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It was the 90’s and this was my first supervisory position. I was tasked with leading 15 staff, serving 70+ clients for a 2 million+ services contract. I’d been a leader in college but this was the first leadership position of my professional life. Truth be told, in my previous job, I’d been caught sleeping on an overnight job and was offered a probational “option” that just didn’t work. So, in the interview for this position, I’m still not sure why they chose me for a supervisory role. But, it doesn’t matter WHY. Fact is, they DID!

So, now, I set out to prove that I was a good leader. I wasn’t conceited or anything like that. But, I needed to have an answer for everything and make sure that I was never wrong. I created a mental checklist of things that I needed to be “sure” about. I was there early and made sure that I stayed just a little bit later. A good leader¬†had to be the one to turn the lights off in the building, right?

Things were fine for a couple of months until I was hit with my first challenge. I was in the human services industry and the turnover rate was pretty high. So, I had had my first incident with multiple staff leaving at once.

I was also at a disadvantage. There was revolving door in the positions above me (my bosses) and so I never had any mentorship in this position or anyone to whom I could really ask probing questions.

Now that this staff exodus had begun, I had to figure some things out on the fly. Each exiting staff person had a caseload of clients that now had to be re-assigned to other staff who were already overloaded. They were visiting clients, delivering medications, taking clients to appointments and all for low pay. I was now asking them to take on additional clients, deliver high quality service, fill in additional medication deliveries, do additional paperwork and be happy about it all. I had one guy who had been with the company for about 10 years, made it through several supervisors and department directors. He wouldn’t do any paperwork or take on a caseload but he would do medication deliveries (they called it the med run). As you can imagine, since there was a full time staff who wouldn’t take on clients, that meant the other staff had more clients on their plate than they would normally. Why was he still working for the company? Well, in Massachusetts it snowed a lot in the winter. When it snowed, he was the only one that would go out to do the “med run” in the heavy snow. This happened quite often so the other staff didn’t complain out loud about his caseload. But, regularly enough, they made comments indicating that while they appreciated his willingness to brave the weather, they weren’t sure that it made up for their extra paperwork.

I set up to have a meeting with “Pablo” (named changed). I was a 24 year old supervisor and Pablo was 64. I went into this meeting thinking that I was going to have a great conversation with Pablo and let him know in no uncertain terms that he needed to take on paperwork. My expectation was that he would do what was required and lighten the load on the staff. Well, I said my piece and Pablo simply let me know that he had been working for a long time and had never had to do paperwork. He wasn’t going to start now. He boldly noted that he liked doing what he did but didn’t NEED this job. If he was going to be forced to do paperwork, then he would just quit. I’m thinking, “oh oh. I just had 3 staff leave. Now, I have to deal with the possibility that the guy who does the piece that no one else really likes doing might leave.”

As a reader, you might be expecting that I came up with a brilliant way to resolve this and utilize Pablo’s talents while turning around the department. Actually, I BLEW IT!! I told Pablo that I appreciated his willingness to do the “med run” and that I would need to think about how to handle it.

A few weeks later, the staff were still overworked, their morale was horrible and now, Pablo began to call in “sick” a bit more often. So, I ended up having to do quite a few of the “med runs” myself. I did have a few staff who took pity on me and did some extra. But, I was drowning.

I pulled aside one of the older female employees who was viewed as the “mother” of the department. I asked her what I could do differently to increase staff willingness to engage. Her response was only slightly encouraging.

“Robert, you’re set up to fail here,” she said.

“The bottom line is that we need more staff. Unless you can make that happen tomorrow, then…”

I went deeper. I bit my lip and asked her what I could do differently as a leader. I asked her how she, herself, saw me in my leadership role.

If her previous answer was slightly encouraging, this next one whacked me back in the other direction.

“Robert, right now, you’re wishy washy. Things are crazy, people are stressed and we just don’t know if you are standing up strongly for us.”

She explained that Pablo told them of my meeting with him and pretty much boasted that he had told me he was never going to do any paperwork. The staff thought that I had an opportunity to make a difference there and I blew it.

Confirmed! I already knew I blew it. But now, so did everyone else.

All this time, I thought that showing up early, turning off the lights, filling in the gaps, taking on paperwork, fulfilling my job description and more made me a good leader. It turns out that it wasn’t my definition that counted. My staff wanted several things:

1. They wanted to know that I understood their pain.

2. They wanted to know that I was not just joining with them in their pain, but that I was doing something about it.

3. They wanted to know that I was willing to act quickly to help alleviate their pain.

4. They didn’t care if I was perfect. They just wanted me to stand up for them.

I could have figured some of this out a lot earlier if I understood then that the “goodness” of my leadership was reflected by the very people that I was tasked to lead. Many leaders go in trying to prove themselves. They are trying to prove that they belong; they are trying to justify their hire. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you are not clear on the actual needs of the people you are leading, then you’re losing some of the battle. They will play hard for you if you are able craft a solid vision that they can buy into, yet understand the things they may need in order to buy in. This is especially true if you are entering a situation where there is a pre-existing morale issue. In some cases, you may simply need to have the guts to trim the parts that seem to be mainly concerned about themselves.

Did I turn this department around? Well, not exactly. The company ended up losing the contract on re-bid a few months later and I was hired by as a director by the company that won the re-bid. Yep, I actually got a promotion. I’m still not sure how that happened either. Maybe THEY saw that I was learning how to be a “GOOD LEADER!”

What was one experience where YOU thought you were good but weren’t doing so well? ¬†Share in the comments please.

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