Early in my career, I was moved into a team with a boss who was a talented and credible marketer. I couldn’t wait to work in her team and I knew that I would learn a lot. The first few weeks seemed to be going fine, she was paying attention to what I was contributing in meetings and watching my work intently. Soon, she pulled me aside for “a chat”. She started to reel off the things that she thought I needed to work on, she mentioned everything I had done “wrong” and she finished by telling me that I talk so much she found it “really annoying” and just sits in meetings feeling like she wants to throw her lap top at my head.
I was gutted, I couldn’t believe it….well actually no, I believed every single word she told me. She was right, I was useless. I know I have issues with talking too much sometimes, especially when I am passionate and excited and engaged. She made it personal, and her words cut me like a knife. I went home dejected and upset. I didn’t want to go back into work. How could I keep going?
But after 24hrs, I came back determined to improve. I decided to take the personal out of what she was saying, and tackle the issue head on. I went back to her and asked her for MORE feedback. Was I crazy!?! No, I just thought having it all on the table would help me to understand her position. It was hard to take, I had to bite my cheeks to stop from getting upset. I made notes. I took those notes and stripped away all the personal comments. If she doesn’t like me as a person, it doesn’t matter, but I want to be good at my job so I am going to take this as an opportunity to learn and grow. I asked other Managers if they had ideas on how i could improve some of the things she mentioned. I spoke to my colleagues and apologised if they felt “talked over” like she told me they did. I reminded them I would not be offended if they cut me off or made other suggestions in meetings…I would prefer this than they suffer in silence. Incredibly, they all looked at me like I was bonkers and told me they enjoyed working with me on teams because I was so engaged…even if I was a bit over exuberant some times. I didn’t believe them but I forged through. My Manager continued to point out my flaws, she rang me after meetings (it was apparently important to provide feedback in real time) and in our annual business reviews, she reeled off everything that I hadn’t done to perfection.
Amazingly, I was soon promoted.
I couldn’t believe it. Not only was I getting a new job but I was moving away from this Manager…YIPPPEEEE!!! I survived this period in my career by staying resilient, by not trying not to take things personally and looking at where I could grow and learn from the experience. But it wasn’t easy and it was also the start of many many wasted years of my career, where I focused all my attention on what I was doing wrong. She had taught me to look for my weaknesses and try to fix them. That anything less than perfect meant that I hadn’t succeeded and I needed to change. Don’t get me wrong, I had great fun and lots of growth, learning and opportunity at work, but underpinning it all was a constant voice that kept reminding me of what I should be…not what I was. Never truly believing that I was good at what I was doing, even when I was promoted and praised. I was just waiting for the house of cards to fall down around me, and my new Managers to realise how many flaws I was trying to patch.
Many years later, I had the absolute pleasure to be invited to a Positive Leadership workshop run by Michelle McQuaid. One of the things we did in the workshop was complete a VIA Strengths survey. Michelle talked about the importance of focusing on your strengths instead of trying to fix your weaknesses. To have a mindset of growth and to build on your strengths and the things that energise and engage you, letting your true self shine. This was a revolutionary moment for me. I took my top 5 strengths and put them up at my desk to remind me each day to search for those things in my work. My number 1 character Strength is Teamwork, so instead of seeing my need to work with others as a weaknesses because I’m hopeless at working on my own, I realised it was a strength to be able to work effectively with teams, to be energised by others, to show kindness to their needs…this is why I love being a Manager. Now I could seek out those opportunities which let my strengths shine.
And a funny thing happened
You know what, I stopped talking quite so much (Ok…so I didn’t exactly become quiet). The more confident I grew by reminding myself of my strengths, I stopped trying to over explain myself. And without the little voice in my head saying “stop stop talking, just stop, you’re talking too much”, I found more clarity in my words. I also realised that writing (like this blog!) and mentoring others gave me a channel for my thoughts, helping to get them out of my head and reduce my need to speak all the time in meetings.
I did meet up with that old Manager at a conference once (she had long since moved away from my company), and when I told her what I was doing, she said she wasn’t surprised. She always saw the potential in me, and that is why she was so hard on me, she thought pointing out the things I could improve would help me. And she believed she did help me. Noble intention, shocking execution. If only she knew the damage she did.
I’m just glad she never actually did throw her laptop at my head, although in hindsight, it would have been kinda funny if she tried…
(want to read more about my experiences with bosses, check out the story of Teflon!)