My Top 3 Mistakes as a People Manager

My 11 year journey as a people manager was an amazing experience. Hired at 22 fresh out of college, I all but grew up in a successful organization where I could grow, learn and lead. While I’m so grateful for the relationships I’ve built and the experiences I’ve had, that time was littered with mistakes and failures along the way.

Here is a short list of management mistakes I’ve learned the hard way.

1. Thinking like an employee and not a manager

Early in my management career I made a mistake that has been burned into my memory ever since. Shortly after I was promoted to a management role a colleague passed away. His relative, whom I had worked closely with for years as a phone support representative, asked me to send an email to the folks on our previous team providing the details for the funeral service, the time, the place, etc.

Sending that email turned out to be a really bad idea. The people I emailed were phone associates and the funeral service was to take place during business hours.

As a people manager you might ask yourself, how will these employees respond to an email from leadership giving the time and place of a former colleague’s funeral service?

Can employees attend the service during their shift, when they’re scheduled to be working?

Do employees need to request time off from their manager to attend?

What happens if the employees go to the service without telling their manager, how will that impact attendance and customer service levels?

Do the managers of these employees know about the service? 

I didn’t ask myself any of these questions before sending the email.

The result was other managers, my peers, being caught off guard the next morning by associates asking about the service. Some people assumed, since the email had come from a manager, that they were technically approved to attend the service.

In my email I included the time and place of the service, but no further detail, no process for attending, just kind of a casual, “here is the info for the funeral service” type of thing. The ambiguity and short-sightedness caused stress for employees and managers.

How could I miss something so important? Answer: I was recently promoted and still thinking like an employee, not a manager.

The lesson: People managers are no longer just responsible for themselves. Being in management means you are the voice of the entire management team and what you say becomes policy. Remove ambiguity for your employees by clarifying the business process for them. If you don’t know what the process is, ask somebody!

2. Burning out

2009 was a rough year for me at work. Why? I was burning out.

I look back and recall times I just wasn’t focused, couldn’t concentrate, going through the motions. At the time, I was feeling stress from outside of work. My father passed away suddenly in October, 2008. A group I was close to and had played music with for years disbanded. I wasn’t feeling the same satisfaction with my job as I had in prior years.

Burnout is like adolescence. We all go through it eventually. The good news is you will get through it. And with some effort, you’ll be better for it.

After too long I recognized what was happening and made some changes in my life. If I had seen the signs earlier, I would have been able to adjust and make those changes much sooner than I did.

The lesson: When you see the signs that you’re burning out, start planning immediately and take steps to do the things that give you energy, drive, and purpose.

3. Aiming too low

One afternoon in the office at Capital One, I had a conversation with one of my managers about my career. I was writing my self-appraisal and asking for feedback on my performance. I received some classic advice that I had lost sight of. Essentially, the advice was: aim higher.

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it” -Michelangelo

For years, I stayed focused on successfully managing my team and achieving my immediate business goals. As I matured as a leader, however, there were times when I wasn’t aiming high enough to stretch myself out of my comfort zone, stay motivated, create focus and find direction.

Simply put, aiming too low doesn’t move you forward in your career. It keeps you where you are.

Aiming higher:

  • creates focus and direction
  • can result in meaningful contributions
  • inspires others
  • presents opportunities for your own growth and development
  • expands the boundaries of your potential

The lesson: When you feel you have a solid grasp of your role, and you’re ready for something more, have a conversation with your manager and ask for it. Don’t wait for someone to come and offer you some great opportunity. As leaders, it is up to all of us to pursue our goals. Often times that means clearly asking for that new assignment, new project, or new problem to solve that could improve the trajectory of your career.

And there you have it. My top 3 management mistakes. Recognizing and avoiding these particular mistakes early can significantly improve not only your performance and job satisfaction, but also help you reach your management potential.

What have you learned form your management mistakes? Let me know in the comments below. Thank you for reading!


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