As a first-year professional hall director I was very nervous about having to open two residence halls by myself. While I spent a lot of time learning how to do my job that summer, I forgot something fairly significant in this process. I forgot team building. Thanks to my fantastic employees, that team building happened at their own initiative. But my leadership failed them in those first few months. I was so focused on making sure we were getting all of our tasks done, that I forgot about my people. (Unsurprisingly I was not the most popular supervisor in that first year.)
When I moved into a middle management role within that same department, I submitted a proposal for a departmental restructuring. I felt it would address several key issues that we were facing with a single plan. I got approval from our Director to move forward, and I announced the plan during a departmental staff meeting. The meeting was disastrous and filled with a lot of anger, because the plan included changing some of our Graduate Assistant assignments for the following year. Obviously, for those young professionals, being surprised by an abrupt change in your role within the department can be distressing. Again, I’d been so focused on a task that I hadn’t stopped to think about how it would affect the folks in our department.
Luckily this time around I was paired with a great colleague who had a set of skills that I did not. Where I was task-oriented, strategic, and logical, she was gifted with the ability to know what people were thinking at all times – good old empathy. Over the next few years I often found myself turning to my colleague before I made decisions or sent emails. She helped me make sure that I was considering the ‘people perspective’ that I had forgotten at times in the past. While I knew that this was my weakness, taking the step to seek out assistance from someone else felt risky. But it was key to my ability to lead others.
In the past ten years I’ve learned that leadership isn’t always about checking things off a to-do list. Yes, obviously the job is important because that’s how you pay the bills. But even more important is doing things the way that makes sense for the people you’re supporting. Because – of course – people are more important than things. But when you’re task-oriented and you live by your to-do lists, you don’t have things like “check in with employees to see how they feel about their jobs this week” or “build relationships with that other department who might be the key to getting your big initiative off the ground” written down so that you remember to do them. (Or at least I don’t.)
A year ago I took a brief step out of the field into nonprofit work. In this new role I was tasked with reviving a lagging program. Unsurprisingly, I encountered a lot of resistance to the change that I was trying to implement. Once again I turned to the advice of my old colleague. I memorialized this advice in a quote that I found on Pinterest:
“People aren’t against you; they are for themselves.”
I have this tacked to my wall in my office as a reminder that people don’t necessarily hate ideas. But they do have to know that you care and they have to know how they fit into your plan. If you forget your people in the midst of focusing on tasks, you’re bound to get yourself into a mess. Leadership lesson learned.
This post is part of our #SAcompetencies series for February. Ever wish you knew then what you know now? #SApros pay it forward to #SAgrads looking for advice on soft skills and professional competencies before they job search this spring! For more info, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series too!