The Corner Office

Leading Effectively in the Most Stressful of Times

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The phrase “unprecedented times” has become a platitude at this point, and while this situation is unique, I believe that we can draw from past experiences to help navigate these new issues. Because while the current climate is new, having to manage under stress is as old as management.

When I was first starting off in my career, I was promoted to a position managing a team of much more experienced salespeople. The cherry on top was that I had no managerial experience; the powers that be just assumed a good salesperson would be a good manager. I eventually learned my way around, but I had my share of missteps first.

Jane was a member of my team, and she was my problem child. It felt like she always wanted to color outside the lines and poke at my inexperience. In hindsight, I can tell you that she did quality work, but I was new and insecure and didn’t care for her flouting conventions, even if her results were good.

I’m not proud of this, but I tried to have her fired more than once. I’d go to the HR director, who would listen to me list off all the things she was doing wrong, then ask “Well, have you talked to her about this? Did you try to resolve things?” And my enlightened answer was, “No! Because she’s wrong and needs to go!” Did I mention I was new at this?

Eventually, Jane quit, I suspect because her manager wouldn’t get off her back.

Honestly, if I could remember more details, I’d find Jane and send her an apology note. Because I wasn’t trying to manage a team of people; I was trying to soothe my own insecurities and make up for my lack of experience. And that stopped me from thinking about what Jane needed in a manager and how I could make her successful.

I want to talk more about that with another major learning experience for me. Because while I failed Jane, the reason I failed her had more to do with me than her, but I didn’t learn that until further down the line.

I had recently started my new role managing an entire company unit by myself, my then-boss sat me down to check in and see how I was adjusting. I explained that I was having trouble with one of my directors (a manager he thought rather highly of), and how I kept running into sloppy performance that stopped him and his team from producing better results.

And he said, “You have to learn that everyone in higher level jobs have gotten there by adapting their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. It’s true for everyone—you, at your best, have learned to overcome weak spots. But you, like the people working under you, are going to get stressed. And the more stressed you are, the harder it’ll be to compensate for those weak spots. You’re going to feel yourself slipping into bad practices, and you have to be ready to fight that feeling. Leopards don’t change their spots, they just learn to hide them. Good managers learn how to work around their weaknesses in normal times; great managers are aware enough to overcome them in the toughest times.”

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the years, and how my failure with Jane can be attributed to me showing the weakest parts of myself in a time of stress. And lately, I’ve been thinking about the unimaginable stress that company leaders are under.

Right now, nobody knows what’s coming next. And every time there seems to be a half-step back toward normalcy, the rug is pulled out from under us again and we all scramble. The tried and true methods of three years ago are worthless today. Something has changed in the rules, and changed in the community, and that means that management has a responsibility to account for this new, shifting landscape.

As managers right now, we need to recognize the effect that stress can have both on our teams and on ourselves. And these times are, without exception, stressful. The only recourse left is to acknowledge that and acknowledge that it affects us. Nobody can “rise above” a world in turmoil. But that doesn’t mean that we are beyond the reach of the better angels of our nature, either.

As leaders, we have to acknowledge that we, and our teams, are not at our best right now. Only by accounting for stress, and the problems that it brings, can we compensate and act with our strengths rather than our weaknesses. There is no way to remain untouched by the world, so instead we have to expect these changes and have the self-awareness to recognize them when they surface in ourselves.

Now is when you have to figure out if you are going to take a shot at Jane and fire her, live with her issues until a better day, or reach out and find a way to make her successful when she is at her lowest. And the same rule applies to yourself.

Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at doug@silverwind.biz.

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