A goggle-eyed sponge, #MOPS4life and just being you
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Five years ago, I had never managed more than three people at one time, and I was doing a project job where I was a one-man-band. I’ll cut a long story short: in 2015 my future boss told me he was adding a new role to his team and he thought I’d be a good person to do it.
When he told me the list of responsibilities, I almost asked him if he was reading off the wrong job description, because they were a list of things that I had little to zero expertise in. PR, social media, digital marketing, media, advertising ROI… It was like a whole bundle of CMO tasks rolled up into a particularly bamboozling package. I asked him if he was sure he was talking to the right person? And he told me, you understand brands, I trust you to pick up what you need to. Oh and by the way the job comes with 24 people.
Did we have emojis in 2015? That was a whole host of mind-blown-faces moment.
I still couldn’t tell you exactly why I said yes. Maybe it was because my boss seemed to have faith in me, so I thought I should too. Maybe I heard more responsibility and more money and thought, that sounds like things I should want. Maybe it was because I didn’t realize exactly how hard it was going to be, so giving it a try didn’t seem like that big a deal.
Because, I’ll level with you, it was so hard, but for way more reasons than I anticipated. Having experienced, patient people working for me who explained what SEO stood for, the difference between counting impressions and quality media coverage, and why the answer to everything isn’t just to throw your product at some random influencer and hope for the best, learning the subject matter was a 90-degree learning curve. But I got into the zone of absorbing it, rather like a goggle-eyed sponge. My mind whirled constantly with my never-ending to-do list, but I’m one of life’s plate spinners, so after a while it felt wrong when I didn’t have 27 conflicting priorities. Learning new things and juggling tasks, they were something of specialties of mine, just maybe not exactly this much. But creating and leading a team… how on earth was I going to do that?
In trying to answer that question, I looked around at the people I worked with and asked myself, who seems to have this leadership thing figured out? And that’s why I decided to ask Maria Gomez Soler. My own coach recently introduced me to the concept that “competence breeds confidence” and she was a walking example of it. If you wanted something doing, give it to Maria. I was willing to bet she doesn’t get home on a Friday evening and think she can’t quite make it up the stairs.
More to the point, Maria was, to put it simply, adored by those who worked for her. She was one of life’s nurturers, and there was something about her team that felt like a family. It was possibly a family of grizzlies, because Maria had the reputation of being the ultimate momma bear, first to defend her people whenever she saw them suffering the demands of the marketing team, which seemed to be quite often. She was smart, feisty, respected by everyone around her, and pretty much universally liked, even by the people she went into battle with, which also seemed to be something that happened quite frequently. In a constructive and partnerly way, obviously.
Life’s best advice #4 Just be you
All of the things Maria stood for seemed like very good things indeed to have as your reputation, so I asked her for her advice on where I should start because, as I may have mentioned, I didn’t have a clue. Her response was kind but very straightforward. She told me that I didn’t have to do anything different, just be authentic and be me. Because I had the tools already and the rest would work out in time.
Her words joined the swirl in my brain. They seemed kind of… good… but…. Is that it? How could “being me” be the answer to ANYTHING? “Being me” sounded very much like putting myself out there for people to see and realize I didn't know what I was doing. Had she met me? And come on, Maria, that’s very existential and everything, but at least give me a book to read??
Like a dripping coffee machine, thoughts started to pool in my mind. It dawned on me that I had been defining myself by what I wasn’t. I wasn’t an experienced leader who’d done it a thousand times before. I wasn’t someone with a marketing degree. I wasn’t someone going to set the world alight with my groundbreaking digital strategy or my series of media contacts. I wasn’t someone who could stand in front of a group of people to talk knowledgably about products I’d launched. Just between us, I wasn’t even someone who likes groups of people, they make me feel overwhelmed and not know what to say. By the way, all of those things are still what I’m not, and I would never pretend otherwise.
What I had been telling myself that was a load of nonsense, however, was that I didn’t know how to lead. Because leading is how you teach; how you prove who you are with your words and actions; how you make people feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves; how you explain what they contribute to the bigger picture; how you motivate and stretch people. We are all of us leaders in life, just not necessarily of people with a reporting line to us. I was annoyed with myself because I already knew that and I wasn’t sure why it had seemed to go missing for a while.
The time had come to stop flapping and have a word with myself, something that is most definitely on the “being me” list. Instead of spending my mental energy on all the things that I couldn’t do, how about I focused on all the things I could do? The things that I could bring to the table that weren’t going to be the same things that the people who worked for me could do much better than I could, but maybe they didn’t have to be?
As specialists, my guys were the self-declared island of lost toys, used to being the odd man out in their old teams. Well, that happens to be my niche. I know a lot about not fitting in. I also know that fitting in is overrated, it’s belonging that counts. And so, I may not be able to code a website (is that a thing?), but making people feel like they belong, that I could try my best to do. I would focus on the things that would make my people feel like they had a champion, make them feel like someone cared, make them feel like they each mattered, that they had a home.
They might not be items on everyone’s leadership outcome list, but they were on mine, and this is my story. The more time I spend talking to people about their leadership struggles, the more I realize that so many people are trying to fit themselves into the mold of a narrow definition of a leader, whether it’s a Steve Jobs out-there visionary, or a take-no-prisoners Jack Welch. But there are as many types of leader as there are types of people. So, maybe Maria had something, being me was enough? Let’s just say I wasn’t yet totally convinced but was willing to try.
Because saying it is one thing, having the courage to unapologetically “just be me” in front of my ever-expanding team, that took some work. I will always be one of life’s introverts, even if I can do outgoing on a good day, and some days leading felt like taking my skin off and jumping into the ocean. But it started to get a bit less like that every day, until I actually found myself… enjoying it?
I'll let you in on a leadership secret. When you’re the leader, you set the rules, so as long as you get done what you need to, then whatever you decide is OK, is. If I wanted to have team meetings where I would ask new people to stand up and tell everyone, for example, if they were a sandwich, what type of sandwich they would be, then that was fine. So I did. Why? I’m not going to pretend that there was some complicated management theory behind it. I came up with it on the spot and it made people laugh. I’m a pretty funny person, I like to see people smile. On the same spot, thinking about all the dull meetings I’d ever sat through, I thought, who decided work has to be tedious? So after that in those meetings we had fun. And, you know, learned stuff at the same time.
And then there were the times that weren’t fun. The times when I explained why, even though everyone in the room had worked their asses off and I couldn’t be prouder of them, there wasn’t going to be a bonus this year. And then came explaining the proxy battles, and hostile board takeovers, and what it might mean to have Carl Icahn as a shareholder, and why the word “restructuring” was being whispered in corners.
Nobody told me to do any of that, quite honestly there wasn’t a lot of communication going on about anything. And there was no great science about it on my end, I just thought, if I were my guys, I’d want someone to explain to me why I kept hearing my company’s name on the business news; and I am nothing if not a good explainer. So I explained what I knew in a way I thought might help make sense of what was going on. Honestly some days I wondered if I was going to get in trouble for my unsanctioned commentary, but… whatever. I wanted them to understand so they could feel less like they were standing on tectonic plates floating at random on lava, and if nobody else was going to do it, then I was. I always told my team I worked for them, and not the other way around. It wasn’t just a line, I meant it.
Writing this post has surprised me by being an emotional exercise for many reasons. One is that I remember that feeling of HOW DO I DO THIS?? and there being no easy answers. One is that I remember standing with a microphone, looking at the sea of faces more than once and thinking HOW DID I GET HERE?? and waiting for someone to come in and tell me I was a fraud, the only place I belonged with a mic was at a karaoke bar.
But the biggest reason that writing this post was an emotional experience is this. As Maria herself put it when I saw her a few weeks ago, I came to leadership deeply unsure if I could do it, but found something that transformed what I thought I was capable of. And she’s right, because I found out that I was someone who could make up their own brand of leadership as they went along and somehow find something that worked. Just being me. Imagine that!
Leading my MOPS team (the name is kind of a long story) was the biggest challenge and the biggest privilege of my career. This post is a thank you to each of them, for showing me that I could do everything I needed to while, like Maria said, just being me. Having a team not only accept you for being you, but embrace it, and thrive, and pay you back a thousandfold for what you put into them, is a gift I hope every leader gets at some point.