We recently facilitated a leadership training on the subject of balanced conversations. The attendees were primarily first-time managers who were feeling the weight of their new responsibility.
Eager to impress their seniors and to appear confident in front of their direct reports, they shared the overwhelming feeling that they needed to know everything. The last thing they wanted to do was to seem like they had any weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge.
As such, we heard numerous comments along the lines of:
- “I don’t want to let the team down!”
- “I don’t want to admit that I don’t know how to write that report.”
- “I prefer not to ask for help and do everything myself…”
- “I literally don’t have time to say I don’t know – I have too many projects to deliver!”
I totally get it. It’s natural to want to appear competent, especially when you’ve just started a new role and feel the need to prove yourself.
My experience as a 29 year old manager
I’m reminded of my own experience as a first-time manager. Picture the scene: I was a fresh-faced 29 year old who had just been hired to run U.S. Senator Herb Kohl’s office. I’d never managed a team before, led an office (or even worked for the federal government)!
And yet, here I was, having got the job ahead of another candidate who was in his 50s and had been working for the senator for a decade. The craziest part? That person now reported to me.
Cue: massive imposter syndrome!
To compensate, I worked insanely long hours to stay ahead of the game – often trying to fix problems before they reached anyone else on the team. I didn’t share when I felt in over my head as I wanted to instill confidence in my leadership. Despite my best of intentions, this was not efficient or productive. And it didn’t do much for my office relationships either, as I found it hard to connect with my colleagues given that I didn’t want to let my guard down for fear they’d discover my ineptitude.
Things eventually came to a head when I became the bottleneck for everything. Projects were delayed and constituents were kept waiting, because I had so much on my plate that I couldn’t keep up with it all.
I had to learn that it was better to say “I don’t know” (how to deal with lobbyists, how to write that congressional inquiry, how to respond to that irate constituent, what the Senator feels about Senate Resolution #985, etc) or ask for help than to work myself to death. And I’m grateful for that lesson – as challenging and stressful as it was to learn!
If I could speak to my former 29-year-old self, I’d tell her three things:
Obstacles are normal
Just because there are obstacles, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader or somehow incompetent. In fact, the higher you climb up the ladder, the harder the work gets. Sometimes, you’ll encounter a hurdle no-one else has dealt with before. And there’s no guarantee you’ll have a playbook that’ll tell you how to handle it.
Negative feelings about obstacles are ok
The highest-performing leaders don’t pretend the obstacles aren’t there, or that everything is fine. Toxic positivity is not the solution here! Negative feelings are a completely normal part of life and a normal response to challenging situations.
Re-define what it means to be a strong leader
Imagine for a moment two different leaders.
One is like me as a 29 year old. She keeps in her feelings of overwhelm – because she doesn’t want her colleagues to judge her – and insists on doing everything alone. She fears being vulnerable will make her less effective.
The other one is unafraid to admit when she’s struggling. She seeks out help when appropriate and connects more deeply with her team because they respect her vulnerability and honesty.
Now ask yourself:
- Who’s the stronger leader? Is it really a sign of strength to keep everything in?
- And which leader do you think will grow more? The one who’s unwilling to admit she’s ignorant some of the time? Or the one who’s willing to be honest about her shortcomings?
Here’s the truth: being a first-time manager is hard, whether you’re 29 or any other age! And that’s ok. The way to deal with those challenges is to lean into them open-heartedly; to expect the obstacles and know that you will overcome them in time with the right people around you.
In my Thoughtfully Fit model, we call this skill set Endurance, because it’s what you’ll need to overcome obstacles.
To bring Endurance to your workplace, try the following core workout today:
- Pause: The next time you catch yourself saying that you prefer to do everything yourself, take a moment to Pause.
- Think: Consider that obstacles are ok. And asking for help doesn’t make you an incompetent manager – quite the opposite!
- Act: Ask your colleagues for the support you need to overcome the obstacles together.