Leader or Dick?

Let's dive right in.


You are working in a place of business. You do not own the business. You are an employee. Your Assistant is not actually "yours." He or she is an employee of the company, assigned to help you in your day-to-day. The office you inhabit is not "yours." You are allowed to inhabit it as long as you perform to the expectations of the business. Once that ceases, so do you.

We've gotten really sloppy in terms of comportment in business, especially at the Manager level. For instance, I'm coaching (read: counseling) more and more Executive Assistants who are being told things like "Whoa! Slow down. You really should learn to speak a bit softer and slower," or "Your voice really carries and it's disturbing everyone around you...especially me," or "Why are you in this meeting? Shouldn't you be booking travel or getting coffee or something?" (real quote) and my favorite, "Well you know, if you're not happy here and can't work under my rules, then you may want to consider other options." (Um...isn't that creating a hostile work environment by suggesting someone leave the company when YOU'RE the asshole and HR is up your crack? Interesting.)

Imagine being told any one of those things, usually when someone is clearly annoyed. How would you react to that? Would it absolutely make your day and feel so excited about the next? Or would it feel like an intentionally hurtful, personal attack by someone with authority looking to establish their dominance over you?

I have a whole website in the works to really call out and dig into correcting the sloppy behavior of Executive Assistants. So I'm going to give them a break this time. It's time for the rogue managers, execs and companies employing them to pay the piper.


Here's an eye-opening little chart from Harvard Business Review. Anything look "off" to you? Let me help. The majority of managers don't actually receive leadership training until their early 40s. Which means they have, essentially, run amok for over a decade trying to see what works, or blithely employing the "best practices" from their previous fave managers, or tried to establish their own style and performance bar which may be completely ineffective. We've seen it. Managers with the my way or the highway attitude. The screamers. The silo workers. The blamers. Managing and leading others well takes training. Lots of it. It's not a two-day seminar at a dope resort where you spend most of it "networking" with other aspiring managers. It's serious business that has long been overlooked by businesses claiming to be serious.

Dialing it back to day-to-day interactions with people you have to remember that as someone higher up the chain your words carry much more weight. You are a representative of not only the company, but of the company's ethos, behavior deemed acceptable by the company, and a steward of the culture of the company.

At a previous company I had a manager, someone whom I actually adored and respected because he was AMAZING, go off the rails a little bit. I can't remember the subject matter of what he and another co-worker were talking about in the open area, but I remember distinctly when he, out of nowhere, feigned an over-the-top, "very gay" dialect to (I guess?) drive his point home and grab a chuckle or two. Being a gay man with 26 years experience in some of the most brutally racist/homophobic/misogynist C-suites, I kinda just rolled my eyes, shook my head and thought, "I'm gonna have to pull him aside later." But then I noticed a young intern staring straight at me. It was one of those looks where you could tell she was offended, but more for me than herself. It was a look that said, "Are you okay? Are you going to say something to him?" For the first time in decades, I felt like I'd let my community down and sent the message to a young, aspiring intern to expect shit like this and just take it. There was a reason for my silence, but from her perspective I had just been mad disrespected and chose to do nothing about it.

I almost said, "Wow, is that what 'we' sound like to you?" But I chose to remain silent in the moment for a couple of reasons. First, I don't like to give credence to people behaving poorly. I'm a big believer in the old adage "Give 'em enough rope and they'll hang themselves every time." So instead of being confrontational and disruptive to everyone else's day, I sat back and enjoyed the sound of yards and yards of rope being whizzed off the spool. I believe that in that moment that particular manager took a bit of a hit to his reputation and his brand. Awesome dude became a little less awesome and may have aroused some suspicion going forward about his true character. Me causing a scene or checking him in an open forum wouldn't have helped the matter. My silence, though it still eats at me a bit because of the incomplete message it sent, was yet another "sticks and stones" moment in a storied 26-year career as a Black, gay man in a position I should never be in according to conventional wisdom.

Incidents like this with managers happen all the time. Open plan offices and laid back cultures have created this comfort coma managers readily fall into, conveniently forgetting the fact that they are there to lead and inspire others to do their best work, not to be liked or funny or test out the new, flawed management chops they read on yet another "Top 8 Ways to Manage Effectively" post on LinkedIn. Employees are hired by the company as experts at a particular business function. They should be treated with the same amount of respect as the bros you circle up with at the SOHO House. Maybe even more. (I've seen some you idiots there, 3 drinks in. NOT impressed.)

It is important to always remember that the people in your charge want to be there. They are fighting for you, because your success ensures their success. When they accepted the role under your care it was with the presupposition that they would be respected, heard, allowed to shine, and at some point allowed to take on even more responsibility that helps both you and the business succeed further. What no employee in the history of ever willfully signed up for was to be character assassinated in an open forum, talked down to, told to change elements of their personality to fit your comfort zone, and shamed on a consistent basis with zero apologies offered when YOU KNOW you've crossed the line. That's not being a manager or a leader. That's being a selfish, egotistical, non-self aware asshole who conveniently forgot that the pendulum swings both ways. Be a dick. Lose employees. And, eventually, when your reputation catches up, lose YOUR job. No one is immune from Miss Karma. My favorite line is "Karma has terrible timing, but incredible GPS." Oh, she's coming. Especially for the managers behaving in this way. #illmakepopcorn

Managers, especially the young ones, need intensive training on how to manage, what is and isn't acceptable behavior, and how to do it in an effective, non-biased manner so that everyone feels supported and compelled to contribute their best work. This needs to be a requirement before being given the title. Flunk the training (easy to vet) no Manager title for you. Just because you've made the company a ton of money or you're the smartest person in the room, doesn't mean you're going to be a good or effective leader. Flying by the seat of your pants and making it up as you go along is recipe for disaster. It's like taking a really important advanced linguistics class, but cutting school for 40% of it and then being given a job as a Linguist for the company. Companies need to cut the bullshit and really make management training a priority. The investment in that type of education will assure that you've set an expectation, everyone is being held to the same standard, and there are milestones in place to guarantee that the Manager is tracking to those expectations. Simply giving someone the title and a fat raise without truly verifying whether or not they would actually make a good Manager is sadly, where we are right this very moment in business.

I teach personal and professional accountability and culpability to Executive Assistants around the world. But I never thought that I'd have to teach things like, "How to handle a manager making mean, personal attacks about my personality," or "Do I go to HR when I'm constantly being shamed in meetings by my manager?" WTF?! I'll remind you that this is only remedied by the Assistant quitting and moving on to another situation. HR is essentially worthless in these situations, especially if the manager is contributing heavily to the balance sheet and meeting/exceeding expectation. It's emotionally exasperating for the Assistant, incredibly expensive as it takes months to land another role at the same level, and leaves them with the emotional collateral damage to manage and reconcile before starting at a new company with a new manager. Damage to offending manager? Zip. Maybe a little hit to his/her reputation, but quickly forgotten when the next financial report is published and exceeds projections.

Managing people effectively is about managing your own behavior and giving those in your care consistent parameters within which to operate and the correct behaviors to emulate. Fail to establish those parameters, people will create their own script and bedlam will eventually ensue. This is on businesses more than anyone. Companies need to realize that profits should never supersede filling a company with well-prepared leaders who lead effectively, with grace, empathy and more than a modicum of self-control. Set the bar across the entire organization by giving new and aspiring managers everything they need to succeed. Don't simply give them a title and expect that they'll know what to do with it. Clearly, they won't.

Phoenix Normand