A few years back, one of my most favorite managees was finally leaving her job for a new role in a new organization. She wrote me a lovely card during her last week of work, thanking me for supporting her career over the years. In this card she expressed the best piece of advice I had ever given her. I immediately assumed the advice was going to be about managing complex organizations, or how to think strategically early in your career, or how to navigate a start-up while remaining sane. Nope. Not even close. Of all the thoughts I shared, the one that she found most impactful - written in black and white on a Papyrus note card - was:
“Don’t love something that can’t love you back.”
This woman experienced what many of us experience at some point in our career. We fall in love with our organization, give it our absolute all, and create an identity around our role and value in a company. We then don’t get a promotion we expected or don’t get the raise that we feel would reward us for being so devoted to our work. And we are devastated. How could something we love so much not reciprocate those same feelings?
Like the mentor* who gave me this advice early in my career, I gave this advice to my managee when she was struggling with whether to look for external roles. She had grown significantly and there wasn’t a role in our group that would help her to build the skills she needed in her career. But, the cognitive dissonance was so strong: How could she leave something that she loved and was such a big part of her identity?
An important part of being a great manager is managing yourself: That is, managing expectations around your own role within an organization. Thus, to be a great manager, be loyal, be committed, be hard-working, love your colleagues, but don’t love something that can’t love you back. And, create a culture within your team where your team members are committed and hard-working, but also understand that the organization may change, may one day out-grow them (or vice versa), or may not love them in the way that they expect.
I know this sounds a bit harsh. But, what does this mean in practice?
For you, this means building skills, capabilities, and commitment within your current role, while always ensuring that you have choices and are open to opportunities outside your role. This may mean leaving your company despite loving the people you work with. This does not mean always being on the hunt for something better or not being “all-in” when you go to work every day.
As a manager, this means having to make hard decisions about a loyal, kind under-performer, and being excited and supportive about a high-performing team member who chooses to leave the organization. This does not mean creating a culture of fear of getting fired or one of cutthroat competition.
In sum, this means understanding that your company cannot “love you” like your partner, mother, dog or cat (scratch that - no cat actually loves its owner). Therefore, don’t blindly love your company.
Okay - you get the point. So what can you do to make sure you are appropriately managing your affections?
Two Ways To Temper Your Love
Always Have a Farm Team:
In the Lord of The Flies world of online dating, a friend swears by the concept of always having a farm team when you are in the very early stages of a relationship. That is, always have a group of folks you can call up from the minors if your primary source of affection doesn’t work out. Why is a farm team so powerful? It’s powerful because you can be your best self when you don’t feel desperate and don’t feel that if the current guy or gal doesn’t work out, you have lost everything (and hence end up doing crazy things to make the early relationship work).
At work, cultivating a farm team is just as powerful. A farm team in the work context means always making sure you are nurturing external relationships, talking to new companies and new people, and every so often going deeper to explore a potential job opportunity. What often happens when we love our companies - (especially in those organizations known as total institutions**) - we spend so much time cultivating internal relationships, that when we do want to leave our job, we panic because we have no strong ties outside of our company. We then feel like we don’t have any options; we feel forced to make the current situation work. When you have a "farm team", each day you show-up at work you are actively making the choice to be a committed member of your company. That’s powerful.
Encourage Your Best Employees to Leave:
We’ve spent a good amount of time discussing how to manage under-performers, and how to give feedback, but we haven’t spent any time talking about top performers. To build a culture that exemplifies loving the correct things, you must encourage your best employees to leave - if there is not a way for them to continue growing at your company - and wholly celebrate when they do leave. Probably my favorite article over the last two years - because it feels so counterintuitive - is about your top performers leaving - here it is.
So, in sum, why do you want this? Well, first, it shows the rest of the team that you care about them as people, not just employees, and want what’s truly best for them, even if that means it’s outside the company. You become a talent magnet - other top performers are drawn to you as they know they will grow and develop under you. It also shows that your team is stronger than just one person - it shows that you have built a team where one person is not going to make or break your success as an organization. And, what do you accomplish by being angry or nasty to a team member on his / her way out because you feel like they were disloyal or not committed? You literally accomplish nothing.
So friends, I hope this post is a reminder to love what matters. A few years ago, I was working for a start-up that I loved. My role was great, my CEO fawned praise my way constantly, and I felt indispensable. Well - like most start-ups - we ran out of money, needed to change the course of the business, and it didn’t really matter that I had pledged allegiance or love. When it became clear I couldn't stay, I still suffered from identity questions and the dissonance that comes from throwing your full self into something that didn't meet your expectations. But, luckily I was a little bit wiser in my old age and was able to navigate the uncertainty a bit better because I took the advice I had passed along to others: Don’t love something that can’t love you back.
It's important to understand that a company cannot love you the way you may love it.
Great managers are great at managing themselves and managing their own expectations for their role within a company.
Additionally, a great manager helps his / her team understand that love is not necessarily reciprocated within an organization.
To help remind you to love what's important, develop options and choices by having conversations outside of your company.
And to remind your team, encourage and celebrate top performers when they move from your company.
*I can't remember which mentor gave me this advice! If it was you - please raise your hand! I am forever indebted.
**A Total Institution, developed by my favorite sociologist, Erving Goffman, is a self-contained organization with an incredibly strong internal culture. Members of the TI share common lingo, have an internal status structure, and strong norms and ways of operating. Often total institutions incorporate all aspects of an individual's life (eating together, living together, working together). Think the military, a prep school (or certain companies). It's really hard to leave a total institution because of the incredibly strong internal ties and the relatively weak external ties.