Managing people stuff is hard. I gave it my all as a new manager, but it wasn't working effectively. Then one day, I learned what could improve my performance.
Just another day in the office
Managing people stuff is hard. Some days I survived better than others as a new bank manager. This day was not one of them and life moved in slow motion. I was slumped at my desk with my office with door closed. Suddenly, I sensed I was being watched and looked up to find Katie standing outside my window. She stared directly at me and she was furious.
Just a few minutes ago I had the unpleasant task of firing Katie. She yelled and called me names. Even the bank customers were getting as uncomfortable as I already felt, but they were still curious. They were watching a train wreck. I hated this part of my job and today's task was especially horrible, but at least it was over. I was wrong.
Katie's parting statement
Katie was not done. She was dangling her office keys in a taunting manner and staring directly at me. After making sure she had my attention, she slowly turned around and hurled the keys towards the busy street. Through my window I watched the keys fly across the parking lot in slow motion. Many cars drove by each day. I remember thinking, "please don’t hit any cars!" I visualized irate drivers, accidents, lawsuits, and more headaches.
Finally, the keys bounced and landed safely in the left lane. Relief! No cars were damaged. The stoplight had just turned red so cars were not moving yet. I could hear Katie screaming, “you want them back...you go get them"! With that, she stormed off and that was the last I saw of her. I scrambled out of my chair and out of my office. I was hoping, as I walked through the bank lobby to avoid any eye contact with people who had just witnessed the firing. Once out the front door I checked around to make sure Katie had really left and was not lurking around to create another scene. I stopped and wondered what I should do next.
My manager's duties include...what?
I do remember walking out and feeling the full blast of the New Orleans heat and humidity. Thankfully, it was almost 3:00 pm. The bank lobby would close soon and only the drive-up windows would remain open. First, I walked across the drive-up lanes, which were lined with customer cars. I skirted between the cars as quickly and unnoticeably as I could. I had to get those keys! If I had to replace them it would mean rekeying many locks and making new keys for everyone. Another headache. My drive-up tellers watched me scramble between cars with curious fascination. I'm sure they were thinking, "why is our boss running across the drive up lanes"? Customers peered out from their cars, but their stares were more suspicious. They were watching a frantic man in a suit crisscrossing their cars.
I stopped at the curb and looked at the now congested traffic. School had probably just let out and carpool moms were out in force. The big trucks, regulars on this busy thoroughfare, were packing the street too. After the light turned red again, I went to grab the keys. I hurried back, eager to get away from my unwanted audience. Although no one was probably looking at me, except my employees, customers, and everyone else driving by...who was I kidding? I went back to my office to cool down. How could I have gotten this one so wrong?
Bullet holes and bus crashes
It was September 1995 in New Orleans, Louisiana. I worked at a bank located at the outskirts of Uptown. The famous New Orleans streetcar line ended right outside the bank. Tourists were our customers too. The rest were Tulane University students, small business owners, and locals. Frankly, the neighborhood was going downhill. I got to know New Orleans’s finest and the FBI because I dealt with fraud, robbery attempts, and even a drive-by shooting. My staff saw bullets holes in the windows, simply caulked with silicone, as a daily and unnerving reminder of the dangers we faced.
On the upside, there never was a dull moment. One evening a driver had a few too many Hurricanes, a popular local drink, and drove through our storage room wall. He was passed out drunk and never realized he destroyed our entire supply of checking and savings account brochures. Another time, a city bus crashed into the telephone pole just outside my office. I was thankful for the pole. Better the telephone pole than me! Plus, getting hit by a bus at work is not my idea of a glorious way to go.
Training to manage people
Despite the everyday dangers, I loved my job. Okay, that's an exaggeration. I really liked my job. However, managing people was frustrating at times. I found this to be the one part of my job I couldn't grasp yet, but I was at a loss on how to be more effective. I crunched the numbers and managed the operations. Anything I wasn't trained in I learned easily and managed, but managing people was a different story. I easily spent a third of my time just dealing with various people issues. The hiring, mentoring, training, evaluating, disciplining, firing, and mediating never ended. I wanted to focus on my real goals of increasing deposits and loans. Why do the people issues keep getting in the way?
I was a 24-year-old college graduate and ready to take on the world. After completing a year long management-training program I was now a branch manager. I also happened to be the youngest branch manager the bank had ever hired. I felt important. However, this management program did not truly prepare me for being a manager. I was basically shipped around to various departments to observe day-to-day operations. I found it fascinating, but not very helpful.
My first big break
Finally, I had the chance to do a two-week stint at our new grocery store branch. I know in store banking is everywhere now, but back then it was revolutionary stuff. The company was proud of the many banking services offered in a tiny location. We were between the pharmacy and the fresh fruit section. I had the honor to been chosen to experience it first hand.
The in-store concept was new and slow to reach new customers. Supermarket PA announcements on low home equity rates were the highlight of my day. Shoppers were obviously not impressed since they didn't rush to sign up. I generated three loans the entire time. One for a bathroom remodel, another for a new pool and even one loan to fund a trip to see Mickey Mouse. On the bright side, I did get nice comments about my Finnish accent from the grocery cashiers. At this point, between standing around watching bank operations and my PA announcements, I was "clearly ready" for management duties.
Managing people stuff takes time away from my real duties
Unfortunately, I soon discovered my training did not help in managing people or dealing with customers. My business degree didn't seem to help much either. I was trained to handle the operational and financial issues thanks to my education and limited work experience. However, I was not prepared for the many challenges of managing people stuff. Motivating employees, assigning tasks, scheduling lunch breaks, hiring and firing, and dealing with conflicts turned out to be amazingly difficult. On top of that, try adding customers and prospects to the mix. My business professors and textbooks must have accidentally skipped those topics. I needed those skills and would've remembered managing people stuff at those times!
What was worse, I felt ineffective and at a loss on how to become better. Meanwhile, I was distracted from the aggressive goals I needed to meet. I needed to open more loans, more deposits, and more fees. I was frustrated because managing people stuff took up so much of my time.
Managing people stuff with my three groups
I grouped my employees into three categories. The first, and luckily the majority, were great employees. They were reliable, customer focused, and got their job done. I shared my expectations. They got it and executed. It was beautiful. We were in sync.
The second group was more challenging. In my novice opinion, they were not interested in reaching their full potential. They did not understand my goals and my management style. They did their job, but not up to my standards. As a result, their performance was only adequate. This group was like a bar of soap. I couldn't get a good handle on them. What was wrong with these people?
The last group was the toughest. Thankfully, it was so small that I couldn't really call it a group. These 1-3 employees never got my vision at all or even tried to. When all I got were poor performances so I tried what any other creative manager would do. I encouraged them to ask for a transfer to another location. I asked questions like, “did you know there is another branch closer to your home?" or "your commute must be a real pain" worked quite well. My problem was temporarily solved. There was always another one to replace the one that left.
The real problem with managing people stuff
Then one morning I realized the real problem. How did I not see it when it was so obvious? The problem was ME! How could this be? I worked hard, had a college degree and even completed the management training. What more could I do? I found my answer the day before.
My friend Dave could make everyone laugh. Some did not appreciate his crude humor, but his delivery made up for his lack of tack. His laughter was contagious and he always had a great story to tell.
Dave was an avid fisherman. His email address started with “redfishdave@”. He invited me to go fishing almost every week. I declined every time because my idea of a great weekend was not getting up before dawn, but sleeping in. However, since Dave and I were good friends, I finally caved and went fishing with him.
Why fishing is a great sport
I groggily opened my door Sunday morning at 4:30 a.m. to see my way too cheery friend. He handed me a big cup of coffee and off we went. I was still sleepy so our conversation was one-sided. Dave had enough to talk about for both of us. We arrived at the bayou 45 minutes later. I was now awake thanks to the coffee. As I looked over the bayou and saw the sun coming up, I felt even better. It was very beautiful and peaceful. I realized that this experience could be enjoyable.
We launched the boat and headed out. About 30 minutes later he threw out the anchor, looked at me with a big smile and asked, “so, what fish do you want to catch today?”
"Wait, was this a trick question? Um...fish?"
What does redfish have to do with managing people stuff?
Dave laughed at my confusion and said, "how about redfish?"
He proudly opened his large and shiny tackle box. I could almost hear the heavenly trumpets blaring and the bright lights come down from the heavens. He had told me how much time and money he spent his tackle and lure collection.
Dave reached for a specific lure and skillfully attached it to the end of the fishing line. He then handed me the fishing rod and told me to start fishing. Surprisingly, since it was six in the morning, Dave also handed me a cold beer. I was beginning to see why fishing was such a popular sport.
What do you know? After 10 minutes of fishing and out of all the different kinds of fish in the bayou, we were pulling in good-sized redfish. Ninety minutes and three beers later we had a cooler full of redfish.
When we reached the limit for redfish Dave suggested we catch a few speckled trout before heading home. Dave took the fishing rod from me, changed the lure, and handed the rod back to me. Amazingly, we were now catching speckled trout! Fishing trip success. Three hours later Dave dropped me off at home. Ten minutes later I was asleep on the couch. Rising before the sun and early morning beers can take their toll.
Managing people stuff suddenly became clear
Monday came too soon. I was sitting in my office and thinking about the fishing trip and my job. My pay raises, promotions, and performance depended on how I led and motivated my employees to perform well. I felt I was doing okay, but I also knew I could be better.
Then I thought back to the fishing trip with Dave. How did he catch the exact fish he wanted? Then it hit me! It was so simple! We gave the fishes what they wanted! This whole time, as a new manager, I was giving my employees what I thought they needed and should get. I communicated in my preferred style. I used motivators that worked on me. Basically, I used a leadership style that I would follow. Suddenly, it was so clear.
The difficult person is me
There was no escaping it. The real problem with the managing people stuff was me. I realized where my leadership style wasn't working. If I did not give my employees what they wanted and needed then they would not be motivated or understand what I wanted from them. If I wanted to achieve better results, I needed to change my behaviors.
The problem was fairly simple. I was repeating the same behaviors daily with everyone and without any adjustments. I was just lucky those behaviors worked so well with most of my employees. They worked because the majority of my employees were a lot like me. They “got me” because had shared the same behavioral styles. We saw the world through the same filters.
My next smaller group was not that different from me. However, they were different enough that they must have been thinking on my worst days: “Do you really get paid for this?” Fair enough.
The last few must have not been so kind to me behind my back. I'm sure they were frustrated. Looking back now, if it were me, I would have asked for a transfer. They probably were thinking that a location and commuting change was not a bad idea.
There's a better way to managing people stuff
In my defense, I was not alone in my management style. In fact, I was pretty much like everyone else throughout the organization. Managers were focused on their own, comfortable behaviors and what worked for them. None of us knew how to effectively modify our style to better manage our employees. The same applied to prospects and customers. We repeated with the same way of doing things with mixed results.
We were managers so we must have been doing a good job, right? However, even the most successful managers can improve. There had to be a better way to managing people stuff. Being successful doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from change. However, changing behavior is difficult. It takes energy to change, but now I was open and ready for it.
What I've learned in managing people stuff
Over the years I became personally interested in what makes people successful and happy. I looked for similarities in behavioral styles and backgrounds. Was there a key ingredient? I discovered that successful and happy people come from all kinds of backgrounds. They had different behavioral styles, but, they had three main things in common.
First, all successful people are keenly and confidently self-aware. They are honest with themselves about their strengths and development areas. They accept who they are, but do not use their style as an excuse. Second, successful people make conscious decisions about how to modify their behavior. They do not simply repeat behaviors that are the most comfortable. They are not only self-aware, they are also aware of what they are doing.
Finally, I learned successful and happy people are very aware of what they can and cannot control. I believe all of us know the same, but fewer really accept it. We are distracted, frustrated, upset and even depressed about things in life we have no control over. We need to pay more attention to what we can control. Successful and happy people know they can only control themselves.
You decide if you need to modify your behavior. You are in control.