I’m an MBA grad with a new job leading a team of people who have been with the company for between 7 and 24 years. I have absolutely no idea what to say to them. I have no idea what leading them looks like. I don’t want to overcompensate and become an asshole when in actuality I’m 100% terrified. Do you have any advice on how I should approach this?
Good for you to recognize what you don’t know. Now people can help you. When that happens we form quality bonds with people, and that will be good for you as a part of your process to fit into an already established culture. Remember though, without you meaning to, any plans you make will inevitably impact the pecking order of the society. So don’t go in thinking there’s some miracle way for you to avoid a shakeup. Managing is like herding cats. And a new cat-herder is definitely something that will shake the group up.
The single thing you can do that will save you the most grief—and that will help you tap into what will make your team work their hardest and best—is to remember they aren’t employees, they are people who choose to work for you. Some choose it because they need money, but if they’re lazy you soon get rid of them. We’re going to talk about the productive people you actually want to keep.
Yes you pay them, but if they’re good they’ll have other options. So remember that they volunteer to come in to your workplace each day and if you’re constantly complaining about their performance they won’t log into their bank account to see your last deposit to make them feel better. They’ll just start to resent you. Companies have to remember that they are also a culture, and if their culture is unhealthy it won’t matter much what productivity or profitability targets are set. It’s not the managers that make the money, it’s the employees. Managers are oil. Employees are engine. They are mobile and will drive to another workplace if the oil is more refined elsewhere.
This same logic goes for negotiation as well as leadership—always take time to seriously consider the perspective of the person you are leading (or negotiating with). They generally earn a lot less than you and are more likely to have financial challenges that would be difficult for someone of your age to comprehend. There will also be health issues that can show up in the 40’s and progress from there. The men are different from the women, the single from the partnered, the young from the more mature etc. etc. Each comes with their own unique challenges. But what’s important from your perspective is not to always and exclusively think about how the company will benefit—you’ve already done that, that’s why you’re asking the employee whatever you’re asking them for. You should also be thinking about how it impacts the employee’s specific life. So if they have three young kids and you’ve offered them more money for more time, then in their world that raise might not be worth the time away from their children. Or they might think it is and change their mind. Because in the end, their work is only what they do to pay for the life they lead when they’re not at work. It’s good for work to remember that.
In study after study, Salary is second and Title/Power is third, but the main reason why people stay at or leave the companies they work for is Appreciation or a lack thereof. As previously noted, an employee’s day isn’t spent studying his bank deposits. Work is a third of his or her waking existence and it’s reasonable that they would want to feel like they were safe,supported,respected and cared about. A lot of managers balk at the last one, claiming it’s not their responsibility to care for their employees. I’m not going to waste energy debating the semantics of the phrase “care for” but I’m not talking about what you have to do, I’m talking about what works.
Doubling someone’s salary will not have as big an impact as doubling that employee’s sense that you are seeing and recognizing the good work they are doing, or that you understand the pressures they are under. Because yes there are people who might need different types of training, but in my experience most people are genuinely interested in doing a good job regardless of what their boss wants. So you can see we don’t have to make them work or force them to maintain quality. If they love their work they will do those things because they care. And they will care if you will care back because that’s how human beings are built.
Remember that it is important to ensure that the employees can actually sense your connection to them. If they only time they see you is to get in trouble for being behind schedule, or when you stop to show them your new six-digit car or pictures from your scuba-diving trip to the Maldives, then plain and simple they won’t feel respected or cared for. The suspicious conflict between the request for greater performance and the clear benefits to the manager of the current performance leads employees to feel whipped. To them it’s as though they never got their chance to celebrate their successes—even if that was pure survival—and now they’re being asked for more. And if you’re new and they’ve been there a long time, then it’s even worse because they hear this plea for yet another record month twelve times a year for 15 years. It starts to wear pretty thin if work isn’t a fun place to be.
This is really pretty simple, and the only people that have a bigger challenge with it are really shy people. It takes them a while, but the nice thing is that it also leads them to being considerably less shy. All you have to do is spend time with the people. You have to watch them work. Help them. Listen to them. Understand what their day actually looks like. Don’t design the new receptionist’s desk—let a really organized receptionist do it. Congratulate an employee with a smiling handshake when their child graduates. Don’t make a big demand on an employee the same day their dog was put to sleep. And if they work for you you should know if their dog was put to sleep. Because if you don’t genuinely care about these people then your boss made a mistake giving you the job. Because the best managers always care.
Don’t make any sort of decision without thinking about how it impacts the day of the people that will have to enact it because that will be a key indicator of how sustainable the idea is. You would be amazed at how one small change can drastically cut the morale in a company. And it’s hard to recover something like that. Just respect that they have lives and their job is only one part of that. So if they’re asked in over a weekend so you can essentially get free movers to move your office five floors up in the same building, then remember they gave something up for that. Even if you paid them. They gave up rest and recuperation time, family connection time, hobby pursuit time, sports time, time in nature time—time away from you, or whatever. Again, their lives are more than their jobs. So if they come in on a weekend then you should too, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make them all hot dogs in a funny hat. Because the less you feel like a boss and more you feel like a trusted and respected friend, the better.
You’re off to a good start because you’ve admitted you’re rather appropriately terrified. Don’t be afraid to let them know that too. People can be quite helpful. Yes you’ll find a couple will try to take advantage, but it’s better that you find out who those people are right away anyway. You still may want to keep all of them, but at least you’ll know what their personal angles are in most cases. The rest will likely rally around you. Some definitely won’t like you. There’s contrarians everywhere. Everyone’s different and they all glance off of you at different angles, and their life context is constantly in flux on top of all that. Being a Manager is not neat and tidy. It’s more like being a kindergarten teacher. A lot of stuff gets stuck to you.
You know how you learn this best? By doing it. I’ve given you what I find is the single most useful awareness to maintain when devising strategies for your business. You need them to genuinely buy in to your direction and your plan to get there. You need a reason for them to care. Without it I can’t imagine how you could lead such a disparate, fluctuating tribe anywhere productive.
It’ll be terrifying. It’ll feel fantastic. It’ll feel foreboding. It’ll feel good. And it will slowly feel more and more like you. You’ll be fine. Take a healthy lunch and eat with your team.