Five Really, Really Hard Things No One Tells You About Being a Manager

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn profile, here. I typically cross post between my website and LinkedIn. I’m hoping Google forgives me this SEO sin.

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Early in my career, I had to do a lot of ‘grunt work.’ Manual tasks that were repetitive, didn’t feel impactful, and definitely didn’t test the upper bounds of my brain powers. In one internship, I literally just filled in numbers on a spreadsheet–I copied them from a piece of paper onto a file on a computer. These days you’d pay pennies to mechanical turk to do the same. Back then, it was “career enriching experience.’ For years, I’d look at my managers and ask “What the heck do they even do? Is their job literally just to tell me what to do? If so, that’s so easy and that seems like a good place to aspire to be.” 

So, I hustled. I did everything I could to show that I was an awesome individual contributor. I tried to find new, more efficient ways to do things that would create more value for my bosses and my company. I would work on creating relationships with other teams so that I could better understand their work, and find ways for us to partner on new initiatives. I’d lead cross-functional initiatives. I really, really, wanted to demonstrate that I had what it takes to be a manager. All the while, telling myself, “One day, when I’m a manager, I won’t have to grind like this. I’ll be able to relax more, because I’ll be in charge.” 

It was a lot like when I was little, and I would look disdainfully at grownups, and think “You just don’t understand. You don’t know how hard it is being a kid. Everything will be easier when I”m a grown up”

But the thing is, when I grew up to be an adult, I realized…being a grown up is just a hard!  Sometimes harder! WHAT!? But my plan???

Being a grownup is hard in ways I couldn’t even imagine when I was little. That’s the fallacy. The grass always seems greener on the other side. In reality, the ‘other side’ has their own crap to deal with, and it’s not necessarily better than yours. It’s just different.  

So, I wanted to share what the grass is like on the management side, and hopefully paint a more realistic picture for anyone who’s about to step into a management position. I think there are lots of great blog posts about what’s great about being a manager, how to become a manager, and even how to be a great manager. This isn’t that. This is a real talk blog post. I’m going to give it to you straight, like Matt Foley on SNL (aka Chris Farley), only I don’t live in a van down by the river. 

1. People are much more complicated than projects

Projects are things we can define. They have start and end dates. They have objective metrics.  They can be deemed successful and unsuccessful.

People, on the other hand, are amazing, unique, unpredictable creatures. They can surprise and delight you in ways you never expect. They all have unique histories, unique perspectives, needs, hopes, dreams. They cannot be neatly defined, measured, or categorized. They have emotions, moods, life experiences, and personalities that are vastly different from one another. 

A great manager cares about all of those things. They know how to flex their own management style to account for all of these unpredictable, wonderful, unique traits. That is EXTREMELY difficult. Caring takes an enormous about of emotional intelligence, integrity, and sensitivity. 

Managers have to deal with all the ups and downs. You can’t just delegate and walk away. 

You  have to make sure your direct reports not only understand your vision, but believe, and buy in to your vision. You have to make sure they want to bring  your vision to reality. Otherwise, they will quit. 

You have to make  sure that you’re fulfilling their personal career needs, painting a growth path, and unblocking their progress. Otherwise, they will quit.

You have to make sure they feel psychologically safe, and that you have their back. Otherwise, they will quit.

You can not control people. People are independent. Managers do not control (or at least, legally, they shouldn’t) the people on their team. You try your best, and you hope for the best, but every day is a mystery. Get ready to get comfortable with the unknown.  

 

2. Managers don’t get gold stars for managing

When I was an IC I relished the times when my manager would tell me that I did a good job. I loved that feeling of being recognized for all the hard work and time that I put in to completing a task. It makes it worth it.

When you’re a manager you don’t get that. Managers will not receive gold stars from their direct reports for every management moment. You will likely not be thanked for being a good manager day to day (although, the times when a direct report does thank you, it’s extremely fulfilling.)  

Managers must find the internal motivation and self-confidence they need to know they’re doing a good job. It takes an enormous amount of fortitude to handle the hardships you will inevitably encounter as a manager. Everything from direct reports under-performing, missing team goals, attrition, to HR issues. 

You must rely on your own internal compass and your management peers to find validation. That’s a scary transition when you first become a manager. All of a sudden “good job” is a lot harder to define.

 

3. You will probably lose friends

Yeah, this one’s kinda depressing. But, as Lizzo says, “truth hurts.” At some point in your career, you’ll be promoted. The people who were your peers may become your direct reports. That puts a strain on a relationship. You should not actively treat people differently, because you’re still the same person you were the day before, and you are in no way better than anyone else. But, the act of giving someone critical feedback, assigning projects, and coaching changes the dynamic between two people. 

You may also find that people stop sharing the hot goss around the water cooler. Because now you’re management. You may feel like people don’t treat you the same as you’re used to. Because now you’re one of the managers. Don’t stress, and don’t try to force your relationships to stay the same. You do you. Be your same great self you’ve always been. And wait for the dust to settle. Eventually, you’ll see who are your forever friends, and who were your situational friends. They’re both important relationships to have in your life. 

 

4. People are always watching you; everything you say and do influences others

You know how sometimes you just have a bad day. A no good, poop on your shoe, stain on your shirt, fight with your partner, parking ticket, late fee, annoyed at your coworker, bad day. The kind that people can see on your face from a mile away? The kind that makes you think to yourself, “NOT TODAY. I swear, if anyone even says anything to me, I’m gonna rip their head off.”

Yeah, you can’t have those anymore. 

Seriously. Don’t.

As a manager, your attitude will influence people around you. When you’re an individual contributor you can also influence people around you, of course, but it’s easier for coworkers to (nicely) ignore you, because you don’t control their job.

When you’re a manager, your direct reports are looking to you. Looking to you for direction, inspiration, guidance, and confidence. If you’re walking around with a dark cloud, they’re probably going to start worrying, or catch the dark cloud themselves. That doesn’t serve you or anyone else. 

You have to really consider how you show up to the people around you. You are in charge of creating a sense of stability and safety. You also have to be thoughtful about what you say. People are interpreting and perceiving every single word with a lot of care. You cannot make offhand comments the way you used to.

I’ll be honest, this particular observation is one that really surprised me, in terms of how quickly it happens. I always thought of myself as just a goofy gal who says wacky things, and I’m just part of the flock. But, I started noticing people looking at me in meetings. Looking to see how I react. Reacting to words I was using. Looking to see how I interact with other people. And, then I started noticing people mimicking me. They were reflecting back what my actions and behaviors were. They were deeply impacted by offhand comments that I never would have expected. I have to be much more thoughtful than ever before about everything I say and do.

This type of influence is a big responsibility. You are of course human, and allowed to have emotions. But you need to be really aware of how your presence could affect those around you.

 

5. It can be really, really, lonely

Some of my best friends are former coworkers. We still hang out all the time, have a group text thread that is constantly blowing up my phone. But, those were friends I made years ago. Each year, it gets harder and harder to make new friends. And, that’s due in large part to the fact that I’ve become a manager, and moved up the corporate ranks.

Think about an organization as an upside-down pyramid. When you’re an individual contributor, you’re part of the largest part of the pyramid at the top. There are lots of people in your peer group, which means lots of chances to make friends! Yay! Then, when you become a manager, you become part of a smaller chunk of the pyramid, below. Fewer friend chances. Then you become a director, a step down. Even, fewer friends. Then an executive. Just a handful of friendship opportunities left. Now, imagine the CEO. That person is practically on an island in the middle of the ocean! Who is their support group?

There is something VERY healthy about being part of a group of peers, able to kvetch about your day. Maybe complain about your boss a little 🙂 Just a little. It creates camaraderie, it creates support networks, it creates emotional safety. 

When your peer group shrinks, that network of support also shrinks. And, the people who are your peers are extremely busy, so they may not have time to support you. You’ll have to start looking outside the organization to create your support network. Sometimes you just want to bounce an idea off of someone. Sometimes you just want a little advice. 

Being a manager can be isolating. Sometimes you’ll feel like the bad guy/gal/person. You’ll feel misunderstood. Maybe even a little helpless. Just know that there’s always someone else out there with similar challenges. Don’t hesitate to find the support you need outside of work. And, lean on the personal relationships in your life to help find your heart center.

Of course, it’s not all bad

Ok, so I told you I’d be giving you the real talk in this post. And, I have. Being a manager isn’t as glamorous as I had imagined it would be when I was coming up. But it’s not all bad. There are some really, truly incredible parts of being a manager. 

For me, it’s seeing people on my team achieve incredible growth, and surprise themselves in terms of their own accomplishments. It’s seeing that I can help a group of people come together behind a common goal, and work together for a shared objective. It’s helping people find their superpowers. It’s helping people be so successful, that they eventually move on to bigger and better things. And, one of my favorite manager moments, is hearing from people long after we’ve stopped working together, and they share how I influenced them. Truly rewarding.

Just know that these rewards can be challenging to achieve. You will no doubt be able to overcome the hardships. But it’s better to come in prepared, than it is to jump in with blinders on.  

And, if you’re already a manager. Just know, you’re doing a good job. Try your best. That’s all any of us can do 🙂 

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