Managing a growing team through a storm
Buckle up folks — you know when I resort to sharing a picture of my face in this blog that it’s going to be a long one. It’s also going to be deeply personal, and raw.
TW: depression, anxiety
What I did
The last six months have been tough. I lost my cat. I got a puppy who has anxiety and reactivity issues. I had kidney stones. I was depressed. I was happy. I was proud. I was ashamed. I’ve never had anxiety in my life apart from this year.
I raised a million pounds without a fundraiser on the team. Recruited, onboarded and managed (for most of the year) 13 staff members. Just the recruitment alone was about 30 hours per post. That’s 390 hours in total. 13 weeks of the year (as a full-time week in Chayn is 30 hours). On top of this, add the time taken to approve contracts, do “slow onboarding”, management check-ins and other administrative tasks.
Landed the biggest partnership Chayn has had with a corporate. Trained volunteers. Came up with dozens of policies, and procedures with the Board. Re-designed a service.
I spent lots of hours crying, and questioning the point of my life and both loving and hating growing Chayn as a leader. Failed to write the two books I had started. I blogged. I gave TV, radio and print interviews on women’s safety. I spoke at several conferences. I ran workshops. I wrote research reports.
I designed, launched, documented and ran a strategy co-design process. Successfully applied for a charity status! Prepared 4 board packages.
I didn’t do any of this alone. I’ve had the support of amazing colleagues and Board members. But it’s also been incredibly tough. I huddled with other founders to drown my worries. I cried on the phone to my friends about how lonely it was to be a leader.
I feel like I spent so much of the year bearing the burden of “thinking alone” and despite having access to a network of skilled, experienced and caring professionals —there was so much worrying and feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulder that I could not offset. And maybe that is how it needs to be, and has always been.
Entrepreneurship is not easy. We often think about entrepreneurs living large, financing a lush lifestyle and raising millions (pocketing a few). That’s such a misrepresentation of what it is like for those who don’t get to those crazy, inflated heights.
This is what entrepreneurship feels like to me. I almost wrote a book about entrepreneurship burnout (of course I never finished it).
No image and headline has ever captured how it has felt at times. The crippling anxiety. The fear of failure. The vulnerability. The isolation. The feeling of your thoughts eating you up from the inside. The self-doubt.
It’s crazy that I’ve felt these emotions in the year Chayn has had the most success — during a global pandemic.
In case you’re worried about me by this point, let me assure you that I’m really okay. I’ve had distance from what’s caused me pain and concern. I’m bouncing back — like I always do — with more learning about myself, and the trials of leadership.
What I learned
I learned so much this year about myself. I’m proud that I have met all the challenges this year threw at me with grit, laughter, some meltdowns and tears. Definitely a lot of cat cuddles and midnight meltdown calls to friends. I learned that there are many people who care about me and will go to great lengths to make me feel better, have my back and understand my heart over my words and in/actions. They know who they are!
Here are some things I’m going to share in more detail.
- I’m really laid back with people taking holidays, sick leave, changing calls, and trusting people to manage their own time. However, I am quite particular about good document formatting and naming conventions. I ran a training about it this year and managed to make it fun!
- I write great rejection emails for job candidates. I have a collection of 20+ emails from candidates telling me how much they appreciate it. Someone even tweeted about it.
- I struggle with the right level of responsibility to assume for things that happen in Chayn. I directly line-managed 9 people for most of the year because we had staff who had never done line management, and we hadn’t provided the training. I thought it was kindness on my part to assume that responsibility until we got more staff with management experience or training. However, for some staff (most were OK), this was perceived as an inadequacy of leadership as I was not able to do monthly calls and could only manage lots of regular chats and one development review. This meant these staff members did not have the space to air their concerns to me in a formalised space. I, inaccurately, assumed that they would just reach out to me in Slack or the many meetings we have to bring that up. When I received this feedback, I felt quite hurt that my intention to protect staff was viewed as me being disorganised and the reality of me doing 9 hours of back to back calls to help staff were just invisible to them. However, on reflection, I understand that these spaces are important for people and it is an expectation of my role to provide that. This taught me the importance of HR structures. So we’ve worked out a new line management framework which adds another layer of line managers and almost everyone is going on a line management training course in Q1. I’m also told I can step back more often which I would love to do but typically in organisations, managers aren’t responsible for product creation, design and writing. I happen to be good at all of them so it’s to Chayn’s benefit for me to be involved in those stages. This creates the tension in letting go and also wanting to contribute to something I’m great at.
- I’ve been told I have high expectations from myself, the staff and volunteers in terms of the quality, speed and openness with which Chayn creates and delivers work. It’s been mostly said as a compliment over the years but these past few months, it has been cropping up as a complaint. I spoke to all staff members and volunteer team leads about this and mostly, I’ve been told that this ambition is not a negative thing but it can add pressure when there are time constraints. I have some thinking to do about this but I’m not going to change that I hold myself and others to a high standard as a trailblazing organisation.
- Due to the amount of emotional and physical labour (weeks of back to back calls for 8 hours) I’ve done this year on top of dealing with depression and grief — I’ve become extremely sensitive to unkind critical feedback. In my user manual(everybody in Chayn has to make one), I talk about how I really value feedback but in a kind way. This year, we did an extensive 360 degrees review process for my role. The trustees and our Operations team created a form for trustees, staff and volunteers, and partners to fill. In total, I got feedback from 25 people. Staff and volunteer responses were anonymous to allow people to be honest. The form asked for ratings out of 5 for Quality of Work(4.4/5), Job Knowledge(4.8/5), Organisational Skills(4/5), Leadership Skills(4/5), Communications Skills(4/5), Creativity(4.9/5), Commitment(5/5), and Overall job performance and management ability (4.3/5). Staff weren’t given instructions on what the different levels (1–5) meant apart from 1 being “Strongly disagree” and 5 being “Strongly agree”. It then allowed people to give free-text responses. You can see the ratings overall are amazing, and I got really heartwarming responses in the free text fields too. Even in this year’s Gratitude Robin (see at the end of this blog), I was showered with affection and compliments. It was all very affirming. Here though, I’m going to focus on the not-so-nice. I really value critical feedback and had been looking forward to this because I know it’s been a tough year and I really strugged with some aspects of my role. I was expecting concrete examples of where I can be better as a manager and a leader. I was sending the form around to everyone in the team till the day before my review meeting with the Trustees. I was this excited to get the feedback. I got to read the 360 review feedback raw and in hindsight, and the trustees and I believe, that wasn’t a great thing. Out of all the feedback I got, responses from 2 people were quite critical, personal and inappropriate. I found the expectations placed on me was unfair, and inappropriate. I didn’t have an issue with the fact these comments and ratings were more critical then complimentary. It’s just the way it was written, and what was said, could not help me be better at my job. In face, it really affected me. I bawled for weeks, including on my Annual Review with the Trustees. When I asked all staff about what I can do to improve as a leader, I didn’t get any concrete suggestions apart from one (which I’ll discuss in another point below). Since I wasn’t getting the suggestions outright, the trustees have invited staff to have a 1 to 1 confidential call with them to discuss that particular feedback. I’m really happy that our Trustees have shown such care to me in the time that really put me in the worst mental health I’ve had in a decade. They also were fair to staff to allow them to share their concerns with them one on one but at the same time also want to address how the comments were written, which I perceive to be disrespectful. I spend so much time creating a culture of care in the organisation and that care needs to extend to me. I really want every member of the team, partner, and trustees to be able to give me both good and difficult feedback. I’m up for having hard conversations with myself and others. Next year, we will discuss how to make the form better so it has more context. I can’t do much with 4/5 for Communication Skills if I’m not told where I can improve or specific incidents that can help me reflect on what I should not have done. I know this is a problem other leaders have also had on staff feedback, and we’re going to be coming up a new way of doing it. This was a trial run and it’s not going to work but we’ve got ideas on how to make it more effective and kind!
- The one concrete and constructive feedback I’ve heard from a few people is that I can come across as blunt when sharing opinions or ideas, and even though people understand I’m trying to get to an efficient outcome quickly based on my experience — I could spend some time explaining my rationale so others can learn and understand. I’ll be workingon this.
- I’m good at running planning sessions and parties. I often don’t have enough time to plan these beforehand but you know what, I don’t need a lot of time to do it. I had lots of opportunities to bring this spark into Chayn’s work this year. I’m really proud of it. For example, starting each standup with a fun question or a grounding exercise. Doing a board games event every month. Doing gifts and treats for wellbeing calls.
- It’s deeply uncomfortable for me to think about some of the ways my race and gender set me up to reach an extremely unrealistic high bar. I often think about what kind of “boss” I am and struggle to separate how I see myself through my intentions and my heart, versus what others see me as through my words and actions. The best expression I heard was from Dama and I need to learn how to own it more. Dama told me that I’m “a very empathetic but no-bullshit leader”. I’ve often felt very vulnerable in leading Chayn this year. Many situations made me feel like my job was to listen and absorb. I think generalised rhetorics about managers being either very laid-back and empathetic or toxic and uncaring and target-driven are so problematic. The fact that I’m not in either category and as Dama said, “a very empathetic but no-bullshit leader”, means often people will project their previous experiences and misconceptions on me. I find this hurtful. An example of this is when some staff members were working overtime because they didn’t know how to do something or because there was too much work but I had not asked them to and had they approached me, I would have clearly re-prioritised lists or shown them how to do it. In this case, the assumption that I wanted them to overwork because I wanted us to meet a deadline and refused to hire more people (with the money I do not have) made me feel really misunderstood and unfairly targeted.
- Though I am good at it, I don’t think managing a large team is something I enjoy. I’ve been joking with friends that when I step back from Chayn (5–7 years according to the transition plan), I will be doing something that requires me to manage no one. Like writing fiction. Or opening a jewellery boutique. Dama laughs when I mention this to her and says no matter where I go, I am the kind of person who will end up managing a team. I am determined to prove her wrong.
- I am really good at writing and editing, even though I hate writing! Many of you seem to enjoy reading these so I’ll continue doing this and be more regular.
- I attend London Writers’ Salon’s writing call every morning from 8–9AM and it has done wonders for my writer’s block. I signed up to support them on Patreon too!
I wanted to do something sweet for the team which got everyone to see the best in themselves from other people’s eyes. A few years ago, I did a Power and Privilege course by New Economy Organisers Network(NEON). It was a 6 months course with weekend and evening meetings with a group of activists. At the end of the course, we all went to a retreat in Wales and did lots of group activities. One of it was writing compliments to other people in the group in anonymous post its and then the facilitators collected them, put them in envelopes for each person and gave them us. I still have that envelope. Whenever I feel down, I open it and look at it. I wanted to create an online version of it: Gratitude Robin.
I set up a Google document with the following instructions.
We put everyone’s name in there and then reminded people every day for a week to fill it out. The comments looked like this.
It was such a hit at our End-of-the-year party where I gave everyone 10 mins to contribute to this one last time, and then read out something you read about yourself or someone else you loved.
It was such a sweet and wholesome way to end the year. Give it a try!
p.s. The Robin in “Gratitude Robin” is a reference to Round Robin. This was a topic of discussion at the party. Everyone had their own understanding of it — and we were all wrong!
This is what Wikipedia has to say.