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Leadership: Is There an App for That?

When I accepted my first management position, my new boss told me his secret to managing people was to treat them like whiny children. I asked him if managing people was his thing, and he bluntly said, “No, because I hate dealing with people and their petty issues.” Despite his revelation, we had a good relationship because I didn’t ask him for leadership advice and he didn’t have any to give.

I quickly realized that I had inherited a slightly hostile team driven by two factors: I was the youngest person in the department, and one senior team member was upset because she didn’t get the job. The team members were on her side and they weren’t shy about letting me know it. They had pulled up the ladder to their clubhouse, and I was left on the ground looking for a way in. I didn’t know if I wanted to cry foul or just cry. 

Ignoring my need to cry, I decided to forge ahead by 1) meeting with everyone individually to understand their responsibilities and 2) searching for mentorship from other company managers. One manager told me, “Just play the game, get through the day, go home and have a glass of whiskey.” When I said I didn’t drink, she said, “Well, you need to start.”

Instead of drinking, I focused on improving the department’s infrastructure. I naively thought that if I implemented better processes and systems with the team’s input, I would naturally engage the team. But I underestimated the power of resentment, especially when I kept ignoring the senior member’s constant complaining, resistance, and sabotage attempts. I thought she would eventually get over not being promoted, but she didn’t want to get over it—she wanted to get rid of me.  

She constantly complained to my boss and he kept redirecting her back to me; he would then tell me to fire her, so she would stop coming to him. After months of this, I realized there was a difference between being in charge and being a leader. Being in charge was my boss’s M.O.; he knew the senior member was a problem but decided to ignore her, deny her the promotion without explanation, and then expected me to fire her almost immediately. A leader would deal with her head-on and immediately.   

I consulted a seasoned manager about this and she told me that I needed to be consistent and balanced with my successes. The same focus I used to improve the department’s processes and systems, I needed to apply to improving my teambuilding skills. Succinctly put, she said, “cut the head off the snake and stop indulging her antics.” She was right; I was reflecting my boss’s style by focusing on my strengths (processes and systems) and ignoring the bitter elephant in the room.

I met with the team member and put it all on the table—from me ignoring her hoping she would get past my arrival versus her promotion, to her constant complaints, lack of effort, and sabotage attempts. I questioned her on her endgame. I explained that if I left the position, she would only get another supervisor because she hasn’t done anything that warranted a promotion. She tried the passive-aggressive “I was misunderstanding” tactic, but I drew the line for the head cut. I explained that going forward, I was leading the team and she could add to our success or subtract. But be clear that if she chose to subtract, she would be terminated in the near future. She took a week’s vacation and returned “acting” like a contributor. It wasn’t a natural transition for her, but she faked it until she made it.  

A couple years later, I was promoted to another department and my boss was promoted to executive management, while still dodging people. Through this experience I learned:

  • To establish a good balance between what is good for the company and what is good for employees.
  • The presence of a toxic employee is a direct reflection of my leadership and teambuilding skills. My job is to correct the issue in a timely manner or terminate the employee.
  • A title doesn’t necessarily mean you are leader. Just because you are dressed up like a cowboy (in charge) doesn’t mean you can ride a horse (lead).

Leading requires you to inspire and connect with people whether you want to or not. This is a hard job that looks better on paper and constantly requires you to check to see if you are moving sideways or forward.  

Every time I ask people if they like their managers, very few have compliments. The common theme is that they have a boss (someone in charge) and not a leader. Despite all the bestselling books, programs, and training about this topic, poor leadership continues to be the root cause of high turnover rates and low employee engagement.

There are more than 250,000 apps to make the iPhone better, while companies and organizations continue to struggle to make their leadership better. Why can’t there be an app for that?