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Confessions of a First-Time Boss: An Apology

By Roberta Chinsky Matuson
Dear Former Staff,

Lately I've been thinking about everyone who used to work for me, in particular those of you who were my first direct reports. I've spent the last year writing a book for new managers, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, and I've had plenty of time to reflect on what it must have been like to work for me early in my career. I realize that at the ripe old age of 24 (can you believe they made me HR director?), I may not have been as strong a leader as I thought. I owe you all an apology. In making amends, I hope that others will learn from my past mistakes and limit the damage that so often occurs when we think we know it all simply because we've been given a title.

A day doesn't go by when I don't think about our time together as a team. My intentions were good, but my nerves, ego and lack of experience got in the way of becoming the type of boss you deserved. Please accept my apologies for:

Being a know-it-all. I should have listened to you when you were trying to prevent me from making a huge blunder, but I thought I knew more than you because I had the corner office and you didn't. I recall how you warned me about certain people in the organization -- specifically the way they tried to take my predecessor down. I was naïve, and these people were nice to me -- at least in the beginning. In the end, you were right. You were the ones I should have trusted, not them.

Rolling my eyes when you called in sick to care for your child who was ill. I'm writing this while home with my sick child. Who knew kids really got sick so often? I remembered thinking, "What's wrong with these people? Can't they make other arrangements?" Meanwhile, many of you were thinking, "How am I going to pay my bills? I don't have any sick pay left." In retrospect, I could have and should have been more sympathetic.

Failing to manage up. I was so focused on learning how to manage you that I forgot to manage those above me: the people who controlled the resources for our department. I realize now that had I done a better job of managing those relationships, I would have been able to provide you with the rewards you so deserved. Instead, that money went to the very same department heads you warned me about, which explains why their administrative staff were sporting nice cars while you were driving clunkers.

Thinking that just because I didn't have a life, you shouldn't have one either. I was a young single manager who couldn't possibly understand the challenges of balancing work and family. I never thought twice about asking you to work late or come in on the weekends. That's what people do to get ahead. But I never bothered to ask you if getting ahead was even something you wanted to do.

Trying to be a friend rather than being the boss. I should have provided you with the feedback you needed to improve your performance, but instead I avoided addressing performance issues because I feared you would take this feedback personally, which might mess up our friendship. I now know that relationships are built on honest feedback, something I really didn't give you. If I had the chance to do it again, I would have been a coach rather than a friend.

Being a micromanager. You were right: I really didn't trust that you would get the work done to my specifications, so I hovered over you, ready to land the moment you moved off course. In retrospect, I should have placed more trust in you. When you're young and inexperienced, you think you're the only person who can do things right. I now know that you have to give people the freedom to fail in order for them to succeed.

Being more concerned about my image than your paycheck. In my efforts to be a team player, I may have dimmed your light more than I should have. After all, how could I have more than one person on my team who exceeded expectations? In retrospect, I should have done everything in my power to make sure that your light shown brightly for all to see. My political aspirations took me to a place where my need to succeed trumped your needs. I know now that leadership is about making others look good. In turn, you'll get what you deserve, and so will your team.

They say time heals all wounds. I certainly hope so. The lessons you have taught me have stayed with me for life. And for that I am grateful.


Roberta Chinsky Matuson
Your Former Boss

Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the president of Human Resource Solutions and author of the forthcoming book, Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around (Nicholas Brealey, January 2011). Visit Roberta's blog Generations at Work or her LinkedIn group Suddenly in Charge.

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