How to be a Great Manager Even When You're at Your Worst

How to be a great manager even when you're at your worst

It’s hard enough to be a great manager when things are going well. It can feel nearly impossible when your life is in disarray.

Inevitably we all go through it. Divorce, illness, distraction, depression, loss. Life happens to all of us. If you think you’re immune to the effects of these things, you’re lying to yourself. If you think they don’t have an impact on your performance and on your team, you’re almost certainly mistaken.

I recently went through a separation process that dragged on for 18 months. It was a grind. It was a constant distraction. An emotional weight. A headwind to performance. During this time, I had to develop specific tactics to insulate my performance as a professional from the craziness of my personal life. It wasn’t always easy, but I can tell you, looking back at this period, the purposeful strategies and routines I implemented, preserved my career trajectory during a time where it would have been easy to waiver and fold.

Finding success in your career takes many years (decades even) of consistently high performance. You need to build a track record of achievement to keep advancing. One or two blemishes on your record can easily stall out your progression. It’s hard enough to perform when everything in your personal life is great. But when things are bad, it’s easy to let that bleed over into your professional life.

I won’t pretend there is some magic checklist of things you can do to keep it together when your world is falling apart. There isn’t. But there are specific things you can do to partially quarantine your professional life from your personal life when times are tough. Having just gone through one of these periods myself, I thought it would be helpful to share the tactics I employed to keep the momentum at work going at a time I could have easily let it sputter out.

Rely on Structured Management Cadence

When your mind is elsewhere, it’s easy to let things slip at work. When I’m distracted by my personal life, there is always a temptation to skip non-essential things at work. I’m tempted to cancel 1-1s, push out team meetings, take a pass on a review session. My mind tries to convince me that anything not desperately urgent can be skipped so it can focus on the other issues weighing on my emotions.

When I’m feeling down or distracted, I stop being proactive. I stop taking action unless I’m compelled to do it. It won’t surprise you to know that if you behave like this for many weeks or months, your performance will suffer.

I recognized this tendency early on, and made a deal with myself. I vowed, no matter what, I’d stick to a structured management cadence. I also added some additional structured touch points to make up for the fact my natural proactive energy might be suffering. I made a conscious choice to add formal cadence to counter a lapse in natural proactivity and attention.

For me it was weekly 1-1s with every direct report, a weekly full team standup, a weekly leaders meeting, and quarterly 1-1s with every member of my extended department. I felt that if I could stick to this, at a bare minimum, I could maintain a reasonable enough connection with my team to keep performance improving even if my own energy and emotions were not fully engaged. But upping the amount of formal cadence I did, I was protecting against any natural drawdown in activity and attention I might be experiencing.

Build New Routines and Follow Them Religiously

When you’re having problems at home or your energy is being consumed by something other than work, it’s really hard to make professional progress. As regular readers of The Weekly Reid will know, I’ve always been a huge proponent for continuous learning. When my personal life is calm, I find it easy to naturally build learning into my daily routine. My mind is free, I’m intellectually curious, and so I just find opportunities to learn. But when life is chaotic, when I’m down or preoccupied, learning is one of the first things to go for me. Innovation is another – I all but cease to be creative. For whatever reason, I just can’t summon the creative energy to do these things when my mind is elsewhere.

When I started realizing this tendency in myself, I decided to add more rigidity into my routines to force myself to do these things. I won’t lie to you and say it always worked. It didn’t. But it did help.

For me it was going to work 30 minutes earlier every morning and spending that time reading and learning and brainstorming. I still had to battle with distractions, but this routine got me to focus more on learning and being creative than I would otherwise have. I came to love this special 30-minute period every morning and I still do it now, even as my personal life is as happy and healthy as ever. I also started doing private yoga classes. I realize not everyone can do this (or wants to) but for me, committing to a private session where someone would be waiting for me at 7 am, was exactly what I needed to force me into a behavior my mind didn’t really feel like doing.

The act of building a specific set of routines and committing to them, was exactly what I needed to keep my momentum building when my natural inclination was to retract into my own thoughts and concerns.

Focus on Helping Other People

I have found that when I’m upset, when I’m fixated on problems in my life, it helps to shift my focus onto other people. I tend to obsess about things. And that has served me well in my career but has the opposite effect when I face challenges in my personal life. When I catch myself brooding over my personal problems, I purposely try to shift my selfish energy onto helping other people.

One of the great things about being a manager, is that when you’re doing it right, its inherently a selfless endeavor. You must have empathy to be a great manager. You need to put yourself in the shoes of others. You need to put the team first. Whenever I catch myself stuck in my own head, I’ll find someone on the team to help.

For example, I might to a special mentoring session with a team member. I may do a round of career conversations with my team. Anything to redirect my self-centered energy. I have found this helps keep my management performance high, and calm the obsession I might otherwise focus on my personal problems.

Make a List Every Day and Keep Track of Your Wins

I won’t dwell on this one for very long since it appears in every book ever written on personal productivity. It works. When I’m not at my best (and when I am) I start each morning by writing a list of target accomplishments for the day. Then I order them by impact. I tackle the biggest impact ones first. As it happens these are also often the toughest. I find it best to take these on as early in the day as possible while I have maximum energy and positivity.

At the end of the day I reflect on my list and make note of a few wins I had during the day. I find a minute or two spent acknowledging your wins, goes a long way to building and maintaining momentum especially when you’re down or distracted. That may sound a bit corny to some, but for me, it makes all the difference in the world.

Finding success in your career is challenging enough when your life is firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, none of us is immune to the inevitable ups and downs of life. I hope these tips were helpful for you, and I’d love to hear what has helped you keep performance up when other aspects of your life are down.

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