“You don’t learn to walk by following rules, you learn by doing and by falling over,” Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson has written. That’s true, but falling over also hurts. Even better than learning from your own painful mistakes is learning from someone else’s, which is why I’d like to tell you the story of how my micromanaging led my first employees to quit.
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Salaries and cake don’t make up for micromanaging
I was incredibly young when I started my design agency at just 22 years old, and like many young bosses, I worried about whether my employees would respect someone with so little experience under her belt. I responded by hiring two designers straight out of college who were even younger than me.
I was completely inexperienced as a leader, but I was determined to be a good boss. I paid my employees extremely generously. I made sure they were working on cool projects. I took them out to lunch. I even personally baked them birthday cakes.
But, in hindsight, I realized I also micromanaged them. The same anxiety about my performance that led me to insist on hiring grads fresh out of university caused me to watch them like a hawk. Their desks were placed so I was literally staring over their shoulders. After I would close a lead, I would hand work off to them, instructing them exactly how and when to complete it. When other work would come in, I’d demand they drop what they were doing. I’d take over their projects mid-flow to adjust things.
After about a year, the inevitable happened. Both employees called me into a meeting and demanded huge raises before reeling off a long list of complaints, from the uncomfortable chairs to a lack of public recognition for their contributions. I was stunned, and even though I tried to offer some concessions and one a bump in pay, they quit that very day. Weeks later, they even attempted to poach my clients by undercutting my prices.
Luckily, my clients were all very nice and told my ex-employees that integrity was more important than talent or cost. But without staff, I lost important clients as I simply couldn’t keep up with their needs.
I was hurt. I was mad, and then after about a month of moping around feeling like a failure and a terrible boss, my husband gave me a talking-to. “Lesson learned. Do it again,” he told me. “You’re going to be better next time.”
I picked myself up and I started the process of hiring again, determined to do everything better the second time around.
Discovering the power of humility
Four years later, I have a team of 10. I’ve done nearly everything differently this time around, but the most important change to my leadership style was adding a lot more humility.
The funny thing about being a young boss is that you feel like you need to prove yourself all the time — to prove you know more than your team and have all the answers. When I first started my company I felt like I had to hire people younger than me because that was the only way they would respect me. I also never dared to ask for their opinion, or what they thought our agency needed to be better.
But that’s the wrong approach. Respect as a leader, I learned, doesn’t come from being more skilled or more experienced. You don’t need to know how to do everything better. Instead, you need to know how to admit your own limitations and respect and support the essential contributions of others.
The second time around I wasn’t afraid to hire people older than me. I hired designers who knew things I didn’t and taught them to me. One of my designers has five years more experience than me. My project manager is 10 years older than me.
In order to tap into that experience, I had to start being more open about what I don’t know. I’ve learned to admit, “I have no clue how to solve this.” There’s nothing wrong as a leader with saying, “I think we’re better figuring this out together.” I set the vision, I bring in the clients, I make the final decisions, but my team’s ideas are just as valid and valuable as mine.
That’s reflected in how I run my business in so many ways now. When I brought my current team on, we went through a branding exercise together so that the website reflects all of our contributions and visions. Their names are on each project they lead. Peering over shoulders has been replaced with morning check-ins, Slack, scheduling flexibility, and lots of team activities.
That’s been great for the atmosphere in the office and the quality of our work. It’s also been great for the business, which is growing steadily, and for retention. I’ve kept my team for four years now, even though other agencies have tried to lure them away.
But it’s also been great for me personally as a leader. It feels like a weight has lifted from my shoulders, like it’s no longer all down to me to figure everything out. Instead, we — all of us — are in it together. Getting to this place meant I had to stop micromanaging, but doing that, I discovered, really meant confronting my fears about being such a young leader.
When I was scared to show my inexperience, everything fell apart. When I was brave enough to admit it and ask for help, amazing things happened. I hope other young founders can learn from my fumble without having to take the same painful knock I did. Humility, not control, is what makes you a great leader.
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