In the wake of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, I heard a lot of women say that Sandberg's admonition not to "leave before you leave" didn't resonate with them. If anything, getting married and/or having kids spurred them to work harder. But one idea in Lean In that rang true for me was that, in addition to the institutional barriers in place that make work more difficult for women than men, women hold themselves back as a result of the self-doubt baked into them at an early age.
If you manage other people, the moment you became a boss might be the moment when that self-doubt came to a head -- I know it was for me. I secretly felt that there was no chance in HELL I could do this job and that I had better inform the person who hired me that a very grave mistake had been made. Yesterday on XOJane Louise Hung, who is studying to be a theater director, wrote about the doubts she's faced while taking charge. Several of Hung's fears resonated with me and made me think about the all of the ways being the boss has been difficult and scary for me, too.
Here, in no particular order, is some wisdom I've gleaned from my time in charge. If you've been a manager, do these ring true? Are there other lessons you've learned that I missed? Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.
1. Conflict is inevitable -- and you CAN handle it.
It's not easy to tell someone something that has to be said but could hurt their feelings or disappoint them or could cause them to quit, or just hate you forever. But in most cases, they won't, and constructive feedback makes for better employees.
2. Fear of failure stifles your sense of opportunity.
To be a manager or boss means other people will look to you for answers. Terrifying, right? Hung says she had to learn to accept that, "If the ship goes down, the fault will be on me." That's true, but why not focus on the fact that you're in charge of the ship to begin with? What amazing things do you want to do while you're at the helm?
3. You can't do that much about seeming too girly -- or not girly enough.
Seem too feminine and you come across as vulnerable and unqualified to be in charge. Be less feminine (read: too tough) and you're disliked. As Sheryl Sandberg points out in Lean In, little girls who tell others what to do are called "bossy." The term is rarely applied to little boys.
Here's the thing: you can tailor your behavior to a certain degree, but how feminine you are -- or aren't -- has to do with your body language and personal style and speech tone and patterns, and you shouldn't have to change those things for the workplace. Ultimately you're going to be you. Hung wrote, "I learned to own ... being a woman in charge and everything that comes with it -- tears included."
4. Of course you sometimes want someone to tell you what to do.
Hung pointed out that being in charge all the time, being the lookout and sounding board and traffic cop and auditor and visionary and quality control and ultimate buck-stops-here decision maker is exhausting. You can ask mentors and other trusted advisors for their opinions as to how to proceed, but ultimately your decisions are your own. Develop a process for weighing all of your options and the risks and possible benefits, go through it each time, then stick to your guns.
5. Every leader shifts course sometimes.
Everyone changes his or her mind. When's the last time you stopped respecting someone senior to you for doing it? Maybe you were annoyed, but being the conscientious employee that you are, you probably just adapted -- fast.
The more you beat yourself up for backtracking -- and the more you beat yourself up in general -- the more likely you are to second guess yourself and flip flop. Acknowledge that occasionally you're going to change your mind and that's okay -- since you're a reasonable person, you'll probably have good reasons.
6. Your employees are going to see your flaws.
If you're afraid of the people you manage realizing you aren't perfect, you're basically afraid of them realizing that you are a human being. Chances are they're already onto you.
7. You aren't supposed to have all of the answers.
All you're expected to do is be curious and hardworking in seeking out those answers, and to help those who work for you strategize about the best ways to find them.
8. You aren't going to be "found out."
Being put in charge may trigger a serious case of Imposter Syndrome -- the sense that you haven't really earned it, and that it's only a matter of time until someone discovers that. The best remedy I've discovered for this particular malaise is to take out a piece of paper and write down everything you did today. Then write down your major accomplishments in the past year. Then list your top three career achievements overall. Look at that long, long list. You deserve to be right where you are.
9. There's no "one mistake" in your career, either.
In one of Jezebel's best posts this year, Hugo Schwyzer tapped into something huge: lots of women and girls are raised to think that one mistake can ruin their lives. That fear can be derailing your life with an unwanted pregnancy, which was Schwyzer's focus, but I think fear of the one mistake that ends a career holds back a lot of women. It can make you respond to an email more slowly, or resist having your team try a new strategy or avoid voicing the out-there but possibly brilliant idea.
Remember this: You've made lots of mistakes in your life and career already, and none of them was THE mistake because no matter how badly you messed up you got up and kept going and lived to make another mistake amid many more successes. You'll do your share of stupid things as a boss, but don't do any of them because you're so desperate to avoid the Big One. THE mistake doesn't exist.