As hard as it is to admit, I spent the first half of my career doing all the wrong things to be successful as a manager. To make matters worse, I invested more than my fair share of time and energy lamenting the unfairness and politics I thought I saw around me. Like many smart, energetic young managers, I was full of self-confidence and a little light on self-awareness. I was certain my lack of upward mobility had to be a result of some nefarious plot against me or back room cronyism designed to elevate the incompetent and keep me down. I mean, what else could it possibly be? How could I be stuck in junior management quicksand while less talented people around me seemed to get promotion after promotion?
And then, one fateful day, I received the best possible advice from the most unlikely source. In an ironic twist of fate, I was given the three most valuable lessons on management I’ve ever heard … from the single worst manager I know.
How can that be possible?
You’re no doubt asking yourself.
What could a bad manager possibly know about great management?
Why would you listen to this person in the first place?
Here’s how it happened …
[Scene: Early 2000’s, High Growth Technology Firm, Departmental Kickoff]
The adrenaline was still pumping. I had nailed it. A management masterpiece. A strategic Stradivarius. I’d just delivered a presentation Steve Jobs would have envied. Short of the black turtle neck and jeans, I’d done it all—and with style. I’d just delivered a new product strategy that would change the face of the company forever. People would have to stand up and take notice of me now. Sure there were a few ruffled feathers in the room, but nothing could stop this train. My days as a lowly associate product manager would soon be over—or so I thought.
My presentation had been polished—nobody would deny that. I’d done the research, my ideas were well conceived, and I’d delivered the content with passion. Yes, a few of my fellow product managers had pushed back on my ideas, but I’d easily countered their logic. Whether they liked it or not, you couldn’t deny my way was the right way.
On my way out of the meeting room, feeling rather proud of myself, Ian, one of the senior product managers pulled me aside. As a manager, I had little respect for Ian. He was a peach of a guy but from what I could tell he’d risen up the ranks because he was friends with most of the executive team. I couldn’t point to one meaningful project he’d led. As far as I was concerned, he added no value to the company whatsoever. Whether or not that was true is entirely up for debate, but one thing is certain: He added value for me that day.
“Brendan,” he began, as he put his hand on my shoulder as if we were father and son on the baseball diamond. “Do you know why you’re still an associate product manager?”
“Why, Ian?” I responded only partly paying attention and mostly insulted that he had the audacity to coach me.
“Someone has to tell you this …” He spoke in the kind of soft voice normally reserved for doctors delivering bad news. “You make people uncomfortable. You push people too hard. You push your ideas too hard. You’re not getting promoted because nobody can stand the thought of you having any real authority.”
Umm…what? My world instantly started to crumble around me.
Who is this guy and why is he giving me career advice? And why can’t I shake the feeling that he may be right?
In the moments that followed, Ian went on to teach me three critical lessons about being a successful manager in a corporation. You don’t need to be smart or hard working or passionate to implement them. As much as he didn’t personify the image I held of what a great manager was, I couldn’t argue with the fact that Ian was so much more successful than I was. So I decided right there and then to hear him out. Ten years later, I’m very glad I did.
Here’s what he taught me:
1. Never be Too Passionate about Your Ideas
Many of us dream of being transformative figures. We are drawn to icons like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg for their passion and perseverance. But for every Jobs there are hundreds who tried and failed to execute a passion-based strategy. Ian taught me that a reputation for objectivity is much more useful than a reputation for passion. The only surefire way to build that image is to commit to providing objective alternatives to every scenario rather than insisting on any one agenda or idea. As great as your ideas may seem to you, “you” are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is “what." Focus on helping your company evaluate ideas objectively and avoid passionate pursuits.
2. Learn to Promote Your Projects with Key Influencers
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming your work speaks for itself—especially when you’re busy. As managers, we often prioritize the work and deprioritize internal promotion during crunch time. This is a recipe for career disaster. It makes the false assumption that people in your organization, especially those outside your department, actually define success the same way you do. We know that corporations are driven by human priorities. Demonstrating to influencers in your company how your work will benefit them is much more important than the work itself. Learning to promote your projects before, during, and after launch will allow you to strategically create an environment for success. Doing so effectively can be an insurance policy against project failures.
3. Don’t Hold People Accountable; Help Them
Holding people accountable is another modern career principle we’ve allowed to spiral out of control. Ian showed me there is much more to be gained by being seen as a mentor than as a task master. In practice people gravitate to, hire, and promote individuals they like to be around, not people who demand accountability. What’s more, acts of mentorship build an image of leadership and make people want to work with and for you. Acts of discipline build a tactical image which runs counter to the leadership image that will ultimately get you promoted.
Thank You, Ian
I learned the hardest and most important management lessons of my life that day, and I learned them from the worst manager I know. As managers we need to realize that being effective in a company has much more to do with how we work with other human beings than it does with how smart or savvy we are. It took me the better part of a decade to learn this, but when I finally did, it changed my career forever.
You can further hone your active listening skills for managers at these AMA seminars:
How to Communicate with Diplomacy, Tact, and Credibility
Leading with Emotional Intelligence