…So on Tuesday I wrote the first part of a two part post exploring the big learnings I took from great bosses I’ve had throughout my career. Part one covered my first three bosses – today I want to talk about the last three:
I moved into my first Manager role – from Generalist to HRM – after my prior boss (#3) left the Company to pursue other opportunities. Many aspects of my role stayed the same – I was still in charge of managing day-to-day employee relations, recruiting, training, and safety at the location. And yet the job was without a doubt much bigger. My client group expanded to include supporting an executive and a half dozen directors; I had responsibility for several salaried (HR and administrative) direct reports for the first time in my career; I also now had ownership of talent management, payroll, and was the primary point of contact on all Labor Relations issues. Finally, I took on a Project Manager role wherein I supported HR efforts for a multi-million dollars business divestiture (which was a huge exercise in change management for the employee population). At core, wear as before my focus was fundamentally on tactical HR issues – e.g. filling open reqs, resolving employee relations issues between line employees, leading a line, administering trainings etc. – my new role was much more strategic: I was creating trainings to develop the identified skills, competencies, and opportunities for growth of my client group, partnering with managers on succession planning at all levels, and both setting and leading the labor relations and talent strategy (attracting, retaining, and developing internal and external talent) for the client group I supported. I also played a much more active role in compensation decisions at all levels, and was responsible for dozens of different processes and workstreams related to HR systems, human capital data management, benefits administration and roll-out etc.
…But if I am being honest, the biggest change in the role was adjusting to the much higher level of visibility and being looked at as a leader. Wear as in all of my other roles I was either an individual contributor or tasked with leading very entry level populations, in this role I quickly became aware of the fact that people were watching much of what I said and did. I routinely addressed large groups of people and/or other leaders discussing high importance issues… and the comments and decisions I made carried much more weight than they ever had before: If I was silent on a matter that was controversial it was viewed as tacit endorsement… and if I made a comment that could be construed in a negative light then it made waves in a way that my words never had before. In certain client groups, I was setting the culture and expectations based on the way I addressed things.
…As a person whose default approach to life is ‘live and let live’, this freaked me out. My permissive approach to HR was fine when I was in individual contributor roles; because even when I was tasked with enforcing policies and setting standards, if I was too laissez-faire about any given item then my reports-to Manager could (and occasionally did) step in with suggestions on how I needed to amend my approach. But in my new role, there wasn’t really anyone managing my performance anymore. I could make the calls that I wanted to make, and if they were bad calls there wasn’t really a built-in safety net. I could seek feedback from others with more experience if I chose… but decisions mostly rested with me. People regularly came to me for guidance, and I was expected to have answers.
…Entering into this role, I knew enough about HR from a legal, process, and best practice standpoint to manage the function… but where I struggled was with (i) holding people accountable and (ii) reconciling my self-image as a free-thinking, hands-off individual contributor with the leader, project and people manager I was being asked to be. My 4th boss played an invaluable role in helping me on both counts.
What I learned from him:
I’d had a mentor/mentee relationship with my new Manager even before I had a formal reporting relationship with him. He was my boss’s boss beforehand (The Senior Manager for location), and had given me a lot of coaching on effective performance management whilst I held my developmental Line Manager role over the proceeding year. As my Manager he built on this, giving me valuable insights into effective follow-through, coaching, and feedback. He lived the advice that he provided – methodically reviewing the performance of his direct reports, praising them on their strengths, coaching them on their weaknesses, and moving quickly to address performance issues. On more than one occasion – when I defaulted to my permissive nature and allowed various issues (employee relations and otherwise) to go unresolved because I didn’t think they were big enough deals to address – he pushed back on my approach. He reminded me that what I didn’t act on (or didn’t act on strongly enough), set the water level as it concerned cultural expectations on performance and behavior. Through observing him and internalizing his coaching and advice, for the first time I learned how to hold people accountable and grow comfortable in a leadership role.
While I’d had an informal mentorship with Manager #4 for over a year, he was actually only my reports-to manager for around 4-5 months before moving into another role within the company. Afterwards, Manager #5 stepped into his old role (and I again had a new boss).
Some of the great strengths she immediately brought to the table were a huge emphasis on transparency, frequent and open communication, professionalism and respect, and perhaps most importantly a strong willingness and desire to objectively listen to all stakeholders.
^All of my Managers have held these traits to varying degrees, but she embodied them in a way that I haven’t seen before or since. I think that Manager #5 honestly and truly believed in hearing all sides of an issue from all stakeholders regardless of level, and took great care to balance the needs of the business and the employee population in a way that left no one in doubt about her objectivity and fairness. To this point: The most frequent (and accurate) comment that I heard from people throughout the organization is that she listened to people and had their best interests in mind. She was authentic in her dealings with others and sought to collaborate and build consensus when dealing with others across the organization.
To this point, she was the first Manager I had that I really partnered with on making big decisions with: From developing training programs to setting the talent strategy to raising the water level on performance, we spent a lot of time thinking through and implementing solutions together. I think a major reason for this was because it was the first time I was ready to be a contributor in this capacity… but I also think a big contributor here was that we were both always on the same wavelength. With few exceptions, if I was leaning a certain way I generally found that she shared the same views… and when she didn’t I almost always came around to her way of thinking. We were both collaborative and consensus seeking by nature, and both of us really valued transparency and communication. This created an easy rhythm that allowed us to work together on rolling out a lot of programs together, which also empowered me to become confident in my decision making.
What I learned from her:
The biggest thing I learned from Manager #5 is how to balance the needs of all stakeholders when making choices. While I have always been able to empathize, this Manager taught me how to apply that empathy to my decision making.
I’m still learning new insights from my current Manager, but I would say that the biggest takeaway I’ve gained from him is how to make tough decisions. Watching him work as an HRBP and Project Manager for a 2,000+ employee division, I’ve seen him make extremely difficult choices over and over again.
…I am by nature collaborative – I look to seek consensus whenever possible, and loathe using formal authority to force an action or decision unless absolutely necessary. *But* my experience with Manager #6 has shown me that in cases when finding compromise is not plausible, that it’s possible to force difficult and even unpopular decisions and still be respected and effective in one’s role. Leadership is often about making tough choices in a decisive and graceful manner… and doing it well requires patience, poise, empathy, strong leadership/communication, and empathy.
…I will probably always default to seeking the middle ground or finding broad consensus when faced with any conflict or challenge… but in the short time I’ve worked for my current Manager I’ve learned how to also advance an agenda in other ways.
There are dozens of other managers that I’ve had informal reporting relationships with over the years in addition to those outlined in these posts (maybe I will talk about them another time), but this was a fun, introspective post.
As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.