My first foray into leadership was a way to keep a job. It was either advance into the unknown or advance to the unemployment line.
Considering I had a young son at home, it was not a hard decision.
One day I was part of a group, the next I was the leader. It did not equate in my head and it certainly did not translate well in the minds of some of my former peers.
There were benefits to being promoted to a leadership position and they were tempered with drawbacks:
- More pay, countered by a salary which meant 40 hours was now considered part time.
- A title that would look good on a resume, countered by resentment by my former peers and the added bonus of not being respected by colleagues who still saw me as “just one of the girls”
- The chance to learn new things, countered with anxiety from realizing I knew nothing at all beyond my previous scope.
- The chance to be seen and recognized by executive leadership and possibly move up in the organization, countered with the spotlight always on and feeling like I was constantly under a microscope from, and failing, both sides of the field.
It was a field, literally feeling like a battlefield some days.
My supervisor was kind in teaching me my new responsibilities. She was patient, extremely knowledgeable and kind. She also told me the worst thing I had heard to that point in my career:
“You realize, no one is going to like you now. You get used to being alone at work.”
I thought that couldn’t possibly be true, I was a likeable person. My former peers liked me, we had lunch together and laughed. Just because I am now doing something a little different, they can’t not like me for that.
Oh yes, they can.
I was no longer invited to lunches and conversations stopped when I approached. I was an outsider not by anything that I had done, but by a title I accepted.
Mean things were said and I heard my mom’s voice in my head, “Be the bigger person; two wrongs do not make a right.” Plus, I didn’t’ think my supervisor would accept the reason for unprofessional behavior of, “She started it.”
Lesson One: Do Not Take It Personally
There were several departments that I now had to interact with and have decision making in; I knew nothing about them really.
The first couple of weeks I was in full panic mode thinking the only way I was going to earn any respect was to, within two weeks, learn everyone’s job and how they did it.
That faded fast.
Lesson Two: You Do Not Have To Know Everything
I was now partnering with co-workers who I used to report to and support. They treated me like I was their secretary and blew me off.
Most of them were men and would “tease” me, which is a nice way of saying a form of schoolhouse, playground bullying on the gentler side of the scale. I heard a lot of “girl” and “gal” as a constant reminder I was not one of the boys.
Lesson Three: They Will See You For What You Present Yourself To Be
I started to see processes that were duplicating efforts or just made no sense in the way they were being done. When I brought this up to my supervisor, I was told it was the way it had always been done, or I was still too new to really know better. Shot down at every turn.
Lesson Four: If They Are Not Going To Hold The Door Open For You, Open It Yourself
In the beginning, it was a constant battle ending each night like I had just stepped out of the ring and got the crap knocked out of me by a prize fighter. I would put on a happy face at work then lick my wounds on the way home then put on the happy face for my son.
I lived a lie all the time and I got tired of it.
I had no leadership training, no tips on how to be a good manager, time management, communication or relationship building – no mentoring.
I was thrown into the wolves like entertainment akin to the Roman Coliseum Fights.
Lesson Five: Opportunities Are What You Make Of Them
I had enough. I realized that I was ruining an opportunity I was given. I had a chance to learn and grow as a person in this position and it was about time that I appreciate the gift I was given.
I drew upon something my dad had taught me: if you do not stand up for yourself, no one else is going to.
I decided I was either going to kick this opportunity’s butt or I was going to go down in flames, either way, it would be one heck of a ride. This is not a management style that I would recommend.
Not everyone hated me, maybe just a few. They only made my life hell if I let them.
I stopped responding. I learned to control my body language to not give away that I was either hurt or ticked off.
I was polite, patient and skipped over the nasty comments.
I was consistent in my actions and words. I treated everyone with respect even when they did not deserve it, even if I did not personally like them. I focused on the value they brought to the table instead of the personality and I made sure to recognize them for that value.
I approached my team members and asked for their help. I explained what we were trying to do, recognized them for their expertise and told them I needed their help.
I asked questions as to why they did things the way they did and made it clear that I was not judging or confronting, I wanted to learn and understand.
I had no hesitation in admitting when I did not know something. If someone gave me kudos for something, I recognized the team and the team members that made it happen. I shined the light on them for their value they gave every day to the organization.
Growing up with boys helped, I knew how to talk boy. I also had a son at home so I knew how to use the mom voice when I needed to and to quiet the schoolyard blowhards.
They wanted to make sure I knew I was not one of the boys – damn straight – I’m a girl!
I moved across the office from one of the leaders and the blowhards were having a grand time. One told me, “You better watch out, when he gets mad he throws things out of his office!”
I calmly looked at him and then the gentleman in question and replied, “That’s okay, I’ll just throw it back – and I don’t throw like a girl.” I smiled sweetly (as my mother would tell me to do) and walked away.
No, I am not one of the boys, but you are not going to pull my pigtails, either.
Tired of trying to change things and being told “it has always been done that way” or not being there long enough, I stopped asking for permission.
I started small, just little tasks or projects that I recreated, applied and then showed to my supervisor. At first there was pushback, but since I had started earning the trust of my team, they would let her know how these changes had helped them do their job.
In time, she began to trust me when I had an idea, although not completely and sometimes it was a tug of war, but I persisted. I also told her that I valued her opinion and I would really like her thoughts on a new way when presenting bigger ideas. We began to partner.
I started keeping a mental list of accomplishments and things I learned each day and reviewed them on my way home. I stopped beating myself up for mistakes, and I made many, and focused on the positives.
The lions and I made peace.
Nearly 20 years later I am now coaching on leadership, communication, moving careers and businesses forward. Although the journey has not always been a pleasant or smooth one, I cherish every twist and turn because it allows me to connect.
For those venturing into leadership for the first time know this: no CEO started as a CEO.
After many years of leadership, development and coaching, may I humbly offer the following bits of advice:
- Take head from the lessons and paths of others.
- Find a mentor.
- Believe in yourself.
- Accept your flaws, amplify your strengths.
- Learn to laugh at yourself.
- Learn to ask and more importantly, learn to listen.
- Do not try to please everyone – it will never happen.
- Love and appreciate yourself.
- Take care of yourself.
- Get a hobby outside of work, get a life outside of work.
- To heck with not being afraid to fail – embrace failing miserably! That is where your greatest lessons come that lead to your greatest successes. Plus it is a lot more fun when you free yourself!
I help identify and set a path to achieve individual career and company goals by using the V Formula:
Your Value + Your Voice = Visibility
Visibility is the leverage to move up or move on in your career; expand your book of business, grow your company and strengthen your team.
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Lisa K. McDonald, Owner and Principal of Career Polish, Inc. is a speaker and seminar facilitator at companies and professional organizations speaking to leadership, sales, teams, transitioning/downsized employees and networking groups about career mobility, personal branding, networking, creating executive presence and achieving career movement success. To find out more, visit Career Polish, Inc.