Around this time last year, I was tasked to lead a team of four creatives at work.
All my life, I didn’t really aspire nor dream of leading others, especially at work. I just wanted to write, create art, and be on my way.
But any opportunity to influence and help others grow is a privilege more than anything, so I took on the challenge and just kept taking everything in stride, one day at a time.
As expected, there were a lot of ups and downs, however there have been days that were tougher than most. Before I knew it, four grew to six, and eventually to nine people. Looking back, here are some of the most significant lessons I’ve learned after a year of being a manager, all of which were written progressively, with myself coming back to this draft now and then whenever I’d reach a ‘breakthrough’ at work.
Managing others is managing yourself first.
What consumes your brain space greatly affects the words that come out of your mouth, the behaviour you show at work, and the way you treat those around you. But what does brain space have to do with people management anyway?
I attended a workshop about leadership a few months back, and one of the overarching lessons from the mentor was that who you are deep inside dictates how you lead others. If you have unresolved emotional issues, it becomes a lot more difficult to juggle between the pressure at work and your own personal problems. If you can’t use your time wisely for personal hobbies, that shows in the way you manage every project that’s thrown at you on the job. And so on, so forth. Good managers always lead by example and being able to manage yourself properly first gives your people a reason to trust that they, too can be managed well.
The first few months are going to be the toughest months.
It can become very overwhelming at first — the physical, intellectual, and emotional demands will all mull together when you start leading people. When I began taking on the role, there was a bit of a shock, particularly around the first four months into it. I was thinking all the time, I was staying in the office longer, and I had to try very, very hard to stop worrying about how people were evaluating me. To an extent, I would fear that I was going to be demoted because of the smallest mistakes!
Nobody told me that the first few months of being a manager would be the hardest part of all, with every waking day bringing more challenge than they are bringing good news. In the shortest way possible to describe it, it was basically the ‘Trial by Fire’ phase. And when I thought it was an inadequacy on my part, other managers and many research papers later told me that it’s pretty much a normal feeling to go through. Now, every time younger managers come to me for advice, I’d tell them the same thing: It’s difficult, it’s normal, and how you deal with it will determine what kind of a leader you’ll become years from now.
Respect knows no boundaries.
A wonderful Australian chef I met in the Workforce Success Conference once said:
That left a huge impact on me. When you expect respect, first and foremost you should be able to give it. This is especially important for managers because we are people whom others expect to be tolerant of everyone we come across. What I’ve learned is that regardless of role, race, age, and anything else, respect for your workmates in the workplace (and outside of it) is important. Even if you don’t like a person, their output, and work ethic, be the better person and choose to respect them enough to work well with them, help them become better, and still treat them as people even during those times you are not in need of their help. Healthy boundaries should always shine when what others do are beginning to affect you; it pays to respect yourself too, enough that you can continue focusing on what really matters at work, which is not your personal feelings or biases towards those you do not get along with.
At the end of the day, how strongly you feel about the people you work with will affect your overall attitude, and as somebody who’s expected to lead others well, the last thing you want to be is the one who deserves the least respect among the lot.
Having thick skin is an important trait.
Being in a position of influence, you always will hear criticism. Whether it’s from your own team or people you don’t directly work with, expect that your coworkers will always have something to talk about. This is not to say that all word of mouth is negative, compliments and words of kindness can fly freely as well. I’ve learned that being a manager requires more than just technical skills around work; one of the most important things that a manager needs to have is thick skin — it’s one thing to hear honest feedback, but having to weed out all whispers and gossips requires a strong sense of personal boundaries. If you let everything you hear get to you, you’ll never make it out alive.
(But take note that more than being able to endure what could potentially hurt you, it’s also valuable to be able to listen to them and reflect on what you can change every now and then.)
Producing tangible output is not always possible.
As a content creator, this was difficult for me to grasp at first. But the more I looked at our monthly reports, the more I realised that in my current role, the ultimate goal is to move people forward and help them produce output. I’ve realised that when you see your people create real results, it’s a good indicator that you’re doing something right in terms of management. The bigger the team becomes, the trickier the puzzle becomes too. Each individual has their own expertise, their own level of experience, their own set of strengths and weaknesses, and the responsibility to help everyone utilise their time to become more productive becomes the bigger priority more than creating your own materials.
Because getting the nitty-gritty stuff out of the way is literally what a manager’s daily life is.
If they aren’t able to achieve what they need to achieve because of work issues and additional things that hinder them from producing output, then you might need to revisit what you’ve been doing as a manager.
As a manager, you’re there to make sure everybody is fulfilling their jobs, constantly hearing them out, and then discussing task blockers with whoever is clogging their momentum. You’re like a stoplight that tells people when it’s time to go and in what direction they need to go to.
A tall order, but the reality is that this is really what it’s like to manage people of diverse skills and different personalities.
Actively listening to your people matters. A lot.
We’ve all had that one friend we keep offering advice to but end up never taking it. It’s exactly that kind of situation, except it also builds distrust among your people. When they don’t get heard (and yes, they can tell when this is happening) and when they feel that their opinions aren’t taken into consideration, they begin doing one of two things: 1) they give insincere feedback or 2) they stop caring altogether — the latter being the worst of all possibilities.
There’s a difference between listening and actively listening. Based on experience, a lot of miscommunication happens in the workplace when you don’t listen with intention. The time to finish tasks doubles up when workflows aren’t clear; correcting mistakes eats up more time when people do not talk to each other regularly and your people will not have a clear career direction until you talk to them of what’s really expected in the job. In hindsight, you’ll save a lot more time and effort trying to tie loose ends if, from the beginning, you engage in honest conversations and act on what your people have to say.
It’s not that hard to encourage your team.
Engaging with and encouraging people is a necessary part of management. Not every day at work will be roses and rainbows, and it’s up to you as a manager to pull people out of the mud when times get tough. Encouragement doesn’t always have to cost you time and money. Just listening to them, making actionable items, involving them in decision-making processes, and giving them credit, where credit is due, are enough. Sometimes, the simplest forms of thoughtfulness are what you need to show to get everyone through the slumps and come out stronger than ever.
Be mindful of the difference between managing and micro-managing.
The rule of thumb I’ve realised so far is this: If you don’t trust that your people can do well without you, you’re not managing them, you’re just being an overbearing employee with a title attached to your name.
They’re in their respective roles for a reason, so don’t wring their necks all the time trying to see what they’re doing. Trust them, give them what they need, and encourage them to excel in what they do.
Micromanagement is a sure sign of insecurity. At times, there are moments I become tempted to hold people by their hands and really show them how I envision things to be done, but that will result in three things: 1) they will feel like they’re not doing things the way they can, 2) they will not learn how to do better from inevitable mistakes, and 3) you will end up suffocating them and taxing yourself out all the time. As a manager, you have to remember, you’re only there to make sure they don’t take unnecessary detours along the way, but you still have to let them take the wheel.
Check your ego. Consciously, consistently.
And leave it out the door if you can. As a manager, you’re there to lead from the front. Being given that title isn’t synonymous to bossing people around. I think this is a common mistake since the ‘promotion’ and the title will become some sort of warrant to let it get on your head. We’ve sensationalised job progressions as a shiny badge to constantly wear, when in fact it’s simply a way of being given responsibility to lead better than before, to lead by example, and to lead to serve. I will admit that at first, it seemed like an easy way to tell people that I’m very good at my job, but the more you realise what you’re really there for, the more you start thinking about how else you can be better rather than just strutting around and waiting for people to bow down to you.
Emotional stress is inevitable — make sure you take care of your mental health.
If you care about your people and their welfare enough, the trade-off is emotional stress. The heavy burden of having to tend to their needs is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could get troublesome the more you succumb to it and the more involved in the role you become.
On the bright side, feeling this way means you care about your people, maybe more than your mind and body would allow. Don’t mistake this type of care for caring for your own image or position — this sort of ‘care’ entails an entirely different type of worry that will definitely show easily. Caring for your people will manifest in ways that become introspective, as you start thinking more and more about what other things could be better for everyone: What can you do more to make everyone more efficient? Are there better ways of working? Can people improve their time management skills? How do you communicate a collective objective to people with different job descriptions? The list goes on and on, and you have to remember that not all questions need to be answered immediately.
The more you tend to the demands of your work, the more you should take care of your mental health. Do your job well but stop thinking about it once you get home. Pursue meaningful hobbies, regularly go on holidays, and spend time with your loved ones. These small acts leave a big impact to your sanity, and this sense of mindfulness is what will keep you grounded the harder the job becomes.
Effective leadership will be side-by-side with tough love.
Being a manager can make you feel like a parent — you’ll do practically most anything to protect those under your wing.
But you have to let your people experience success and failure first-hand.
The thing is, we cannot help them grow in their field if they’re only handed the rewards and benefits all the time; it’s important for your team, especially the most inexperienced ones, to know how it feels to be disappointed, afraid, and sad as well. Fighting fire and being on your feet are some of the most important skills I’ve learned on my road to becoming a manager, and either did not stem from the happy days with my hips stuck to my desk. The calm I’m able to sustain during stressful times in the job is borne out of the most anxiety-riddled, tear-stricken, and caffeine-fuelled days prior to getting to where I am. And if, as managers, we fail to let people experience such trials, then we fail as managers.
Every manager’s job in every bad situation is to ensure that individuals are able to find ways to creatively and efficiently solve problems, and help them realise that coming out of these situations as more effective, more mature people are what’s expected of them.
Develop people well enough that they end up not needing you anymore.
It’s a bit disarming sometimes to think about this but I genuinely believe that a manager’s job includes the capacity to shape the next managers who can take over someday. Nobody stays in one job forever, all managers included. Your people should grow enough — or even more — during the time that you’re leading them so they end up becoming so frighteningly good, they threaten to take you out of the job. Sure, it’s scary to think of being replaced and you know, being dismissed, but going back, if you have your ego in check the perspective is different: If your people end up being good enough to replace you as a manager, then you’ve succeeded beyond your job description. You were able to show them the ropes, help them grow as individuals, change their mindset for the better, and make them realise that there are better things ahead of them if they are willing to go above and beyond.
Managing people is 99% stress and 1% ROI.
My advice for people who aspire to manage others is this: First, be 200% sure of what you expect, think of, and are willing to do in the job before you jump into it.
It is definitely not for everyone. I’ve met people who have experience leading others and expressing that they would not wish to be in that position again. Getting that promotion requires skills and effort, but actually managing people well enough into measurable success requires a whole lot of investment and passion. And those who are only in it for the superficial reasons will easily stand out and crumble into the pressure.
Honestly, more than the shiny title and the possibility of a fat paycheck, being a manager is absolutely more stressful than it is rewarding. Rewards require months and months to see, both in your people and the efforts you exert, and most of the time you’ll be forced to sit through those gaps in-between, just feeling helpless and frustrated that nothing is going the way you envision them to. The real rewards — better people, better work ethics, better quality of output, etc. — only come after everything falls into place, and boy that is one hell of a sight to see. But make no mistake, getting to that point is nothing short of exhausting. It’s like composing a music piece for years, having to practice it for many hours every single day, before finally performing it in front of many people. And again, not everyone is patient enough nor willing enough to do what the job requires of them.
The next time you start thinking of jumping into a people management role, steel yourself. While a whole bunch of chaos will hit you in the face and push you to your limits, make no mistake that the payoff will all be worth it if you’re prepared to face everything and become better yourself.