Leadership Is a Lonely Road – Here’s What Helps Me Every Day by @olgasemrush
I’ll never forget when I fully realized just what I bring to my team emotionally.
We were facing a tough situation. As a leader, the responsibility ultimately fell on me to find the solution. But I couldn’t figure this one out.
“I am going to cry,” I told my colleague.
“If you are going to cry, then we’re really in a bad place,” my colleague responded.
I have cried just once in my 12, intense and hard-working years (after I was criticized publicly in a very harsh way).
To (almost) everyone around me, it looks like nothing in the world can possibly break me.
I am cheerful, positive, and confident. I am always hopeful, strong, and fearless.
I am the one that says “it’s going to be alright”, and that “we’re going to make it.”
I Am the “Iron Lady”
But, not crying at work, staying positive and fearless in stressful situations, and handling exhausting projects don’t get you the “Iron Lady” title.
It’s making unpopular, tough decisions, and staying emotionally stable that does.
Being a leader means that I deal with negativity.
I say “no” to projects and ideas, I protect my teams if the decisions are not transparent to others and it creates conflict, I provide negative feedback.
And, worst of all, I let people go. Conflicts, clashing personalities, and judgment from others is a part of my daily reality, and that can have a powerful impact on my emotional state.
I have been managing people since I was 19, but truly embraced my strength as a leader just a few years ago.
In order to transform and lead many teams, I had to manage my emotions, especially anger, learn how to deal with rumors and unconstructive criticism, and get better at corporate politics.
I discovered that my words suddenly have a much greater impact, my feedback can uplift or diminish, and my opinion shapes the decisions that we make as a company.
And with all of that responsibility, I also suddenly felt alone. Decision making and responsibility can make leadership, in many cases, a lonely road.
For the first time ever, I’ll share what helps me every day and what forged me into who I am now:
I stand for what I believe in, so my values are an extremely important part of what shapes my decisions.
I am so honest that it can be painful for people sometimes.
But, they know they’re hearing exactly how I feel, and I won’t ever say anything different behind their back.
I don’t tolerate dishonesty, so I promote open conversations in order to fix conflicts.
Each personal conflict (and I have had quite a few) has helped me to improve my professional relationship with that person, rather than destroy it.
I listen to hear, not to respond.
In “The Devil Wears Prada”, respect is what was missing in Meryl Streep’s character. That character is my worst nightmare.
Therefore, I watch myself closely in order to make sure I never become someone like her. For me, being humble and respectful is essential.
I trust my team blindly until they give me multiple reasons not to. People have my full attention until they lose my trust.
Company’s interests go first, personal ones, second.
This, in my mind, is what truly got me through the roughest and darkest times in my career.
All of my decisions are made in order to make the company better, more efficient, and successful over time. I am never led by personal gain.
I love people. I am extroverted to the core, I need people to live, and I can’t work without them.
Any success that I achieve with a team is greater than any personal success that I might have.
These are some of my biggest challenges and ways I have dealt with or still am dealing with them.
I am emotional, which means people can see what I am feeling at any given moment.
And because I’m very honest, people can easily guess when I’m frustrated.
For many years, I blocked out negative emotions. My goal was to never be angry, but guess how well that worked out!
Instead of changing my emotions into something productive, I was trying to fight the emotion itself. This resulted in me blowing up because of a minor incident when I couldn’t suppress it anymore.
How I’ve Transformed
I learned that anger is a basic human emotion. Humans feel angry or frustrated when their beliefs, values, and rules are compromised, and feeling angry is both healthy and natural.
What isn’t healthy is expressing anger in an intimidating and disrespectful way.
Now, I just acknowledge that I am feeling frustrated and analyze what it is that is making me feel that way.
Instead of wasting my resources on blocking these emotions, I try to work on a solution and the best way to address the issue in a productive and respectful manner.
Negotiation & Communication
I listen to hear and understand, yet, I always have my opinion that is backed by data and facts.
If it’s something I don’t agree with, I am always open to reconsidering if I understand that my perspective was not the right one or that I didn’t see the full picture.
Issues I Have Faced
With more than 100 campaigns running at the same time, we have a large team which in turn becomes a lot of ideas, opinions, and voices that all need to be heard and considered.
And, with so many talented, intelligent people in the same room, there is always going to be some personality clashes, office politics and differences in work styles among the group.
As with any team, there are always many viewpoints and concerns to be mindful of and with that comes a lot of challenges for a leader like myself.
How I’ve Transformed
- My first step in my management style happened at 23, when I was about to make a rough decision. My mum told me at that time: “Evolution is better than revolution”. Because of that, I decided to take it slow, forgive more than I ever did, and invest my time in earning my colleagues’ trust. I felt uncomfortable many times because I am impatient and impulsive by nature, but over time, it was very rewarding.
- With my teams, I have a 30 percent rule: I can speak only 30 percent of the time during the meeting (sometimes 50 percent in specific cases). I ensure that the rest of the time is given to the team by asking them questions.
- I see everyone in the company as my ally. We are all employed by the same company, which means that we all matter and are all valued and crucial to the company’s success. For me, there is no rivalry and no politics.
Letting People Go & Transparency of Such Decisions
I don’t know anyone who enjoys firing people, and I admire HR professionals because that’s an integral part of their job.
My former CEO used to say, “it’s not a social club,” and I have fully embraced that thinking. I work until I bring value to the company, and until the company brings value to me.
However, letting people go is never easy. And the criticism, fear, and gossip that comes with it make the process worse.
What most people don’t realize, though, is that letting a person go is not just about them not performing. It also means accepting that I have failed to lead them or that I made a mistake when hiring them.
How I Handle It:
- I prepare. I gather all data on performance, expected and actual results, and feedback that I and other colleagues have shared. I think about how they are going to respond.
- I am respectful. Underperforming doesn’t make anyone a bad person. It simply means they are not a great fit for a specific role.
- I am certain. What really gets me through is that I know I am doing the right thing. As a leader, I know that I’ve given the person the help they needed, opportunity to improve and constructive feedback, and that parting ways is the only productive solution.
- I am transparent. I send an email with an explanation of why this person was let go to the rest of the team so that everyone understands the reasoning behind the decision. (Of course keeping in mind to respect the feelings and sensitive/personal information of the person who was let go.)
- I am prepared. I know there will be people who will get upset and criticize me, and although I know that, it still hurts every time. It helps to be ready for the emotions that I know I will experience.
- I acknowledge the toll it takes on me. Hot tea, a warm blanket, and no agenda are what help me to recover.
I truly enjoy what I do, and I love my work, but it comes with a price.
Because I am traveling up to 150 days each year, my friends, family, and hobbies all come second after work. This is not healthy, which is why I started to change that.
I have been in long-distance relationships for many years due to my work and travel schedule. I have always been able to adjust my relationships to my schedule like meeting over the weekends, an easy enough work around to be able to and still have a great time.
Plus, I always purposefully chose men that I knew I wouldn’t marry. Or so I thought until I ended up in a relationship with my perfect fairytale man who was about to propose and I got so scared that I broke up with him.
How I Have Transformed
Instead of constantly traveling, I decided to move permanently and spend time physically in the country I focus on the most: the U.S.
With this move, my working hours changed from working from noon to 9 p.m., to starting my day early in order to have the evenings free.
While my calendar still manages me, and not the other way around, I’m working on changing that, and simply acknowledging this makes me pay more attention to how I plan my days.
These days, I am taking up new hobbies, arranging brunches, and expanding my network outside of work, and when it comes to relationships, I have completely redefined what it is that I am looking for.
I am focusing on myself, and have discovered that what I once thought I wanted is completely different than what I want now.
Self Compassion & Gratitude
It’s OK if people don’t like me, but it’s not OK if I don’t like myself. This type of self-assurance has helped me to realize what I am and what I am not, and accept myself fully.
My 5 Rules of Self-Love:
- I don’t blame myself for mistakes – past, present, and future. I accept that I was wrong and I try to learn as much as I can from it. Mistakes are a big part of growing and they are inevitable.
- My energy levels depend on how my body is feeling, which is why I take care of my body. I start each day with a yoga exercise and I finish my practice with “Thank you for the day ahead”. This is my daily ritual. After that, I drink 2 glasses of water. I eat healthy food and cook a lot myself. Cooking is my meditation. I don’t smoke and only drink occasionally, and when I do, it’s just a glass of dry, red wine.
- I try to do everything with joy and focus on the positive side of things, which is why I believe my attitude is so reassuring to the team. It all really comes down to attitude and mindset. Seth Godin’s post about surfing explains that in a beautiful way.
- I occasionally do nothing. I spend time in bed, surf the web, sleep, and even just stare at the ceiling. This time is needed for my brain to recharge. When it comes to goals, plans, and actions sometimes it’s essential to just put everything on hold and enjoy the moment.
- I say “no” to events, people, and circumstances that make my life uncomfortable and less enjoyable. If I don’t like something, I try to get it out of my life as quickly as possible.
Thankful for Today
Sometime in 2018, I started a gratitude journal. I wrote 68 wishes (the goal was 30+), big and small, of anything that I could come up with in the back of the notebook, and stapled those pages.
Each day, I started writing seven things I was grateful for about that day, along with seven things from the lives of others around me that I was grateful for, and things I might not have but are important to me.
For 100 days, missing some due to my schedule, I was filling it in.
When 2019 came along, I checked on the wishes. Out of the 68 wishes, I had checked off 24!
That’s a lot in three months time. The wishes weren’t even the most important part, though.
This journal made me realize and notice every small and beautiful thing that happens around me, appreciate the people I know, and because of it, I am super thankful.
Gratitude is like magic and it has changed my attitude a lot.
I am in the middle of my second gratitude journal now and, in my mind, that’s one of the best and most efficient things in my routine now.
Books That Helped Me
As is true for so many, I have found a lot of very helpful ideas and directions in the many amazing books that I have ready.
Here are some that stand out to me:
An amazing book on how to grow and multiply talent in others.
Liz Wiseman analyzes the traits of good and bad leaders, helps identify if you have been accidentally diminishing your team, and also provides advice to those employees who work under diminishing bosses.
One of the best books I’ve read in 2018.
‘Good Leaders Ask Great Questions’
This book helped me to ask more questions to myself as a leader and to my team to help them grow. One of my favorite questions from this book: “If you could do anything at all and you knew you could not fail, what would you do?”
‘The Way of The Shepherd’
This should be the pocketbook of every young manager. Great storytelling, easy to follow, checklists after each chapter.
The book tells a story of an MBA graduate and his teacher exploring management secrets by studying how shepherd works with his flock.
‘Never Split the Difference’
Best book about negotiations from the former FBI hostage negotiator.
While Chris Voss walks you through his career with chilling stories of bank robberies and terrorists, he teaches crucial communication skills.
Voss shares a series of tactics on how to uncover people’s motivation and connect with them rather than bargain.
‘Hold Me Tight’
This book is about seven crucial conversations for a strong relationship.
It gave me perspective on how one situation might look so different from two people’s point of view and how both truths can exist at the same time.
Discoveries from this book have helped me in my personal and professional life.
Real Strength Lies in Being Vulnerable
I have always been led by courage, spirit, and the determination to change things for the better. And I’ve always stood for what I believed in.
My mum said as a kid I wasn’t afraid of challenges that normally make people nervous – exams, performances, competitions.
And lack of fear is truly one of my strongest traits. I believe everything is possible.
My horizon doesn’t have a limit, all doors are open, and if an idea is in my head then it’s absolutely doable. And I know that when I go to my team with absolute certainty, the most beautiful part is they’ll make it happen.
Building and growing effective teams is what I do well, and in order to scale that I had to and still have to transform.
I strengthen my protective system and at the same time try to become more vulnerable and humble. This post is an example of how I learned to open up.
One day in 2018, my team of 35 turned into 50+. I was sitting and staring at the sea in Israel and realized I need to grow up within a day.
That was my strongest transformation: I now was responsible, and most importantly, I now had to serve and lead 50 people.
Since then I’ve changed a lot and tried to become a better version of myself.
What is never likely to change inside me are my strong values, a sense of purpose and my desire to be a part of something greater and bigger than myself – a team.
In-Post Images: Taken/created by author, March 2019