I got my first management title when I was twenty-six years old. The person I’d beat out for the position had been with the company 26 years, and in one hiring decision, this woman, who wanted my job, become my direct report.
She’d been with the company since before I was in kindergarten. And now I was her boss. Nobody said my new management job would be easy.
And it was not. Easy, that is. Managing a person old enough to be my mother, was just one of the challenges I faced in that job. I had peers who resented me leaving the familiar flock and joining management. I was seen by many as too young, too inexperienced, too favored – based on my education.
When I look back at the decision that took me from employee to boss, and all that followed, I realize I did several things right. I made lots and lots of mistakes, but I managed to do some things right. Here’s my story.
I never pretended to know it all.
My first management job was Global Head of Consumer Affairs. It was a call center. I walked into a rope of problems with outdated technology, an understaffed team, low morale, queues that made my stomach flip, apathetic and downright rude customer service agents. I didn’t even know where to begin. And again, the supervisor of the call center, the lady who still wanted my job, had 26 more years of experience at this than me.
So, the first right decision I made is I admitted to myself and my team that I didn’t have all the answers, that I needed their help.
I created a Quality Circle of volunteers from the department who agreed to meet with me for 90 minutes weekly.
Every week we took a single issue, say, “Why does it take 19 days on average to return customer phone calls?” I got employees to describe the problem and the “why” in their own words. After I felt I had a clear understanding of the problem and the root cause, I’d throw the problem back out to the team and ask them, “How would you fix this?” and “What ideas do you have?”
Honestly, I went to my team because I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid and overwhelmed. But my people were cooperative and wise. As they shared ideas with me, I wrote on flip charts, sketching out their proposed solutions. When the team agreed on a solution, I ran with it.
Going to my team for clarity on problems and for ideas for tackling the issues did three things for me.
1. Issue Intelligence
I spotted several problems with our processes from the first week. But it wasn’t until I cupped my chin in my hand, leaned in and listened to my employees, that I began to understand the broader issues, and what those problems snowballed into. My people enlightened me in a way that wasn’t possible through critical observation.
2. Established Trust
When I allowed myself to be vulnerable and ask my employees for help, they in time began to get to know me, hear me, and I think, trust me. This all led to me building genuine relationships with them. Relationships built on trust, not on authority, led to me having many fruitful years with this team.
3. Buy-in was automatic
Because it was my employees who stated the problems and generated the solutions, I didn’t have to sell them anything. They were on-board from the jump because the ideas were theirs. We kept the Quality Circle going for more than a year, sifting through all the pressing issues as a team. And we were productive and focused the entire time we worked together.
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