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Angela Pacienza is executive editor at The Globe and Mail.
I recently spent time mentoring a new female manager. She was so excited to have been promoted that she was shocked when a few months later she found herself miserable and feeling like a failure. She figured it’d be smooth sailing after “making it.”
The irony isn’t lost on me. This year, The Globe and Mail launched Power Gap, an ambitious series looking at various reasons women are failing to make strides in their careers. But there’s another problem we talk about less often: Once you break through the proverbial glass ceiling, then what? Here was my mentee, at the top of her game, feeling like she was failing.
While this woman was working in a slightly different industry than me, I found myself addressing many of the same concerns and frustrations I had early in my career. So much of her dissatisfaction came down to a basic misunderstanding of what being a manager entails and how to measure her own success. These feelings were only exaggerated by being in a pandemic and not being able to have face-to-face interactions.
I offered her the two main pieces of advice that I wish I’d had when I first started.
First, it’s important to recognize that it can be lonely at the top – that’s okay and completely normal. Your relationship with your staff will change. You can listen and be empathetic but complaining about the company or asking advice on how to tackle a difficult employee is a no-go zone. Someone is always looking up to you. Your actions and words influence them, as well as the work environment you are building.
So what’s a new leader to do? You need people at your level. You need to talk through leadership techniques. You need neutral peers and a safe space to seek advice, boost your confidence or coach you through a sticky situation.
In the early years of my management career I had few female peers. It was isolating and often led to frustration. I internalized problems and needlessly stressed. As a result, my professional growth felt stalled. It changed once I found the Online News Association Women’s Accelerator Program. I was introduced to other smart women in my field. We discussed navigating uncomfortable situations, building stronger teams and how to shake off working mom guilt. We shared stories of when we failed, but also when – and how – we persevered.
Finding other women in similar positions outside of your company takes a bit of work, but it’s not impossible. Start with professional organizations or look for webinars in your field or ones that are focused on women in leadership. Reach out to women after the event. This piece has some good advice on how to build a network during a pandemic, such as inviting your competitors to form a community.
Until you can build that network, find external resources to help you. The books I most frequently recommend include: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo, Radical Candor by Kim Scott (she also has an excellent Ted Talk on the topic) and Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.
The second most common advice I give to new managers is that it’s okay to not have the answers. Here’s a secret: Nobody knows exactly what to do in every situation. All women – and men – are at varying degrees of having the confidence to trust their gut about decision making.
I used to think it a sign of weakness to admit that as a manager I didn’t know the answer to a specific question, but after 20 years I realize saying, “I don’t know but let me find out,” is the mature response. As a manager, I would rather someone be honest with me and go find the correct answer, rather than lead me down the wrong path, so I apply the same thinking to others.
Part of not having all the answers is recognizing your blind spots. These are the unforeseen issues that aren’t on your radar. You don’t even realize you have them because you didn’t know to look. One of my mentors likes to remind me that these blind spots will trip me time and time again, so the sooner I recognize and learn mine (and they will change from job to job or project to project), the stronger a leader I will be. I have a sticky note on my wall next to my laptop that says “Lean into blind spots!” as a reminder.
I follow this advice in my hiring, selecting people with different viewpoints, experience and talent so they complement my blind spots. The diversity always leads to a stronger team.
Connected to this is not caring too much what people think. New managers sometimes limit themselves and edit their ideas out of fear of looking dumb. This was me for a long time (and, yes, sometimes I still fall into this trap). News flash: You are in your position because someone had faith in your skills and ability. Remember that. And work to build a safe and welcoming environment so your team can do the same (again, lead by example). Those wildcard ideas often lead to terrific results.
Sure, leadership isn’t always fun. The problems with easy solutions are usually resolved before they hit your inbox. But management can be incredibly rewarding and creative, especially when it includes watching your staff’s careers grow, projects come to life and your company succeed.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’ve always loved gardening, thanks to my father who every summer grew baskets of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and cucumbers from his special stash of seeds. Once I moved into my own house and started juggling kids and work, I would rush through planting, sourcing my summer vegetable plants from the local garden centre. But during last year’s first pandemic lockdown, I found myself with extra time, so I researched and discovered my own world of premium seeds. I quickly became addicted, ordering heirloom tomatoes and random, rare vegetables. Instead of buying work clothes or shoes, I was waiting for small packages containing black plum tomato and purple bush bean seeds from places such as Urban Harvest and West Coast Seeds. With my tiny backyard there’s barely space to plant but I don’t care. My sunny backroom is currently housing violet jasper tomatoes, Genovese basil and lemon cucumber baby plants until they can be safely transplanted outside.
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