We recall our mentors with an abundance of positive memories. We associate achievement with their guidance, direction and attention.
Whether they were teachers, coaches or managers, they cared enough to invest in us. They saw something and decided that we were worth betting on.
What gets lost over time is how often our mentors pissed us off.
Think about your greatest mentors.
- Did they push your buttons?
- Did they nudge you out of your comfort zone?
- Were they willing to call you out?
- Did they let you feel sorry for yourself?
- What mindset did they accept?
The best leaders in my life kicked me in the ass when I needed it.
I’m not talking about relentless taskmasters who treat people like cattle. That approach creates a revolving door of turnover.
I’m talking about leaders who can balance affiliation and accountability.
- Are they focused on relationships?
- Are they focused on results?
Most new managers default to one or the other. When one style doesn’t work, they over-correct in the opposite direction. Great leaders find a balance.
I wrote about four styles of management in the article, Are You A Manager People Want To Work For? I have worked for all four avatars and I document what each experience was like.
Nice Is Not A Leadership Style
Your mentors may have been nice people, but I doubt you would describe their leadership style as "nice." You might use terms like demanding, persistent, proactive, bold and empathetic.
Nice leaders are enablers.
Enablers are too worried about making friends to make anyone feel uncomfortable. They are satisfied with the status quo. Nice leaders avoid upsetting the happy balance on the team, even when it is losing.
Enablers want no part of tension, friction or confrontation. They offer generic feedback, focused on areas of your performance that require no correction. As a result, you are left to motivate yourself.
Enablers seek comfort at the expense of your personal growth.
Imagine if you hired an expensive personal trainer who turned out to be an enabler. You pay for the first session with expectations of breaking through whatever resistance has kept you from meeting your health goals.
In the first session, she asks what you do for exercise. You tell her that you like the elliptical machine. She reacts enthusiastically and asks you to hop on the most worthless piece of equipment in the gym.
Then she watches as you stroll through your elliptical routine, working up a light sweat. She applauds your mediocre effort and compliments your athletic elliptical form. When it is over, she hands you a water bottle, a towel and ten minutes of praise.
So, what exactly did you pay for?
You hire a trainer to make you feel uncomfortable. Yes, you want their expertise on form and routine. But the real reason you hire this person is to convince you that your effort and mindset can improve.
A great trainer will piss you off. They will push the speed on the treadmill faster than you would without them. They convince you that you are capable of doing pull-ups, and make you endure the pain to reach your goals.
No one likes a tough trainer during a workout. It feels like they are trying to killing you. Someone who pushes your heart rate up to 170 for an extended period of time is not your best friend in the moment.
But what do you feel five minutes after that brutal training session?
They saw something that you didn't believe was there. As a result, they helped you keep pushing long after you would have quit.
They have no problem with the evil looks you shoot at them and want no part of being "nice" while you do your fifth set of burpees.
You Can Be Demanding Without Being A Jerk
On the opposite spectrum is the jerk.
The jerk is all business, all the time. Everything is about results. It is apparent that their pursuit of goals is self-centered. You are a necessary tool to help them achieve their goal.
The jerk withholds praise, regardless of how much you accomplish. They are demanding in a selfish way. They want more from you because it will boost their status.
But we mute the jerk. They don't stir emotion in us; only apathy. We see through their facade, and we stay off their radar until we can find a better leader to work for.
I worked for a maniac at GE in my last role before leaving. He was an officer in the company and pushed out two of my favorite managers. In a strange twist of fate, he chose me as their replacement.
On a weekly basis, I watched him berate and belittle my peers in his staff meeting. It was transparent that he behaved this way because he knew nothing about our business.
He transferred from a different segment of GE and spent zero time learning about our challenges. His accountability act was his way of keeping people from asking him questions he couldn't answer.
The"tough guy" act quickly lost its effect. Most people on his staff left, and he was pulled from that role.
I examined the problem with jerks in my article, Manager Behavior Directly Affects The Behaviors Of The Team. That article describes how teams model the behaviors of the boss.
If the manager is non-confrontational, the entire team will take on that persona. Problems won't be addressed because people will be hesitant to hurt feelings.
If the manager is a self-serving menace, the team will form cliques, fend for themselves and disband.
Effective leaders balance genuine concern for people on their team while demanding that they become the best versions of themselves.
Role model managers do several things well.
1. Give First, Then Push Buttons
One of my first managers had the reputation of being a no-nonsense leader who hated excuses.
I was a young sales rep that wanted to be successful more than anything. He saw how hard I worked and reciprocated by investing time with me.
I made sure that I got an unfair share of his calendar. I brought him on customer visits and peppered him with questions to and from each appointment.
Early in that role, my self-confidence was non-existent. I was all hustle with no results to show for it. I doubted my abilities as a salesperson.
Knowing the fragile state of my psyche, he piled on encouragement. He reminded me daily that I was "doing all the right things" and that success was "just around the corner." As a result, I kept pushing forward.
He knew I was prospecting, making cold calls, networking and putting in the hours to develop a new territory. Then it popped. A first sale, then a second, then a strong a month, followed by a strong quarter. It wasn't long before I started feeling myself.
Now a capable performer, it was time to learn how he built his reputation. One afternoon, I went into his office to drop a problem on his desk.
"His operations team" was dropping the ball on a project I sold to a customer. I needed him to fix it quickly as the customer was threatening to cancel.
"This sounds like a sales problem."
Confused by his response, I persisted. It clearly wasn't a sales problem because we had a contract. This was an issue of execution.
"Looks like you better apologize to your customer for over-committing."
I was fuming. This was not my responsibility. His engineers needed to pull together and deliver as promised.
"A good sales rep might pull his team together and figure out a strategy. Of course, you can always return the customer's money and apologize for selling something you couldn't deliver."
He saw a diva sales rep who wanted no part of solving a problem. My mindset was broken and he refused to compound it.
I saw it differently at the time and stormed out of his office. Because I lacked an alternative, I pulled the engineers together and asked for their help in solving the dilemma.
We agreed on an acceptable solution for the customer. It required that I call the customer and backpedal on several promises I made prior to the contract. The conversation wasn't pleasant but I kept the sale and learned a lesson.
Over the next two years, I heard "Sounds like a sales problem" dozens of times. I hated it but he taught me the importance of ownership, a concept I didn't initially welcome as a new sales rep.
That manager refused to enable his spoiled, young salesman and used sarcasm to get under my skin. He is one of my favorite managers because he wasn't afraid to piss me off.
2. Know Which Buttons To Push
Lawrence Taylor is arguably the greatest defensive football player to ever play the game. He was nearly unblockable and changed the way offenses protected quarterbacks.
Most coaches would pamper a generational talent like Taylor. New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells took a different approach. Knowing how his temperamental star responded to aggression, Parcells was relentless.
Taylor struggled with L.A. Rams left tackle Irv Pankey throughout his career. Before a playoff game in 1989, Parcells left an airline ticket to New Orleans in Taylor's locker.
This was a running barb, as Parcells often remarked to Taylor about how well New Orleans Saints linebacker Pat Swilling played against Pankey.
“I want you to go down to New Orleans and you don’t have to change jerseys because (Swilling) also wears No. 56,” Parcells said. “Just give Swilling your helmet and send him up here. And you go ahead and play for the Saints this week down there because I need somebody who can whip Pankey.”
Taylor had to be restrained and screamed back at Parcells, "If you wanted Swilling, you should have drafted him!" As a result, Taylor went on to dominate Pankey in one of the best games of his career.
I don’t believe in consistency as it relates to handling players. I believe in being right for each guy. The guys I could do those things to, I knew them so well, I almost knew how they would respond before they did. When you’re talking about LT, he’ll respond to a challenge, whatever it is. He would respond.
Bill Parcells, New York Giants coach
I worked for a sales manager who used to send me a copy of the latest sales ranking with the name of my close friend circled. Of course, he only did this when I was behind.
As a result, my effort spiked. I hung that ranking next to my phone as motivation whenever I didn't feel like prospecting.
He agitated me to prompt more effort and it worked.
3. Understand The Difference Between Effort And Talent
As a high school football player, I was not Lawrence Taylor.
My high school coach could be "colorful" when we reviewed film of our previous games. In the first game of my junior season, I made several mistakes late in the game, stemming from poor conditioning.
In the film session the next day, coach lit me up but did not focus on the mistakes. He focused on what led to the mistakes. Coach kept rewinding the film to show me with my hands on my knees, out of breath.
Conditioning is about effort. Effort is controllable. Therefore, I needed extra motivation. I got the point and did extra conditioning after every practice for weeks.
Four games later, we played a school with a much better team. I faced several kids that were much bigger and better than me. It was a long day.
I braced myself for another miserable film session but something different happened. Coach focused on our good plays. Even though we lost the game by a lopsided amount, he focused on the positives.
For one game, he tossed out the score and showed us where we played well. There was no point in yelling at me after that game. I prepared as hard as I could and was simply outmatched by the players I faced.
That lesson stuck with me in business. Great leaders who believe someone is performing below their capability should let them know. If they sense that your effort or mindset is undermining your results, they should be relentless.
If your performance has more to do with your talent or lack of experience, managers should focus on encouragement and direction.
Coach that person up and encourage them while they learn the role or find a position that better fits their talent.
4. Remind Your Team That It Isn't Personal
I worked for a President with an incredibly short temper.
He was the founder of our company and had a tendency to explode when he wanted to make a point. Consequently, he scared the hell out of most people. Regardless, I loved working for the man.
One thing he did well was finishing every conversation on a lighter note. He could bark at me for twenty minutes and switch right into his AM radio voice with something like, "So, what do you and Jenny have planned for the weekend?"
It was strange but effective.
Calls ended with the two of us laughing about something unrelated. It was his way of saying, "Nothing personal, just business."
He wanted things done a certain way. If he felt I was veering off the path, his method of correction was more forceful than most. But by ending on a jovial note, he helped me to compartmentalize the business message and not take his message personally.
Understand that if you want to be a great manager, you need to accept your role as an occasional agitator. You can be liked and still be demanding.
Go ahead, piss someone off. Just do it with love.
From "A-ha" to "Oh shit," I share everything I learned from new manager to executive. Receive new articles to your inbox as I publish.
We value your privacy and will never spam you.