In the last three years or so of my career thus far, my leaders have constantly reminded me to ‘train another me’. In other words, to mentor someone (or more) so that she / he / they can eventually take over my job and for me to be able to move on to other responsibilities.
It’s a terrifying thought.
I’ve been thinking: I do not want to train another version of me. The industry I am in moves at light speed; I think that ability-wise, I will be obsolete sooner rather than later. The kids in our office these days – just six to eight years my junior – are smarter and hungrier than when I was their age. What I really want to do is help someone unlock and then unleash the skills, character, and potential that’s within them.
So in the last three years, that is precisely what I quietly set out to do. I learned many things along the way, and hopefully these ten lessons that I’ve learned will help both you and I get better at this complex monster of a life skill called ‘leadership’.
First, doubt has a scent. If there was something I realised early in the creative industry, it’s that no one really has all the answers. If someone says they do, it’s likely a ton of crap. It’s okay to have fears and uncertainties – but know that those who look to you for guidance can smell it when you’re anxious, worried, or scared. I think our job is to acknowledge these feelings and understand that it’s okay to have them, and also shield our less battle-scarred people from them, at least at the early stages of their work lives.
Second, overthinking is the enemy. Are you second-guessing your decisions more often than not? Are you spending a ludicrous amount of time on teeny-tiny details? Are you changing your mind more often than the clothes on your back? Chances are, you’re already overthinking. I’ve learned that on many instances, it’s much better to be 100% and decisively wrong, than give an answer or solution that’s neither here nor there. If we’ve made a decision, we must see it through and to the bitter end.
Third, choose carefully the times to be smarter than they are. Our work kids need emotional rewards, too. For the most part, they already know that we’ve seen and experienced things they haven’t yet. We as leaders should never try to steal their thunder or bring them crashing back down with reality checks. Let them have their time in the sun, and in the limelight.
Fourth, ask for help earlier rather than later. The difference, I think, is that the former understands that our people, especially the younger ones, have something to bring to the table (a sign of respect), while the latter feels like passed-on ‘fix this now’ work (it’s probably too late so now it’s also your fault).
Fifth, care about their lives. Workplaces are more stressful than ever, and our people spend the majority of their waking hours with us. Our job as leaders is to understand what keeps them sane and happy so that we can either provide more opportunities for those to happen, support them, or at least have interesting and genuine conversations with them about the parts of their non-work lives that matter to them.
Sixth, it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s extremely difficult to work for and with a block of stone. Talk less. Smile more. Show a little emotion here and there. Laugh a little louder each time. Help them feel and know you’re a human being, too.
Seventh, their careers come first. One of my bosses always told us that he was only as good as the people in his team. That always struck me as a profound piece of wisdom. Let them lead the name-making pitches. Give them industry speaking gigs. Build them up and promote their work to clients. They trust us with the early years – the foundation – of their careers, and it’s our duty to make good on that trust.
Eight, find inspiration in their work. A criticism I have of myself is that sometimes, I tend to often see the work or output from the lens of my own experiences. This means that a set way (heaven forbid, formulaic) of seeing and understanding is the default. I believe that the young ones under us are gems until proven otherwise, so we must be the ones to try and walk in their shoes – not the other way around. They’re still finding their own styles and ways of working, so let’s give them time and patience.
Ninth, sometimes you need to be a parent. Snotty ‘leadership columns’ often preach the virtues of keeping the leader-subordinate dynamic strictly within the traditional bounds of professional etiquette. But we spend most of our waking hours together, and there will be many instances when we, their leaders, are the only people they have or can turn to. They will cry on you when in pain, hug you when overjoyed, or sit quietly and unload the emotional burdens they’ve been carrying on you. And that’s okay; in those moments, the job is to simply be there for them.
Tenth and finally, accept that they will leave. It’s a nice fantasy to think that the young men and women that you’ve given so much to (and so much for) will be part of your dream team forever. That’s almost never the case, from what I’ve seen and experienced. People outgrow roles, get better at work, and start dreaming of striking it out on their own. When your people open up to you about their wanting to stretch out their wings, the best thing we can do for them is thank them for the time they’ve spent with us, and to be their wind as they fly off into their own adventures.
The last few years of leadership has been a wild ride for me. It was full of both failures and successes. But all of it has been worth it, and I’d like to think that the totality of the experience has made me a better person, and more importantly, a better mentor to those who remind me so much of who I was nearly ten years ago.
There will be much more to learn in the next ten years (and beyond), and while it’s scary, it’s exciting as well.
Leaders are neither born nor made, in my opinion. Leaders choose to be leaders, because there’s too much responsibility and commitment for anything to be left to chance. To lead people, especially those who we are tasked to nurture and mentor, must be a willing choice, and it’s an up-and-down adventure you take together.
The kids that we lead are already good in their own right – all we need to do is give them stages where they can shine, help them realise their potential, and support them in their individual journeys.
This article is inspired by the five incredible direct leaders I’ve had while in McCann Worldgroup Philippines. Denise, who taught me to be confident in what I bring to the table; Yves, who taught me how to win people over; Gino, who taught me to be my biggest critic and to keep hubris in check; Manny, who taught me the importance of teamwork and trust; and Bambi, who taught me the value of excellence and high standards. I am lucky to have worked for these people.