“Hello” was not the first thing I said to the assembled staff when I walked into my first meeting as a Program Manager at a large not-for-profit.
When you’re new and people are friendly (or curious, or wary) it can take 20 minutes to make it down the hall. You can either view that as annoying, or you can appreciate the reality that when there’s a new PM in town, people can get a little nervous and want to chat and get a sense of you. They want to know who you are and what might be coming, who will be reassigned, whose desk will be moved, what’s going to happen to caseloads, and yes, who’s going to get fired. Given the number of concerns both real and imagined, staff had extra time to get themselves worked up by the time I breezed in 20 minutes late.
“Nice first impression,” I thought, as I entered with a smile. “Fine example.”
But, it was forgivable under the circumstances and I knew I’d be setting the example going forward. I walked into the multi-use room with everything I needed to have a friendly, informative, conversational, comfortable meet and greet—a legal pad and pen in one hand, in the other a bag holding one of those donut-shaped cushioned-seat things that looks like a padded toilet seat, the aptly named “Softeze Comfort Ring.” I made no secret of pulling it out of the bag in plain sight, my cheeks warm and tinged with red.
“I would have brought one for everyone, but…” and I kind of shrugged as I slipped it underneath me and sat down.
Needless to say I got some looks, but it broke the tension and that was part of my motivation. At least half the group cracked up, a few were wide-eyed and slack-jawed and there was one woman with that “Okay now that’s just weird” look on her face. And that’s fine. I had an issue, and I was rolling with it. I can be kind of audacious that way, but not gratuitously—it was for a specific, strategic purpose. Virtually everyone in that room was some degree of anxious, so to have that trapped energy suddenly and unexpectedly released was, well… therapeutic. Beyond that, this “use of self” sent two messages that I believe are important for any Program Manager to convey to staff.
Message One: I’m going to keep it real. I hope you will, too.
Message Two: I’m going to laugh at myself. I hope you will, too.
Having said that, when it comes to program management or any other opportunity for leadership, it’s important to strike a proper balance between style and substance. Your style isn’t my style, my style isn’t your style, and it probably shouldn’t be. Most new Program Managers wouldn’t walk into their first staff meeting clutching a “Softeze Comfort Ring” and use said ring to break the ice with people they’ve never met. But on that day, in that moment, that was the “keepin’ it real” style I used to connect to the substance I wanted to convey.
With regards to the substance piece, there is less wiggle room than there is with questions of style. While personal style can vary greatly, as PM’s we should be in the same ballpark and presenting some approximation of the same qualities—the same substance. This is particularly true in the earliest days of connecting with our staff, when we’re getting to know one another as we prepare to pursue a common vision. The qualities I am speaking of should put the individuals with whom we are working at ease in anxious moments, thereby setting the stage for the effective and compassionate service delivery to come. Those qualities include but are not limited to: Respect. Humility. Sincerity. Clarity. Humor. Knowledge. Presence. Vision. Heart. Consistency. Openness. Resolve. Generosity of spirit.
In possession of some number of these qualities, to the extent possible, here is Message Three—the message I both try to convey and would most like to hear from a program Manager who hopes to be a true Leader.
You are the experts in what goes on here. You’ve been here, seen it, heard it, and when it comes to finding new and better ways of doing things, you may well have tried it. I have great respect for your individual talents and collective knowledge. For me to be as helpful as possible, as soon as possible, I need to know what you know. Toward that end, I need your help.
And while I can definitely start helping you right away, in the early going there will be a lot of information about the program and clients flowing from all of you, to me. I’m going to be asking a lot of questions because I have a lot to learn, so I’ll ask you to be patient with me. I’m not testing you. I’m not trying to play “gotcha” if you don’t know all the answers to all the questions. No one does. I will be trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can so that if there are ways we can improve upon things, and there almost always are, I’ll be able to work together with you from a place of knowledge. With an understanding of what’s been tried before, what’s worked and why, what hasn’t worked and why, and where we need to go as a program. I am not here to turn your world upside down.
I am here to help you succeed. This is my most important role. To make it possible for you to rise to the level of your ability, and maybe even go beyond what you think is possible. If I can do that you will be happy in your work, our clients will be well served, we will be contributing to the fulfillment of our organizations mission, and our program will be a model for others. So rest easy—there’s much to do, but we’ll do it together, and in good time.
While perhaps not quite so clearly, I have said some form of this to anxious staff before. I expect I will say it again.
In your own way, and in your own style—I hope you will, too.
NEXT WEEK: (I don’t know yet—lots of good choices!)
Questions for Further Consideration
1) What are the limits to humor as a “use of self” in the workplace?
2) What are some of the ways you’ve tried to connect to staff in the earliest days of your leadership?
3) What do you see as some of the differences between being a Manager and being a Leader?