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Leading Without Reportees

April 17, 2020

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Jessica Walker

Senior Manager, Convenings, US

The time between a new, entry-level employee to not-yet-senior-management can be an odd time in your career. Depending on your role and the responsibilities assigned to you, it may not always be clear where you stand in terms of leadership. I am now sitting in that awkward phase. I have more than a decade of work experience to draw on and my work history is varied; I’ve gone from managing ten supervisors and more than a hundred employees to having no reportees at all. Considering this variety,  I’ve been thinking about how to demonstrate leadership regardless of the size of my team or where I stand in the organizational chart.

Many of the ways I’ve learned to do this come from other leaders I’ve worked with. As I think back over my experience, they’ve all had their own focus and demonstrated different ways of taking on new challenges, responsibility, and authority. And, in many cases, the managers that I had the hardest time working with taught me the most about leadership and how to move ahead.

One of my first directors seemed like he was caught in high school – he gossiped about our employees (who were actually in high school) and made fun of people. He also had high demands for visual displays and taught me a lot about managing schedules, sales, and evaluating peoples’ strongest skills. Working with him, I learned that if I augmented my general work responsibilities to be the expert on one thing, especially the work that no one else likes, I could gain more authority and people would come to me for advice on the best way to carry out that task. I also learned that talking about people was one of the easiest ways to lose your colleague’s respect.

Later, I had a manager that was both new to his role in the company and new to managing people. He knew he was still learning, and our tiny team needed to play to our strengths to complete our work. While he made expectations clear about what we had to accomplish, he let us discuss our skill areas and divide out work so that we leaned into those skills. This time, I owned my skills and volunteered for situations that would take advantage of them.

I’ve also worked with a truly toxic manager – but I may have learned the most from her. She was diligent, exacting, knowledgeable, and extremely skilled at the main focus of her job. As a manager, she was awful. Everything was more of a demand than a collaboration and while we were forced to work extensively with other departments, you could hear the sigh of relief when each project was done. Still, I’ve taken two lessons from this experience.

  • First, not everyone is cut out for team management. She was an expert at her job and very successful, but there was always high turnover, poor results from staff surveys, and lots of critical feedback given to HR. I learned to be honest with myself about where my strengths and weaknesses lie.
  • Second, I learned that being a vital piece of the team with more experience in the organization meant that I could be a filter. Perhaps this is a bit like good cop, bad cop, but being the open door in the team meant I heard more about which processes were or weren’t working and I had concrete suggestions I could share with management. Having experience but no reportees meant that I could provide context, advice, or a listening ear to colleagues without the pressure or fear that it would be considered during their annual review or when projects were assigned.

Finally, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of amazing managers. They demonstrated management and leadership skills while also directly discussing what they were doing, providing concrete feedback about my own work, and encouraging opportunities to practice skills. Of course, there are many, many avenues to learn about “good leadership” – these lessons were specifically for me in positions that had no reportees, so they continue to be helpful as I remain in that type of role.

  • First, listen. In meetings, if we repeatedly heard an issue, these managers encouraged me to see how our team could help and/or to volunteer to work on a solution.
  • Then, collaborate. Since I didn’t manage anyone, collaborating with other teams was a great way to learn what else was going on, gain new skills, and work on new projects. I wasn’t always a leader in that work, but it meant I had exposure to other staff and styles of working.
  • And lastly, advocate. These managers were always clear about what their teams could do, would discuss our successes openly, and advocated for us to work on other projects with other teams to expand our skills and better understand the organization as a whole. Advocating also meant they said no sometimes and made sure our workload was balanced. These managers encouraged me, gave the feedback I needed to grow, and were willing to protect their reportees from overwork.

So, as a manager without reportees and not yet in a senior role, I lean on these lessons to express leadership in other ways. That looks like learning to be the subject matter expert for our organization, owning particular relationships so that I have comprehensive understanding of where things stand, and making sure that less experienced staff know I’m here as a resource. I’ve made many mistakes at work and I’m happy to own them and share them so that others don’t have to repeat them. I’ve also learned to be confident in some things and to share the tools that helped me get there. I may not be the first person my colleagues think of when they think of staff leadership, but I do my best to own the areas I can.

Jessica Walker joined Humentum in April 2018 as Corporate Partnerships Manager. In this role, she supports engagement with Humentum’s industry partners and develops strategic tools for building relationships among stakeholders in the sector.

Jessica brings more than a decade of experience in fundraising, membership, business development, and sales. She has worked as a grant writer developing small- and large-scale proposals for a variety of educational exchange programs across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the United States. She also has exercised this experience at an organization focused on sector infrastructure by supporting their grant processes and redesigning and growing their membership program. Additionally, she brings unique experiences from selling wood flooring and managing an amusement parks’ games area.