In my first job out of college, I worked for a non-profit school. As part of my role I had to produce a quarterly newsletter that would be mailed to all 500 families. This meant that once a quarter, I picked up boxes (upon boxes) of the newsletter at our printer, labeled big envelopes and then stuffed them. It took a day or two; at the end I’d load everything up and drive it to the post office.
It was really brainless work.
There are aspects of our early jobs that we celebrate leaving because we are not robots: making photocopies, stuffing envelopes, filing, answering phones. Careers take off, responsibility shifts, experts and managers are born. Jobs beyond paper cuts sound like victory.
I coach managers and leadership teams in this zone. These people have tight schedules. They fly from meeting to meeting, pitches to 1:1s, sometimes still doing billable work along the way. Sometimes they are so tightly bound that they’re still checking email while we talk. (I can tell, folks. I can tell.)
I believe in them. They are trying hard and without exception, they are hungry to do good work. But one of the challenges with leadership is that you are asked to be hungry all the time. Managers rarely attend meetings because they’re always leading them. How fantastic! And how exhausting.
“Balance” is a word often used in the relationship between work and non-work hours. But you can’t just run out of gas at work and refuel totally at home; you need some balance during work hours, too — especially as you head deeper into management.
How, Jen, how? Aw, I got your back, managers.
1. Don’t delegate all envelopes. As you gain more responsibility, you’ll be asked to delegate and this is really important. Your success as a leader depends on your ability to value your time and make good choices about what should stay on your plate. That’s not an ego thing, that’s math.
So although you should delegate tasks that are best done by others, keep one or two small, mindless things on your plate for sanity reasons. Invoicing? Wiping down the whiteboard at the end of the day? Literally stuffing envelopes? Let yourself do these tasks a few times a week so you balance the intensity of your job with quiet moments that let you rest.
2. Follow. I don’t believe you can be a strong leader if you are never a follower, just like I don’t believe you can be a good teacher if you are never a student. I get my best ideas for teaching workshops when I’m a student in a yoga class or observing my son in his preschool classroom because I’m forced into follower empathy. I remember what it’s like to only understand part of the presentation, the anxiety of asking questions or group dynamics that are invisible to the leader. Practicing following makes you more helpful the next time you’re in the front of the room.
3. Use your emergency brake. Look: every once in a while, you need to bail and often it’s not as dramatic as you think it will be. A few weeks ago I canceled my first two calls so I could eat breakfast quietly at a diner with a cup of coffee. They were easily rescheduled and I showed up for my 10am in a MUCH better place than I would have otherwise.
I get the guilt that comes with canceling. But if you are going to be a royal pill in the next meeting, much better to reschedule while you take a walk than railroad all of your reports.
Because your reports are watching you, buddy. They’re learning from you. When you take good care of yourself, they see that workplace balance is possible for them too. You’re more relatable, more human and more engaging in meetings when you can admit the boundaries of leadership.
We can change the craptastic reputation of “managers” if employees are not always conflating leadership with stress and unrealistic expectations. You sanitize that word by leading by example. Management can be hilarious, inspiring and a privilege! So pull up a chair and ask the next generation of managers to pass you some envelopes.
Are you a manager? Are you craving envelopes to stuff because you’re a little worn out? Join us this summer in NYC for Plucky manager training. I promise to hold the room and let you practice following the whole time.