You Can't Fire Everyone

Tales from the front lines of management

Lessons from a reluctant manager

December 14, 2012: 12:54 PM ET

How one 20-something founder struggled to find a management style that fits both her team and her personality.121214055022-business-leader-conductor-gallery-horizontal

By Amanda Pouchot

FORTUNE – Boss of the Year is not an award I'm vying for. Seriously. I will be thrilled if my team gets through the rest of the year in one piece.

I left my job as an analyst at McKinsey to start the Levo League last year and, at 25, was thrown into a management position. Books soothed my panic; I poured over David Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, which describes how to influence others' emotions while controlling your own. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's Delivering Happiness stirred up fantasies of building a company culture of our own, where employees can bring their whole selves to work and get behind common goals. But putting these ideas into practice stalled, rather quickly, and shattered my dreams of managerial grandeur. Reading 500-some rather educational pages does not make a management guru; nothing compares to experience. My priorities -- having difficult but crucial conversations, giving useful feedback, and helping others solve their problems -- materialized after months of trial and error.

It's all about talking

At first, it was tough to have my ideas challenged by team members. What I should have welcomed as constructive feedback instead sent me into a fit. I went from positive to easily irritated: "I don't have time for this" or "I don't care about that" became my go-to responses. I eventually realized pesky questions weren't an attempt at a coup; they stemmed from a lack of clear communication. Evading conflict created much larger issues than talking it out; I was forced to reassess my communication strategy.

I learned the importance of transparency. I now write Sunday Kick Ass Emails (SKAEs); they outline the team's overall goal and break down each employees' responsibilities for the week. We spend less time trying to understand what needs to get done, freeing up creative time to develop future projects.

There is such a thing as feedback etiquette

One stress-filled day, an employee kept asking me where they should move a desk. I bit back, "I don't care where you put the damn desk," and went on with my day. I cringe when I think about that moment. I projected my frustrations on a completely innocent team member. I learned the importance of time, place, and tone -- especially in an office filled with young, energetic, and impressionable employees. My future response? Take her aside and say, "I really want you to take ownership over this and be responsible for deciding where to move the office furniture." Every company has to do these kinds of basic tasks; when handled appropriately, they can give confidence to staffers, which will help them with bigger tasks in the future.

Experienced employees make great teachers

I manage several women who are five to seven years older than me. In general, they are much more comfortable with speaking up when they see something going wrong. They push to schedule time to talk through issues. Their experience at other companies has taught them the importance of communication and offensively attacking problems.

Managers are made over time

Learning to be a better manager comes from having time to experience and develop new skills. That seems obvious, but there are plenty of founders and first-time managers who have yet to realize it. Identifying weaknesses and constantly working toward improvement does not happen overnight.

I'm chasing Most Improved Boss of the Year -- an award other first-time managers should be proud to receive.

Amanda Pouchot co-founded The Levo League with Caroline Ghosn.

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