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8 lessons I learned from being a manager in my 20s
I didn't think I wanted to be a manager. Now I love it.
I never wanted to become a manager, mostly because the very word inspires visions of someone uptight, old, out-of-touch, and - shudder - corporate, ie. nothing like the cool, edgy writer image I’ve been striving for since I was in my teens.
But here’s the thing about work: if you’re good at your job, you’re going to move up the ladder. And in journalism, like many other jobs, moving up means managing other people. It’s strange, because being a good writer or reporter does not in anyway suggest you have the skills to be a good manager. And in the majority of cases, there’s no training to get you up to speed.
At Metro, I went from a freelancer working shifts, to a lifestyle reporter, to a senior lifestyle reporter, to lifestyle editor (then lifestyle and weekend editor after that). Moving up to lifestyle editor meant that at 25, I was in charge of a team of writers, some of whom were older than me. I would have been terrified, I think, were it not for Holly.
I was incredibly lucky that just before I took on the role, my boss had hired a lifestyle editor (Holly) on a shorter contract, who made it clear from the outset that her goal was to train me up so that when she left, I would be able to take over. Holly was fantastic. I may not have received any proper training in the art of management, but Holly let me shadow her processes. More helpful than that, though, was the way she built up my confidence. She convinced me that there was no question about me being ready to take on this challenge, that of course I’d be brilliant, taking me to ‘inspiring women’ events and regularly inviting me to share my thoughts in the office - then responding as though these were all worthy of being listened to.
There are a lot of former bosses that I’m so grateful for - Alex Gehringer, Alex Hudson, Kate Lucey, Alison Lynch, Deborah Arthurs (and obviously my current brilliant boss, Fliss Thistlethwaite) - not just because they made my work and writing better, but also because they seemed to really believe in me. They also served as great cheat sheets to how to edit and manage writers - I could take note of the things that made me love working with them and copy those same tactics as a leader.
I learned a lot from those bosses, but even more from actually doing the job. I made many mistakes along the way, did things that I doubt any ‘how to be a manager’ book would recommend, but getting stuck in and trying out what worked (and what didn’t) has meant I’ve been described by multiple people as the best manager/editor they’ve ever had (and these are people who no longer work under me, so they are very much not financially obligated to say that). I don’t think I can offer formal advice to anyone about to take on their first manager role, because I remain very much not an expert, but what I can do is share some of lessons I’ve learned about managing so far. I can’t say ‘all’ of the lessons, or ‘the best lessons’ because the lessons start coming and they don’t stop coming. So, here are 8.
Lesson one: Managing can be really fulfilling
I was absolutely stunned to discover that I actually… like editing other people’s work and leading a team? I thought of myself as very much a solo worker whose expertise was purely in writing. I also imagined that when I progressed to editor roles, I would do the team management bit begrudgingly.
My first team at Metro smashed those predictions out of the way with their brilliance, their conversation, and their laughter. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed talking through ideas with writers and shaping loose thoughts into features (although, I’ll be honest, the first two women I managed, Miranda and Rebecca, were incredibly good at their jobs and needed very little shaping, editing, or managing beyond me having to tell them that they needed to stop chatting quite so loudly, because we were about to get shouted at). I fell in love with the parts of the job I thought I’d resent: directing a team, working together on edits, and sharing the glory of articles that did well.
The lesson here is to be open to the joy. Some people really won’t get on with managing and will hate it. I was lucky that it was, unexpectedly, a really great fit.
Lesson two: Take red flags seriously
It’s probably not wise to get into the specific details of this, but here’s a heavily redacted version of how I learned this lesson.
As I mentioned, I was new to being a manager, and thus I felt a lot of pressure around making my first hire. I felt ridiculous conducting interviews, pretending this was something I had done before, and kept thinking about the inherent risk of saying to a company that yes, this is the person you should give money to, and to my existing team, yes, this is a person you should welcome into the midst.
I made a hire and there were some things in the first few weeks that seemed a bit… odd, let’s say. Alarm bells were ringing, but I didn’t want to say anything because that would be, I thought, admitting that I had failed at hiring someone and was thus terrible at my job. Things went very wrong a couple of months in and we then had to let the person go. The process was painful and embarrassing and I wish, wish, wish I had just listened to my gut in the first place and either not hired the person, or decided that things weren’t working within the probation period.
Alas, I didn’t learn this lesson the first time around, and when another hire showed even more glaring red flags, I went to quite silly lengths to try to make the situation work. When they did things that were definitely grounds for firing, I said we should give them a second chance, then reassured them that it was all fine, then offered to pay for therapy out of pocket because I had very clearly lost all sense of healthy boundaries. Because I allowed this person into the team and into our lives, multiple people got hurt and I spent a long time after having panic attacks. There are still, to this day, ramifications of this hire that I have to live with. So… quite a big messup, on reflection! I had worries even in the interview stage. I should have listened to those worries.
The lesson here: trust your gut and take red flags seriously.
Lesson three: You don’t have to be the ‘traditional’ manager
As mentioned in the intro, I had quite a rigid idea of what a manager was. I truly thought I might have to buy myself a skirt suit. I also imagined that I’d need to stop going to the pub and socialising with the people I managed.
I didn’t buy a skirt suit. I kept going to the pub. I became friends with the writers I managed. I have tattoos and silly lilac hair and I am very open with the team I manage now about the fact I have depression and OCD. I am vulnerable and we have fun and chat and joke around. And none of this has made me a bad manager. I’ve realised that I can be a manager in my own way. I don’t need to radically overhaul my personality and approach just because of my title.
Lesson four: Delegate, for god’s sake
Here’s a mistake I made at Metro. When I was a lifestyle reporter, I was knocking out an average of 12 stories a day, including one or two original pieces (usually listicles about sex and relationships). I was often one of the top writers on the site for traffic (it was hard to beat Duncan, though, who continues to smash it).
When I became lifestyle editor, none of that stopped… and it probably should have. It took me a long time to look around and notice that the majority of the other editors were either writing much less or not at all. I clung on to writing because I didn’t want to stop doing what I enjoy (fair enough), and as a result I was essentially doing two jobs: lifestyle editor and the star lifestyle reporter I’d been before. I truly didn’t bat an eyelash at the internal expectation that I would write 12 stories a day, edit the work of five or so writers, plan future content, hire people, book in freelancers, sort out a rota, and attend big meetings about what we were all up to.
That was silly, wasn’t it? You can’t do everything, and contrary to my past belief, managing a team is a job in itself. I’ve learned that to do that job properly, I can still write, but I have to drop a little of that in order to lead a team (and be able to leave work on time). I wish I had trusted my team more (they deserved the trust, they were great!) and not thought I had to do everything myself.
Lesson five: Be the shield
Some feedback I’ve had from previous people I’ve managed is that I was a great ‘shield’, protecting them from the the pressures and criticism and dramas coming from above. There have been times I’ve failed at that, oversharing about my stress levels and what so and so said, and I regret it. I think being the shield, and filtering information so your team know what they need to know, but are protected from the bullshit, is a wonderful thing. If I were an expert, I would talk about psychological safety etc etc, but I’m not, so I’ll put it like this: your job as a manager is to help your team do their best work. A lot of time this means protecting them from nonsense that’s just going to cause them stress, piss them off, or derail them.
Lesson six: Beware of creating an enemy
You know when I said I regretted oversharing? I really do. I would warn any new manager against complaining about someone else in the office, even if they are being unfair/terrible at their job/a dick. I’ve done it, and I think it was a mistake for one simple reason: it dooms the relationship between your team and the person you aren’t a fan of. The team goes into all interactions with that bias of ‘this person was a dick to my boss, and thus they will be a dick to me’, and they’re on the defensive from the get-go, or ‘this person is an idiot, my boss said so’ and don’t listen to anything they say. Soon enough you’ve unintentionally turned your entire team against someone, making them the enemy or the joke. It’s true that they might have been horrible to your team, too… but give them a chance to not be. Let your team make their own minds up and form their own relationship with people you don’t get on with.
I am thankful to not currently be working with anyone I need to bitch about, but if that ever changed, I would rant and rave to my partner or my friends rather than the people I manage.
Lesson seven: You have to think your team is brilliant, or it’s not going to work
Here’s how I feel about my current team: they are brilliant geniuses and deserve so much acclaim. Here’s how I feel about my previous team: they are brilliant geniuses and deserve so much acclaim.
There have been people who I didn’t feel that way about, and, honestly, it likely showed. It didn’t work for me, as a manager. I’ve learned that I genuinely need to think people I manage are fantastic, otherwise I’m going to struggle to be their biggest fan and champion; which in my books are key roles as a manager. It’s hard to fake that.
Lesson eight: Lead by example
I’m a big believer in people leaving the office on time, looking after their mental health, and not taking their work home. Anyone I manage, I encourage to do this. But you know what’s tricky? Convincing people that they should leave on time when you’re telling them this at 6pm… having started work at 6am.
If you want your team to be happy and healthy, and to have balanced, fulfilling lives (which you should want, to be clear…), you really do need to be doing the same thing. You have to lead by example on this, otherwise you will get the same reaction I did when I used to tell members of my team to go home, to relax, to not take too much on: “but look at what you’re doing!”. The ‘do as I say, not what I do’ route doesn’t work. Walk the walk, model healthy behaviours, and recognise that even if you’re doing your best to hide your stress levels they seep out of you and infect everyone.
Happy wife, happy life, they say. Happy manager, happier team. If you show that you take your self-care seriously, your team will realise you’re not ‘just saying’ it’s okay to leave on time and take thing a bit easier, you really mean it.
HOW TO WORK
I recognise you’re likely reading this in your inbox and might fear adding even more emails to a space that’s already overflowing, but I strongly urge you to make an exception for How To Work.
It’s a new newsletter from Stylist - and it’s out fortnightly, so only one extra email every two weeks! - that explores how women can find career contentment, with handy techniques from career coaches, features on the world of work, and guides on how to do your work better.
There’s also writing from the brilliant Lisa Smosarski, an exclusive work tip from ME (yes, even more me in your inbox, there’s even a nice pic of me in there), and a series of women sharing how they negotiated salary bumps.
The first ever edition goes out on Monday 11 September, so please do sign up to make sure you get it.
EAT SLEEP WORK REPEAT
Have I mentioned that I’m now co-hosting the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast? It’s very exciting. I’d missed podcasting after quitting Metro and thus quitting Mentally Yours last year. This is obviously a very different topic and format (Mentally Yours was about mental health and had a fun little jingle about me and co-host Yvette, whereas Eat Sleep Work Repeat is all about the world of work and has lots of fans from all sorts of industries), but I’m loving talking to fascinating people again and knowing that there are people I’ve never met who are listening to my voice when they’re walking around/cleaning the house/getting ready for the day. Cool!
Anyway, the first episode covered millennial managers, working from home, AI, and more. This week’s episode sees Bruce talk to performance coach Owen Eastwood, and Matt and I discussing the big meaty concepts of belonging, meaning, purpose, and connection in the world of work. Also: a brief mention of the horrors of companies that declare ‘we’re a family, here’. Give it a listen:
Work-related reading recs:
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot this week is the Jimmy Fallon Rolling Stone piece, and how many people I know reacted by saying the experiences mentioned ‘weren’t that bad’ or that ‘he hadn’t really done anything properly wrong’. It’s scary to me how normalised it’s become for work to make employees consider suicide. To state what I thought was the obvious: that is not okay!