I worked at a company for one and a half years as a team coordinator. I had 11 collaborators, from interns to senior analysts. Despite the names of our ranks, we were all new to our craft. We had come together from different backgrounds into this newly formed team to help the company thrive in a time of economic disaster throughout the country.
I had no idea what to do.
How do you teach your team when you are a novice yourself?
My first action was to assembled the team in my office and let them know that we were on the same boat. We were all apprentices. We had to learn together and we had to learn fast. We had to deliver.
Learning to create reports on Excel and memorizing formulas was pretty easy and we all learned fast. But, analyzing all the information and turning in the reports with due analyses was a bit harder. We had to learn what to tell the sales team so they could meet and ultimately over-deliver on their goals. We had to make the company grow.
And learning technicalities is also easy. We excelled in that as well. We were a good team.
But, there was more that we had to learn. We had to learn to work together, to respect each other’s differences, to help bring up to speed those who were a little behind. We had to learn our weaknesses and strengths and work on them. We all had to learn to be leaders.
Quite a task.
What to do?
I had to start somewhere, so I asked my team to do two things. First, only read and respond to e-mails twice a day and for no longer than two hours. This would keep them from wasting too much time on unimportant things and it would keep annoying, needy people away. It would also improve productivity. If something was urgent, people would call or come looking for us at our office.
Nothing was ever urgent, so now we bought some time.
Second, I asked them to take one hour a day to read, watch, listen, and learn. Whether it was magazines, newspapers, TED videos, online courses, anything! They should spend one hour each day learning something new. Then, they should share with everybody else something interesting that they found, so that the whole team could benefit from each one’s individual learning.
I didn’t want us to learn only about our technical jobs, but also about business, entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, culture, human behaviors. I wanted all of us to become better humans and better problem solvers. I wanted us to learn to have millions of ideas every day, execute them well, and learn how to deal with all kinds of people at all kinds of situations. I wanted us to start growing immediately.
I thought this was the greatest idea I had ever had.
…and then things took a turn for the worse.
Boy, was I wrong.
It turns out that the culture instilled in employees inside an industry/sales business was that of “busyness”. We didn’t have to be busy 24/7, but we had to appear that we were. If we weren’t busy with something, we weren’t looking in the right places.
I always thought busyness was overrated and harmful. I believed that real productivity was to meet your deadlines (and over-deliver with quality) within your daily working hours, and grow professionally in the process. .
But, culture is a difficult thing to change. It took me three months to convince my team to get up from their chairs and leave at 4:48 p.m. (the end of their shift), because they were used to working extra hours every single day. When I looked at them during the day, it always seemed as if they were working on the most important project there ever was. But, I knew that this didn’t happen that often. Not everything that landed on our plates were extremely important or urgent. But, they thought that they had to work hard all the time, every day; even if there wasn’t much hard work to do. But, working hard isn’t just about making 10 Excel reports per hour. Learning is also work.
Nurturing the intellect is key to thriving in our careers.
After I set the task of learning everyday, I found out that they felt embarrassed to be seen with videos and articles on their computers. They were afraid that people would pass by them, look at their screen and infer that they were wasting company money and time with leisure-related activities.
No matter how much I told them not to worry and that I would take responsibility if ever we were confronted about this, they wouldn’t do it. They felt their careers would be damaged – even though I was their boss. Plus, they always had something important an urgent to do.
I persisted for 2 months, and then something happened.
During lunchtime, I ate at my desk so I could read. At the time, I was reading Tim Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Work Week, which was terribly translated to “Work for only four hours a week” (Trabalhe 4 horas por semana). This book is where I learned about the dangers of e-mail compulsive disorder and decided to change my approach to online letter exchange, as well as many other ideas to help improve my productivity. The “living a rich life” part of the book I’m saving for the not-so-distant future.
One day, a friend came to me and said, “Listen, I have to talk to you. Some guys from your team have been gossiping about you. They talked about that book you’re reading and said that you’re trying to dump all the work on them so you can work for only 4 hours a week. They think the whole ‘learn something every day’ thing is an excuse for you to work even less. Now, I know none of this is true and that you’re trying to create different ways to improve your team. But that’s not how you’re being perceived.”
Well, that certainly wasn’t what I expected.
If I ever felt like a failure in my lifetime, it was in that moment. The moment I realized that sometimes even our most respectable intentions can be misinterpreted. not everybody is susceptible to changes, to improvement. Some people conform to the norms and they’re very happy with it. It gives them security and peace of mind.
It wasn’t that they were afraid to learn something new and change the way they worked. They were afraid of how they would be perceived by their colleagues by doing things differently. They were afraid that their careers could be harmed if it turned out that I was wrong.
Conventionality was safe.
Innovation was risky.
I decided to change my approach to my team. I adapted to their standards and lead them in a way that they could follow and grow in their own terms. I also learned very much from them. I learned that following rules was guaranteed to keep you safe. That depending on the company you work at, keeping your opinions to yourself preserved you. That challenging status quo could get you fired.
I refused to be ordinary. And so I was fired.
(My team wasn’t, thankfully)
I wasn’t fired because I was incompetent. I was fired because I didn’t fit in at the company. We had different ideas for the future and for our employees. They needed someone who could sell; I was someone who could teach.
I started searching for another job two months before I was fired. When they finally kicked me out, I wasn’t surprised; I was delighted. We definitely weren’t a match.
I hope that my former team will continue to develop themselves and learn to grow and learn always and often. I hope they will understand the value of self-improvement and problem-solving. I hope they will benefit from it and grow because of it. If not, I hope they will be happy with the lives that they chose. We are all different, anyways. Happiness and success means different things to all of us.
Meanwhile, I’m getting in trouble at my new job with my weird, unconventional ideas.
I’ll take the risk.
I prefer to grow and stumble along the way, than to stay put and remain ordinary. (Remember, I am not a tree)
Who said change was easy?