I’ve been leading people inside organizations for over 18 years. What that essentially means is I’ve had ample opportunities to make mistakes, and I’ve made a lot of them. My life and my career have been a mixed bag of success and failure. I’m sure some of you can relate. In this post, I want to share a big mistake I made early on in my professional career as a leader. Authenticity is extremely important in leadership, so I’m going to open myself up a bit in this week’s blog post as well.
There’s a reason why I chose the picture above. I absolutely LOVE cinnamon rolls! When I became a newly-promoted Store Manager in my mid-twenties with the Walgreens Corporation, one of my team members (we will call her Sue) made the BEST cinnamon rolls, and she would bring them in for the team on Saturday mornings when I worked a half-day. Sue was also one of the best team members I had on staff. To be honest, I probably expected a lot more from her than some of the others who worked with me at the time.
One afternoon, Sue’s husband called in sick for her. As a newly-promoted manager with a big ego and minimal experience as a leader, it just absolutely drove me nuts that Sue didn’t choose to communicate this to me herself. Over the next couple of days that she was out, I let this eat at me over and over again. So, by the time Sue returned to work, I let this incident evolve into something much bigger than it really was in the first place.
Upon her return, I had a conversation with Sue in the office. I don’t remember all of the details about that conversation, but I very vividly remember telling her, “Your husband doesn’t work for me, you do.” Even as I type this today, my heart sinks that those words even came out of my mouth. There is absolutely zero empathy in them. It was a very autocratic statement. And looking back I feel ashamed that as a leader whom she trusted, I spoke them.
Long story short, Sue went to lunch later that day and didn’t return. I was concerned and tried reaching out multiple times to no avail. It was unlike her. The next morning, Sue walked in and turned in her uniform and name badge. I was shocked. I apologized for my statement, and asked if there was anything I could do to get her to stay. She simply replied, “Absolutely not. I have zero respect for you.” Ouch! That statement hurt – probably as much as my statement to her the previous day! But, I knew I deserved it. And I lost a lot of sleep over it.
At the end of the day, Sue was telling me, in one way or another, that she didn’t feel like she could trust me anymore. And at that time, she was probably right. I was young, inexperienced, and in many cases didn’t know what I didn’t know. Looking back I’ve learned that it can take a very long time to earn the trust of someone you lead, and yet, it can all be lost in an instant.
So, not only did we no longer have Sue to bring us her homemade cinnamon rolls on Saturdays, we lost a great member of the team – all because of me. I often wonder what she’s doing now. And as many times as I’ve shared this story with others from my perspective, I often wonder how many times she has told a similar story to others about one of the worst leaders she has ever worked for.