 1) These are my personal opinions and you can disagree and that makes the best conversations, 2) Have an open mind, just because somethings have been thought of a certain way all your life doesn’t necessarily mean that they are facts.
I want to start off with a quote from Brene Brown, she said in her book Dare to Lead “If your employees have to put on armor to come to work due to racism, sexism, or anything else, that means there needs to be a change either in. your leadership team or how your team leads.”
Often in business and the business world there’s this idea of either you have it or you don’t. You are a born leader or you are not. While I think there are people more intrinsically charismatic and drawn to leading that doesn’t mean that they make a good leader. This then begs the question: What does it mean to be a good leader, and how can I become management material?
Good Worker vs. Good Leader
There is often this misconception that to be management material all you have to do is be smart and really good at your job and then you deserve to be a leader in your area. This notion can be destructive when an employee is exceptional at their job but fails at being a manager to their department, then causing their whole department to fail. In situations like this, often managers want to critique the quality of their employees before critiquing the quality of their own leadership.
I had a mentor in college, who worked with a CEO, and he told us a story of a time he was talking to the top engineers at this company and asked them based on your CEO, how would you define being a leader? They looked at him responding, “being a leader is not having a plan B because plan A never fails, if plan A fails it was never the plan, it was the fact that the engineer was too unintelligent to create an infallible plan. A leader was working 24/7 because there is nothing more important than the business. A leader is never weak or vulnerable; that means they are susceptible to being manipulated.” He then looked at the same engineers and asked them how that makes them feel being the subordinates of that kind of leader.
That company, from the outside, is an idealistic company creating amazing advances and all contributions go to the CEO and praise him for his genius intellect. Internally that company has a high turnover rate for engineers, countless abandoned projects and thousands neglected and upset employees.
Being a good leader or management material is not being smart and knowledgeable of your field, it is understanding that your employees are human and not machines. It is fostering a workplace environment that gives each employee the chance at success.
The Handshake Paradox
Let’s unlearn some toxic practices of the business and management world. I call this the handshake paradox. In business classes I took at a university there was a whole section on how to shake hands. When meeting a business partner or someone you would like to do business with you shake their hand, your right hand stiff and you go down at an angle and squeeze their hand as you shake twice. Now being a woman, I have heard countless times “you may want to squeeze their hand as hard as you can in order to have a firm handshake.” Apparently you are more impressive with a firm handshake and if they like you they will give your hand a squeeze. This is what sets the tone for the entire business meeting and you get an idea of how the meeting will go based on that handshake, no matter if it is an interview, acquisition, or client meeting. At all the business fairs, interviews, client meetings I followed this rule and as did all the business people I met. Fast forward to college I was at a accounting/auditing networking fair, and I was having a conversation with this company rep and at the end he reached for a handshake and I did the “squeeze harder” thing, being a woman, and he smile nodded and squeezed my hand back harder than I squeezed his to show he valued our conversation. The bones in my hand cracked, audibly, I smiled and thanked him, he gave me his business card and I turned to my friend and said “I think my hand is broken but I guess that means he liked me?”
What does handshakes have to do with being a good manager? The handshake represents the idea that in the business world you have to present yourself as infallible, strong, and “masculine” to be successful. These qualities are detrimental when it comes to leading a team. If your team is afraid to come to you about issues going on with a project or even in team dynamics because you set a standard that mistakes and vulnerability equals failure and repromotion, that becomes problematic. Going back to the quote from Brene Brown your employees should not have to put on armor to come to work. Employees shouldn’t be afraid to get sick, have a bad mental health day or simply just fail at a project, but more importantly they should not be afraid to come to you as their manager when that happens.
Efficiency in a business drops when employees are spending more time trying to hide and correct mistakes than completing projects. Being a good manager is dismantling the handshake paradox, it is showing your team your vulnerability, admitting your mistakes and growing together.
How can you become a good manager? It is first analyzing how your team is doing and if they are not doing well, it is looking internally at are you giving your team the tools and support for everyone to succeed? It is being open and accepting of feedback. If deadlines are not being met and an employee says that your deadlines are unattainable, it is not immediately turning the feedback around and blaming the employees for being incapable, it is asking how can you work together to create deadlines that they can meet or what tools can you supply to help meet these deadlines. Being a good manager is working hard on being introspective and how your own fears and anxieties impact your team and business.
Going back to your team not meeting deadlines, and one of your employees said your deadlines are unsustainable on the hours they are getting paid to work. What is driving those deadlines and the projects you handout? Is it fear of not staying on top of the industry? Is it anxiety about where you wish you were in life and business? Or is it just something going on in your personal life? It is okay to feel fear and anxiety and all the feelings but when you are imposing those feelings on your employees rather than facing them that is when you become an inadequate leader and you are not management material.
Open Conversations vs. Gossip
Being management material is also addressing issues within your team. Quality of work is dropping, deadlines are not being met, numbers are down and you have supplied your team with all the tools necessary, it may be a team member. Personally, it is hardest for me to sit down with team members asking the question “What is broken in this team and how can we fix it?” When the response is an issue with an employee, then there’s the territory of having an open conversation as to what is going wrong without gossiping. What I mean by this is having to guide and keep the conversation on work, while allowing vulnerability and openness, but negating personal attractions.
The difference of fostering open conversations vs gossip is receiving two different statements: “John Doe makes me feel inferior because he speaks down to me. He started acting this way around the time of his divorce. He has made personal attacks on me instead of my work. It is frustrating.” vs “You know John Doe’s wife is leaving him, that is why he’s been such a tool, he’s always condescending and attacking us and his own work is terrible now. I can see why his wife would leave him.” You want to guide conversations away from opinionated attacks on an employee’s personal life but more so on how the problem employee’s changes in demeanor and mood is impacting your team. When you have a conversation with that employee keeping in mind that there is not a bad guy, it is a problem that needs to be fixed, not a war to be won. Rather than going into the meeting saying “All the employees are mad because you are argumentative, demeaning, and mean. Your work quality is declining, you are not meeting personal deadlines and it causing the whole team to fail.” that language will lead to them becoming defensive and deflective and the meeting will be useless because any feedback you supply will be met with resistance and anger. Instead go into the meeting with empathy and understanding the situation try saying “Hey John Doe can we speak about that last project, it is not the quality I have grown accustomed to receiving from your work?” Going into the meeting with empathy but also asserting that in your workplace personal attacks are not tolerated.
Being a good manager and leader is understanding that everyone has a personal life and hard things going one, we are human and will have bad days. Being a leader also means having conversations with your team about what is acceptable and what is not and what it means to foster a healthy workplace environment where people do not need armor to work. Letting your team know that they are allowed to not show up to work perfect and happy everyday but if they repeatedly or intentionally make the workplace unsafe for certain members consequences will ensue. Those consequences are without bias, if an employee has been there since the beginning or not if the employee is a friend outside of work or not as a manager and leader you have to put the workplace first. This means any racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, or any prejudice comments, jokes should not be tolerated and should be known that it will not be tolerated.
At the end of the day, what is management material? It is being vulnerable, open, assertive, and empathetic. The complete opposite of what is normally assumed. But when you do these things you create a team and workplace where everyone can thrive and anyone who chooses not to embrace an open safe workplace environment does not have a place on your team. Being a good leader is understanding that “business mode” is not an armor where you only think about work, it is putting aside personal opinions and evaluating the situation when it comes to leading.
I am not perfect and there are still many situations I am still learning to navigate, but the important thing is I am learning. In business anyone who is set in their ways will sink, you must constantly learn and grow and build. I want to be a leader that changes the negative stereotypes of the business world. I do not want to fall back into thinking to be a good leader and business person is dependent on my hand breaking.
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