If there’s one thing I’ve seen in my time making ads, it’s that the kind of hard-charging, drill sergeant superior my parents reported to is not someone I want to work for (or learn from). I spent the first half of my career in a haze of imposter syndrome, faking it until I made it and pretending I knew what it took to oversee a team. But the more time passed, and the more people I managed, the more I realized that I wasn’t alone in rejecting the way authority had been defined in the workplace.
The effect a manager has on someone’s work satisfaction has been overstated to the point of cliché. We’ve all had horrible bosses. In fact, I’ve probably learned more from the terrible ones than the great ones. But as I’ve grown, I’ve realized that becoming a worthy mentor isn’t that complicated. It’s just a matter of forgetting the old rules of business overlords past, and authentically creating our own.
Over the years, I’ve distilled a few informal guiding commandments that have saved me time and heartache on the road to becoming someone my team (hopefully) doesn’t dread talking to every day. Below you’ll find my top three:
1. Empower Your Team to Architect Their Own Destiny: I can’t overstate the power of giving someone who reports to you the opportunity to create their own future. Early in my career, it was ingrained in me that performance reviews and goals were things my manager created, dictated, and enforced. But that never felt right. If it was my career, why can’t the goals be my creation? I’m most fulfilled when I define my own path.
And I’m not alone. I’ve found that when you give your team input on their role and contribution, it fundamentally changes the way they approach their work. And those given the chance to define their own goals usually achieve them. As a bonus, that frees you up as a leader to guide, advise, and advocate for your team when it comes to discussions happening above their pay grade.
One of the best parts of my job is sitting down with each member of my team at the beginning of the year to collaborate on a job description for the exact role they’d want when they’re promoted. Not only does this give them a tangible, defined set of goals to be held accountable for, but it makes them responsible for building their own future. And I’ve noticed that anyone who’s plotted their own path to success carries a lot more enthusiasm for the work it takes to get there.
2. Less Is More: I swore after my first experience with a micromanager that I would NEVER turn out that way. And yet, when things get hairy, I always find myself inching closer to the action, ready to step in at a moment’s notice, whether my team needs me to or not. But we have a saying at the agency: Fail. To Learn. Success is great, but the best lessons come from our failures. Does that mean I step away and rip out the safety net? Absolutely not. I’m available every step of the way. But it’s critical to be accessible without lording over every detail. If you’re not giving your team the space and ability to learn, grow, and occasionally fail forward, it only stunts their growth. And yours.
The best way I found to let go and trust my people is to create systems to encourage their development and trust in themselves. For me, that meant instructing everyone on my team to come to me with issues when they can present them in a simple format:
Problem -> Two Possible Solutions -> Their Recommendation
95% of the time, they’re right! This does wonders for my team’s critical thought process and confidence in their own intuition. It also gives me the chance to step away from the tactical and into the strategic nature of the work. Believe me, that pays dividends for both parties long after the problem is solved.
3. Perspective Is Everything: In this business, there will be some shitty days. And early in my career, I had no idea how to handle those. I’m someone who personalizes everything, so if something goes wrong it’s a good bet that I believe it was my fault. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier to understand that my self-worth is not defined by the day-to-day success of a project. And with that knowledge comes the responsibility of reiterating it to my team. No one wants a mentor whose mood fluctuates with the ups and downs of the day to day, especially in our industry.
I wish I could say there’s a trick, or an equation, or a process to do this effectively ... but there’s not. What works for me, though, is reminding myself how much the value of my people outranks the stress of the job. Anyone in a leadership role carries the immense responsibility to listen, to counsel, and to empower. But their most important responsibility is to reiterate to their people that even on the bad days, they’re still good humans.
One final note underlying all of this: Developing your own authentic leadership principles is much easier if you’re part of an organization that supports that effort. I’ve found a company that encourages and embraces my development as a mentor on my terms—that was a big reason I signed on. The next time you’re considering a new opportunity, it might not hurt to ask if your potential destination will do the same for you.
Defining oneself as a leader used to come with a set of mandatory traits and qualities, at least that’s what I was told. But the generation driving work forward—my generation—knows we can be better. It’s on us to redefine leadership over the next few decades. I, for one, prefer to define it on my own terms. And if you take one thing away from this, I hope it’s that you will choose to do the same.
Your team will thank you.