When I was in college I worked at a bagel place across from Lincoln Center in New York. For a job that paid minimum wage plus a split of the tip jar, it was an awesome place to work.
Opera singers would come in and chat all the time, and at the end of the night the restaurant gave us the extra bagels and cream cheese to take home, so I always had friends dropping by when they were hungry.
At the bagel place I worked alongside a guy named Chip. Chip was the nicest guy imaginable and as mellow as could be. Chip ambled into work about ten minutes late every shift, and slipped into the alley behind the building to spark up a doobie on most of his lunch hours.
He was a great co-worker from a likeability standpoint but he didn’t do a lot of work, mainly because he wasn’t exactly tracking with the frenzied bagel-provisioning activity around him.
“Hey, Liz, need some help with those orders?” he’d ask me while I was scrambling to construct a New Yorker bagel sandwich while pouring drinks for three people and watching the toaster.
“Naw, thanks for asking, Chip!” I’d say, because he really was trying to help, even if he was sitting on a box in the break room when he made the offer.
The managers were nice to Chip because at that time it was hard to find minimum-wage employees who would show up, and Chip always made it to work eventually.
One day somebody posted a notice about a supervisor opening in the bagel shop. I didn’t think of applying. I didn’t expect to stay at the bagel place for long.
One day, Chip came into work looking a little more put-together than usual. “It’s my interview day!” he told me. “This is a big day!”
I couldn’t believe it. Had Chip not figured out that the last person to get promoted to a supervisory role is the person who can barely do the job in the first place? Poor Chip did not understand.
When it was time for his interview, Chip walked solemnly into our manager’s office. He came out about eight minutes later. Our kindly manager Sarah had her hand on Chip’s shoulder and was talking to him gently, like a mom. “Oh no,” I thought. Chip walked over to me glumly. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but they’re going to promote someone else.”
I said “I’m sorry to hear that, Chip,” and he said “I’m going to work for my cousin in Staten Island. This place is biased against me!”
I felt sorry for him. He didn’t have the faintest clue what being a supervisor was all about. When I quit my job at the bagel place, Chip was still there.
How would you begin to coach a person who doesn’t understand what management is? A supervisor isn’t just a person with a tie and a title. Management means taking responsibility for more than your own job.
When I became a manager myself a few years down the road, it was the responsibility for everything around me that hit me first and hardest. Geez Louise, I thought, everything that happens in this department is on my shoulders now. Well, okay then. Let’s figure it out.
I feel sorry for people like Chip who don’t understand that being a manager isn’t just a matter of getting a pay raise and getting to boss people around. When you’re the manager, there are no excuses.
If someone goofs up, it’s on you, because you hired them and you trained them. Leading other people means having altitude on the work you’re doing, looking out across the horizon to see where problems might be emerging and taking care of them early.
It means telling the truth about hard subjects — something left out of every leadership training course I’ve ever sat through. We don’t teach leadership very well. We don’t start every leadership training session by acknowledging that anything a leader does just because s/he can by virtue of his her authority is probably not a good thing to do.
We don’t always teach leaders that bringing the hammer down is the worst possible thing a manager can do and something to avoid with all your might. We don’t teach them that managers who can stay calm, back off, soften and be human at work are the ones who always win. Managers who respect and value the individual talents of the people on their teams get the best results by every metric.
We let people like Chip go on believing that the manager is the person who tells everyone else what to do, and lots of folks — including middle- and senior-level executives in enterprises and institutions everywhere – never think about their leadership roles any other way.
You could be manager material if your first thought when completing any task at work is “Is there a smarter way to do this?” If you see something that bugs you and you find a human way to talk about it, especially when other people are afraid to speak up, you could be manager material.
People who complain and grouse about things they don’t like without addressing those problems directly are not manager material in my book.
A management job is a leadership position, and all of us are leaders whether we oversee other people or not. We can choose to lead. We can run our own desks. We can speak with the authority of our own convictions.
There are dysfunctional organizations that will promote people like Chip merely because they’ll do what they’re told and keep quiet about silly or destructive programs and policies. It’s sad but true that in unhealthy organizations, one of the clearest signs of the toxic culture is the prevalence of fearful, see-no-evil, bleating sheep in leadership positions.
You can’t work for long in a place like that, because your mojo will seep out of you every time someone shuts down a creative idea or independent thought, and every time you muzzle yourself out of fear that somebody won’t like what you have to say.
If you’re drawn to leadership but haven’t been able to make the case to your manager, it may be a blessing in disguise. Only the people who get you, deserve you, so if you’re pushing a rock uphill trying to get recognition for your leadership potential, that’s a sign to move on and get that recognition someplace else.
Sticking around and complaining is the opposite of leadership, self-actualization or even adult behaviour. We call that state victimhood.
It will never grow your flame to stay in a situation that you don’t like, just because you already have the job. That’s what Chip did the whole time I knew him. We can run our own careers, and in fact we have to do that in this new millennium workplace.
The first job of a manager is to keep the team’s engine running, and by ‘engine’ I don’t mean the production line but rather, the forward energy known as Team Mojo in the group. If people aren’t feeling good about the work and one another, nothing good can happen.
This is why I hate ridiculous management practices like Stack Ranking. There are dozens of them – weenfied fear-based practices that suck away Team Mojo and do nothing for customers or shareholders.
Those programs reinforce the idiotic notion that the manager knows more than the employees do. How could that possibly be?
A manager by definition is further removed from the action than the people he or she supervises. Anyone who goes into leadership thinking that the manager knows best because of his title is someone who should never be made responsible for others.
If you’re a natural coach and advisor or want to become one, then by all means pursue a management career. If they don’t see your aptitude in one place, the next place will. If you’re chafing under the wrong manager, take it upon yourself to change your situation before your mojo is drained completely.
The old notion that people who get promoted to management jobs are automatically smarter or more capable than the people they supervise is going out the window. Little by little we’re remembering that the authority invested in anyone by virtue of his title is fake authority, and that the trust we build between us and our workmates is the only fuel that powers anything worth doing.
Luckily, we revert to our human state when it matters and trust people who are trustworthy, not people who puff out their chest and spit out orders. We are an old species, and we know what’s real and what’s fake.
Published in collaboration with LinkedIn Influencer
Author: Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder, Human Workplace
Image: An employee works on a laptop in front of a mural of the New York City skyline, at the New York City Google office. REUTERS/Erin Siegal