Walk into any business section of the bookstore and you’ll see a lot of the same faces staring back at you. Books about leadership and management are overwhelmingly authored by white dudes in the C-suite. A recent trip to my favorite indie bookstore made that comically clear: as I looked for a good guide on freelancing, I was confronted by new books from Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone; Bob Iger of Disney; Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce; investment banker Charles Schwab; restaurant magnate Tilman Fertitta, and so forth. Their books have titles like What It Takes, Principles For Success, and most alarmingly, Shut Up And Listen! in the case of Fertitta.
Before I’m dismissed as a reverse-racist and sexist, let me make one thing clear: I’m sure these men have quality advice to offer. They’re all hugely successful businessmen, and they have reached career highs I can never hope to achieve. But as I looked at their beautiful suits and all-caps, confident titles, I wondered how much they have to offer me. These men and I couldn’t be farther apart—I’m part of the most diverse generation of Americans so far. Millennials are saddled with catastrophic levels of debt, rocked by a mental health crisis worsened by a collapsing healthcare system, and dealing with a fiercely competitive job market and several imploding industries. The idea of old-fashioned career pathing within the same company is so laughable that the concept itself isn’t familiar to most young employees.
In my field, digital media, wave after wave of layoffs and folding brands have made job security a thing of the past. Full-time jobs with benefits are replaced by freelancers, or “permalancers,” as a way to save money and maximize profits for their new VC owners. The publications that persist have their own challenges, from salaries that barely cover the cost of living in the expensive coastal cities they call home to a pernicious habit of union busting.
I can’t fathom what useful advice Bob Iger could give me, a twenty-seven year old bisexual woman in media trying to pay the bills. Critically, I also don’t expect him to speak to my life—he doesn’t want me to reach for his memoir on the shelf, and neither does his publisher. I’m not his target audience.
But what is he teaching his actual intended audience, the senior staffers and C-suite level folks who lead the companies that employ me or my friends? What lessons are the managers, directors, HR administrators and CEOs who govern the lives of millennials learning about us from these exceptional rich white dudes? The leaders of the business world overwhelmingly learn about management and power from each other. Their ghostwritten memoirs and their podcasts and their TED Talks expound upon leadership from the top down to an audience of peers.
What does management advice look like when it comes from the bottom of the company: the coordinators, the assistants, the interns? What guidance can middle-management give to the new generation just coming up, or to the old guard struggling to lead through change? How much better would our companies be if we stopped assuming the only good resources on leadership sit in the C-suite?
When I became a manager for the first time in 2018, I was in way over my head. My mentor had just left the company and I was filling an interim director role with a lot of responsibility but little authority. My temporary manager was C-suite level and just too busy to field the time-sensitive but less critical quandaries that I faced, like how to point out someone’s chronic typos or how to push back on the rude conduct of someone above me in the company hierarchy.
Panicked, I turned to my friends at work and asked them if they’d be part of a council of mentors for me. Instead of approaching the predictable senior leaders at the company, I consciously chose a handful of racially diverse coworkers at different levels of experience and seniority. As one of the youngest employees to reach a senior level, I wanted to make sure I had colleagues of different identities and experiences who would challenge me to do the right, responsible thing for everyone whenever possible.
My mentors fell into three camps. There were the middle-management white men in their thirties who gave me excellent advice about my professional development and office politics. There were the middle-management and senior-level white women who coached me through salary negotiations and uncomfortable conversations about ambition and title changes. And lastly, there were the young, marginalized junior staffers who always made time to talk with me about inequitable practices at our office and how I could leverage my privilege to help.
While my white middle- to upper-management mentors helped me make more money and manipulate my way through conflicts, my “entry level” friends taught me the most about being a good manager. They were mostly people of color, LGBTQ-identifying, disabled and broke, and as the least powerful people in the hierarchy of the office, they saw how the behavior of leaders impacted everyone else in intimate, frustrating ways. They scheduled other people’s meetings and answered other people’s emails. They ordered lunches and wrote customer support messages. They pitched in to help each other when there was nothing in it for themselves.
Much of the advice these mentors gave me was specific to a situation I bungled or a decision that needed to be made. But there were key themes that came up time and time again as I learned how to manage — and as I watched the managers around me make mistakes that eroded trust in their leadership. These themes arise at any company, in every workplace, no matter the size or the industry or location. At its core, good management requires the responsible awareness of power. The best leaders understand the power dynamics that underlie every relationship and interaction in the workplace. Who can teach you more about strong leadership than those with the least power in the office?
Below are some of the rules I wish more leaders at every level of the workforce knew. Some are practices I learned the hard way as an intern dealing with a difficult boss — others are mistakes I made during my brief tenure as a manager. This list is by no means comprehensive, and it’s undoubtedly shaped by my identities as a white, cis woman. I’d love to hear your favorite management advice in the comments. What do you wish your boss knew about leadership? What did you learn about management when you were an entry-level staffer?
Leaders create the culture of their workplace. Their behavior is magnified tenfold.
Misconduct or rude behavior at the top set the tone for everyone else, and if negligent managers aren’t held accountable for their actions, company culture erodes in vicious and permanent ways. If there is someone at a senior level who makes insensitive jokes, cuts corners, yells, or behaves in ways that run counter to the company’s stated values, that company is toast. It’s incredibly hard to cure an organization of its toxic culture once your staff suspects unfairness or hypocrisy.
Even on a less dire level, problems like chronic lateness, sloppiness and credit stealing on the part of a leader set the tone for their teams. Managers sculpt the norms and expectations around them, even if they’re middle-managers who assume they aren’t all that powerful. Your direct reports will look to you for how they should behave. If you’re always five minutes late to meetings, why should they arrive on time?
Rules are for everyone, no matter their level.
If a company has policies around remote working, flexible hours, parental and sick leave, conduct and morality, they must apply to absolutely everyone. Nothing demoralizes employees quite like having a reasonable request denied after it was approved for someone the boss liked more, or who was deemed more “critical” to the company.
While common lore is that more freedom and flexibility should be granted to folks who demonstrate that they are responsible, it’s worth grappling with the fact that who is deemed responsible is often a flimsy call. If senior managers are rarely at the office but junior staffers are required to be at their desks at 9:00am every morning, you’re going to deal with a lot of resentment.
A manager’s job is not just to track the work and success of their subordinates. Managers are responsible for helping employees reach their professional goals.
The long-term professional development of direct reports is often overlooked by managers, especially in industries where career pathing isn’t formalized and staff retention doesn’t directly impact the company’s bottom line. Time constraints and absurd KPIs (key performance indicators) also make it difficult to prioritize investing energy in employee development. As managers are only human, they also play favorites and dedicate extra time only to the employees who remind them of themselves, or who are shining stars with obvious success and charm.
Neglecting the growth of your employees may keep them dependent on you — and underneath you in the hierarchy. But it also creates a dead-end where their only way up is out. If you haven’t invested in your direct reports, don’t act surprised when they quit. Your direct reports will have jobs after they work for you, and helping them prepare for those opportunities will actually keep them around longer. It builds trust, loyalty and dedication to their work. Aiding your subordinates isn’t a threat to you! A manager threatened by the success of an employee isn’t a mentor, they’re a task master.
There is literally never a good reason to raise your voice.
Being an asshole doesn’t make you strong, it makes you a feared and loathed co-worker whom no one trusts. Shouting, sarcasm and personal criticism are never constructive, no matter how frustrated a manager or a leader is. If a subordinate messes up, managers should calmly highlight the mistake and why it matters, and then ask how they can help them avoid it in the future. If a subordinate didn’t complete a task or a team failed to reach a goal, maybe leaders should ask why instead of rushing to accuse or launch into a personal attack. Blame and humiliation prevent companies from getting to the bottom of issues that impede progress: maybe the problem is a lack of resources, or of time, or of skill. It’s also possible that the goal, the task, or the project were silly or impossible.
Humiliation is not a management tool.
Do not give challenging feedback in front of an audience. Do not reprimand an employee in front of an audience. Do not demean a team or their work in front of an audience. These are disrespectful and controlling tactics, not ways to help a direct report build a skill and or to hold employees accountable for failure.
Don’t make big decisions without thinking about — and asking — how they’ll impact everyone.
Everyone has biases based on their gender, their race, their bank account and their life experiences. These biases are human, but they’re dangerous when they go unrecognized. They keep us from understanding how our decisions will impact others differently than ourselves, and good leaders must proactively account for their biases every day.
Able-bodied leaders may not think through how an office redesign will inconvenience or humiliate employees with disabilities. Men may not understand how venues for the annual holiday party might create a sexualized workplace environment for female employees. White employees may not understand the complex relationship between their coworkers of color and the office building’s security staff. Small, insensitive decisions can have an outsized impact on the lives of employees, and they need to be addressed head-on without defensiveness or embarrassment.
If a tough decision is being made, especially where it pertains to salaries, bonuses, hiring freezes or the under-resourcing of projects, tell staffers why. Don’t just say “it’s not in the budget” — open up your books so that folks understand the math of the decisions that impact their lives at work and at home. The trust you place in your teams by showing them the financial inner workings of the company can help them swallow difficult times. It also builds a culture where everyone is in the fight together, as opposed to one where some employees suffer for the greater good of the C-suite.
Boundaries are good for everyone.
While transparency is important at the decision-making level, it’s equally important to never overshare or burden direct reports with problems that aren’t their problem. One responsibility of management is carrying the load of stressful challenges and conflicts. Managers should shield their teams from bullshit, whether it’s the temperamental behavior of the C-suite or panic about an upcoming deadline.
Managers should also never over-confide their personal problems in their employees. Unless difficulty in your personal life will impact your work and your leadership, don’t bring external conflict into the office. You are there to provide a safe, productive and respectful environment for your team. You don’t have to be an invulnerable superhuman — all of us get sick, struggle and need help from time to time — but the dynamic between managers and their direct reports makes it hard for the less powerful person to create and reinforce healthy boundaries.
Work-life balance is not a fuzzy mantra. It’s a concrete set of rules and boundaries.
Building a healthy culture starts with the boss. Are directors sending company-wide emails at 4am? Are managers working late at the office and making their team feel guilty for leaving at 6pm? Are bosses assigning huge projects at 4pm that are due at 11am the next day? Is the CFO on vacation in Costa Rica for the entire month of January while the rest of the company scrambles to get ready for Q1?
Guess what: no amount of gym membership stipends or meditation lessons will reset those terrible practices. Work-life balance isn’t about perks, it’s about recognizing that employees have lives outside of the office, and those lives are just as important as what happens at work.
Leaders make mistakes. They only fail when they refuse to own those mistakes.
One of the best things a leader can do when they mess up is address it openly with their team and talk about what they learned. If an initiative failed, hold a postmortem to talk about why. If you made an insensitive remark at a meeting, apologize for it. Talking about mistakes isn’t a sign of weakness; it creates a culture where people feel safe learning and trying their best. No one expects their leaders to be perfect; in fact, we hope our leaders will be open to changing their minds when they’re wrong.
P.S. I recently left my job to recover from intense workplace burnout. You can learn more about that decision here. If I were less exhausted, I might have pitched this essay to a publication, worked on it for a week with an editor, and then gotten paid a few hundred bucks for it. As a result, I’m going to ask you to consider leaving me a tip if you can afford it. My tip jar pays my rent and my health insurance bill! Thank you for your support.