After years of rising through the corporate ranks making it to Senior Vice President level and managing a large team, I've spent the past few months working on a project as an individual contributor. The experience has taught me a few things, but the most startling is how different team conversations are when you are not the boss.
The project involved 25 people, each representing a different nationality, building great product and customer experiences for a Fortune 100 company in Silicon Valley. Here are four observations and learnings.
Observation One: I was invited to after work drinks and socializing
This sounds simple, but to be honest, it's been a long time since I've been included as part of the gang for drinks with no agenda in mind. We weren't out to celebrate a milestone, or someone's birthday or an anniversary. We were out simply because we enjoyed each other's company and shared a common bond of working on the same project. We talked a little about work but most of the time was spent just getting to know each other better, telling jokes, laughing and hanging out. This in turn helped create a warm daytime working environment where laughter was common and you looked forward to seeing the team everyday.
Lesson One: Take opportunities to get to know your team without an agenda.
Observation Two: Teammates shared personal stories that revealed what shaped them in life
I was taken aback by how upfront and quick my colleagues were to share personal stories about what shaped them in life. I heard powerful tales about coming to America from lands far away and starting day one in a new high school without knowing a lick of English. I heard about my colleagues' families, cultures, passions. fears and aspirations. These stories helped strengthen our relationships and bonds. In turn, if there was some slack to be filled because someone was behind on the project, you wouldn't even think about not helping your fellow teammate. It would be like letting down a friend or family.
Lesson Two: Create an environment where it's safe for colleagues to be their authentic self.
Observation Three: Feedback came fast and frank
After giving a presentation, one co-worker pulled me aside and gave me some brutal feedback. She said, "you know the first time you made that joke we all laughed because it was funny. Then you told it again at another presentation and a few of us laughed because we like you and know where you're coming from. But the third time it's just not-funny. Cameron, it's time to develop some new material." I was shocked but it was great advice and she was right. It also opened up a door for me to ask for her continued feedback so I would gain a better understanding of how others perceive me and how I can be a more effective communicator.
Lesson Three: Go out of your way to get real feedback and take it on board when you receive it. As they say, it's a gift.
Observation Four: When my colleagues complained, their concerns were genuine and reflected a real gap between worker and management
Let's just call it salad-gate. One day we all came into work and the price of a salad at the corporate cafeteria had gone up from $4 to $7 overnight with no explanation or advance warning. A lot of my colleagues and I would enjoy these salads daily but this was a huge jump. Needless to say it was the talk of the office for days on end. We used to all eat lunch together in the cafe at the same table every day. After salad-gate the group dispersed during the lunch hour. Some people opted for cheaper but less healthy options. Others brought their own lunch. But the most noticeable and saddest thing for me was that it took away a much loved common bond of the team. It was also often a time when we brainstormed more effective ways of solving problems that would ultimately save the company a lot more than the extra $3 a head it was making on salad.
Lesson Four: Weigh up the true effects of corporate decisions beyond cost savings and communicate them honestly and in a respectful time frame with employees.
It's been a refreshing experience to be part of this team and this project. I'm confident I've made some real connections that will last a long time. Above all, I've learned a lot from this experience that I will apply to managing teams in the future.
If you're a people manager and you have an opportunity to take part in a project or experience, work or non-work related, that puts you in a setting where you are not a leader, I highly encourage you to take it. At a minimum, you will develop more empathy and be more capable and willing to build authentic connection with your team. Chances are you will gain a whole lot more.
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