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Finding My Way as a Leader

March 10, 2023 - by Jennifer Ringler, MS

I recently came upon a post on LinkedIn that discussed how to answer the question, “What do you want in a manager?”

This wasn’t something I thought about much in my early career in pharma communications and PR. My manager was just the woman or man who gave me work to do. I received it, I did the assignment, and I turned it in. End of transaction, really.

It wasn’t until I became a manager for the first time myself, in 2020, that I started to think about what a good manager was and was not. What qualities did I want to have? What attitude did I want to exude, knowing it would be contagious to younger minds? What types of relationships did I want to form with my direct reports?

My biggest reflection about becoming a manager is that it changes you, and changes how you experience your workday. Suddenly, you’re not just heads-down, chugging through your own to-do list. Being a manager forces you to pick your head up, look around, and think about other people. Are they overworked? Stressed out? Bored? Handling personal matters that could be affecting how they show up today? Are they excited to be here? Inspired? Are they learning and growing enough? Do they have the space to think and come up with their own ideas about how to tackle something, and do they feel safe and confident expressing those ideas? How do I want them to feel at the end of the day?

So, for me, the question lately has been not, “What do you want in a manager?” but, “What kind of manager do you want to be?” 

And I very consciously put together my management style by reflecting on the managers I’ve had over the course of my career and thinking about what I liked about the good and great managers I’ve encountered, and what I didn’t love about the bad ones. With no training on how to be a manager and suddenly in charge of guiding, mentoring, and supervising a junior team in the summer of 2020 (only months into the collective trauma of the pandemic that had all of us in a strange place emotionally), I thought, “Well, if I can’t learn through my own trial and error, surely I can learn through the trials and errors of others.”

There was the manager who told me to slow down, look at my work carefully, and sleep on it before sending it over.

The one who told me that the secret to running a good meeting is cookies. “Bring cookies. Everyone loves cookies.”

The one who told me that if I didn’t have work to do, I should find some.

The one who said, “I’m not paying you to type, I’m paying you to think.”

The one who screamed at me at top volume, “I don’t care if you’re happy here! This piece is so bad it makes me want to shoot myself in the face!” Yup. That happened.

There was the manager who was new to the company and had only been working with me a few months before she was tasked with putting me on and guiding me through a performance improvement plan. (I have so much empathy and respect for her now, having since been on the other side of that experience as a manager myself.)

There was the manager who, when I was nervously heading into my first new business pitch, when I asked how many agencies he thought we were up against, said matter-of-factly, “It doesn’t matter how many there are. It only matters that we’re the best.”

The one who sent me a sweet, hand-written note and a potted plant in the mail to welcome me to the team. (I killed that plant. I’m sorry.)

There were the countless managers who told me that brevity in emails is key. The ones who taught me to pick up the phone instead of emailing to gain clarity or handle conflict. The ones who said, “You’ve got this.” The ones who said, “Don’t worry about it, take care of yourself first. Work can wait.” The ones who sent thank you emails or Teams messages for a job well done.

As I reflected on all the managers who had crossed my path, I started to form a picture of the manager I wanted to be. Kind. Dependable. Organized. Honest. Human (“Yes, I’m stressed too, everyone gets stressed at this job”). Funny (because everyone deserves to smile and laugh at work, and sometimes in PR, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry). Empathetic. Encouraging. Helpful. In the trenches.

We bring who we are to work – on our best days and our worst days. And when you’re a manager or a leader, what you bring impacts the people around you. People who are still growing and learning. Ultimately, I decided that what I wanted to be as a leader was the manager who, when my direct reports had moved on to other jobs and thought about me years later, would be remembered as someone who had made a positive impact on them.

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