There was a time when I was less patient, less understanding, and less forgiving of others and myself. Early in my career in my first management position, I strove to inspire the team, to communicate and celebrate the work of the marketing department with others, and to check in and give feedback. I studied management, thought about best practices, pushed the organization to be better, more organized, and to have a plan and strategy.
What did I not do back then? I didn’t always remember that people are humans and we are all growing and learning.
There was a woman I managed on the design team. She was a good designer; she supported the lead designer, and she did her work well. But she didn’t like me much, and I knew she talked about me behind my back. Eventually, she left the company for another job.
Several years later I got a letter from her. It was an apology. She was sorry for how she treated me and for not appreciating me at the time. I was surprised that she sent the letter. Now years later, I wonder - what was her life like back then? I knew some things about her personally. She had struggled with her weight, so much so that she had gastric bypass surgery. I suspect this may have contributed to some unhappiness, but what else? What had I not asked about, acknowledged, or been vulnerable about myself as an opening to a more human-ness with HER.
There have been others as well, who after time have gained appreciation for the work to be done as a manager of people, for what it means to strive to certain levels, to accomplish and hold people accountable. Another past employee of mine said to me, “Casey, I had no idea how hard all of this is and what you were dealing with.” She had started a company and was working through budgets, team, strategy, insurance, and all the practical pieces of making a business run.
When she worked with me she was a challenger and an idea-maker. I greatly respected her, as hard as she could sometimes be to manage when her patience wore thin. I knew she was smart and thought she might lead a company of her own one day. I gave her chances, listened to her ideas, and increased her responsibilities.
Another soul-searching employee of mine was incredibly frustrated with her job. We made changes to her role and others, we hired different people: The chess board of solutions was constantly at play. I believed in her intelligence and what she had to offer the company. Eventually, she left to pursue higher education. She did some work for us on the side while at university.
Again, years later she shared some personal things she had been going through at the time. I thought I knew about them, but her emotional struggles were even more complex than she had recognized. She wrote me a letter to let me know. She was embarrassed by her past performance and her inability to excel in the role; when I spoke to her I let her know there was no need for that. Sometimes what feels so hard for us on the inside is not so apparent on the outside.
I am so proud of these women, who had the courage to reflect back on their life, their jobs, and their roles, and I am honored they were willing to share with me to help me in my own growth as a leader.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It meant surgery and, months later, iodine radiation treatment. I could have hidden this news to keep my life private, to not have to talk about it with others when it was already so hard to accept that cancer touched my life.
I decided that it was best to be transparent so the team would know where I was physically and emotionally. So I could ask for grace from them if needed and so they would also know that I was vulnerable.
What I know now, even more than I knew then, is that showing my vulnerability allows others to open up to me about their own struggles. Showing that I am human outside of a professional environment also allows others to do so.
To be human is to fail, cry, be frustrated, laugh, and listen. To be sick, have kids, aging parents, crazy animals, and important hobbies. The desire to succeed in your work, to do better, to lead better, these are human experiences as well.