Managing a Team: Control and Inspiration

When I got married, my mom and I went shopping for my dress. Before we even left the house, I told her I would find my dress THAT day. We went to four stores. At the last store, I found my dress. That’s how I do things. We later went shopping for my mom’s dress. As Mother of the Bride, I knew she would be nervous. My brilliant plan was to also find her dress in one day. I militantly marched her around a few pre-selected department stores. We did find her a dress that day, and although she never complained about the trip, I could tell my mom had a rough experience, and it has always stuck with me that I didn’t handle that day well.

For better or worse, this mirrored how I was handling my direct reports at that time and skills I was still building as a manager.

“Share more”

I winced as I read through the feedback about my management style in the mid-2000s. It’s not that I was a terrible manager, but the places where I could grow are just so painfully obvious. I was still learning how to inspire and grow employees, and it was a hit or miss period. I knew I was stressed, but now I see the bigger picture of just how rapidly I was trying to learn and implement new management skills.

What feedback did I receive? Brace yourself. These quotations span sharing, communication, tailoring my approach, inspiring people, workload management and self-awareness.

“Alana can become an even better manager by trying to focus in on what individual team members need and meeting them where they are. For example, comments from her direct reports ranged from praise for being a ‘hands off’ manager to a desire for more direction to a concern about being micro-managed. If Alana can tune in to what individual team members need to grow and feel supported, she will become an even more outstanding manager.”

“Alana ‘has extensive insight into the formation and histories of the policies. I think it would be beneficial if Alana were to share more of these histories and explanations with members [of] the team when we have questions or concerns. Occasionally, her replies to inquiries can come across as very short and missing some of the information needed to be able to apply to future decisions.’”

“Over the past few quarters, I have inquired about career development in meetings with Alana, but substantial content is not discussed, largely just vague suggestions and areas to work on are mentioned.”

“Some of her direct reports have expressed concern that Alana should be more aware of the work that is on their plates rather than relying on them to let her know if they don’t have the capacity to take on more…it might help to proactively ask her reports how they are coping with the volume of their work and provide space for more open communication.”

“When the questions can be answered by anyone in attendance, Alana tends to dominate the interaction, with the rest of the team feeling displaced and uninterested.”

Ouch. I had a few things to work on.

The Illusion

Reading through the feedback now, I thought this one thing over and over, “What happens when you lose control?” Control is the greatest illusion of management because management is associated with power. In reality, we have less control as we manage people. Even more so as the teams get larger, and we are managing through other managers. Boiled down, a manager has to ask or tell people to do things and they have to want to do them. That’s how we actually get their best work anyway, and that’s the essence of the management gig. We often focus on the doing, but getting people to ‘want to do’ — ooh boy, that’s a whole other skill.

Looking back, I was really struggling with this loss of control — not being able to do what I wanted when I wanted. At the same time, I was also learning how to focus more on people instead of projects. I was still a transactional leader trying to accomplish tasks, not yet focusing on people and relationships. There’s the Spiderman quotation, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Mine was more like “With great responsibility comes little control.” It was time to either get bitten by a radioactive spider or start developing some superpowers of my own.

Inspiration Skills

When I was in junior high, my English teacher gave me a B+. I was confused. I went back over my grades, and I should have gotten an A-. I asked him what happened, and he said that I could do so much better than the numbers reflected. He’d given me a B+ to inspire me to try harder. Poor teacher, this was not a good way to motivate me. Maybe it would work with others, but I was instantly angry I didn’t receive the grade I deserved. It was the one time I recall my parents marching into school. The teacher changed my grade but stood his ground that I could do better. After that, I earned and received As in his class.

Inspiration is a tricky business; it varies by person. I have some team members who desperately need to know their work is valued. I have others who purely want to come in and enjoy what they do every day. Relationships are the currency of inspiration: knowing your people first and then catering your approach to them. Once I realized that, it turned out I did have superpowers after all: listening, execution, dedication. I just needed to apply them to people.

How did I do that?

1) Outgrow the Golden Rule

Unfortunately the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) doesn’t really work in management. For instance, my preference for a manager is someone who is hands-off, basically just there if I ask for help. But some of my team members needed me to be proactive — to think about their workload, to give advice, to brainstorm with them about their career. Customization changed the entire way I managed. Now I focus on getting to know people in their initial weeks with me, and I tailor my approach to them at the outset.

What are good ways to get to know them? I start off by asking them in our first meeting what they have liked historically in a manager, and what they’d want me to keep in mind. I’ll ask how their weekend or vacation went. I don’t need a novel of information to start to pick up on what they care about and what drives them.

2) Let Others Be the Expert

It was time for me to stop talking; I was talking over my employees and answering questions they could answer! Talking less was simple in concept, but hard in practice. Remember I was known for knowing all the answers. I committed myself to being a fabulous generalist instead of an expert. When I was asked for an answer, I chose to be a great connector — referring people to great team members and giving them credit for their knowledge. And I could focus on being a people manager expert instead: coaching my employees as needed and privately giving them feedback if necessary.

I also committed myself to the art of improv, the ‘say yes’ philosophy. My job was to be additive. To take the ideas people had and help make them bigger. Instead of shutting down ideas, I needed to help augment and grow them. “Yes, but check with Maria about the global implications.” feels much better than “Maria won’t go for that” to an employee. This took practice, but to this day, this approach makes me happier and less stressed. I’m encouraging budding ideas, and I love when they flourish.

3) Shift What You Control

I still loved control and that wasn’t going to change. Instead of trying to ‘control’ day-to-day issues, I shifted my perspective towards strategic issues. What I really wanted was a great team. And if that’s what I wanted, focusing on individual issues wasn’t the answer. If I wanted an awesome organization, then I needed to focus on four things:

  • Hiring: The process and philosophy for hiring great talent
  • Strategy: What does the future path look like. See my previous post.
  • Team Happiness: Nurturing and developing the current team members
  • Knowing the Business: Staying in touch with my team’s work (but at a higher level), so I steer the business appropriately

This focus list has endured multiple jobs and teams. How much time I spend on each item varies depending on the life stage of the team, e.g. more time on hiring initially, later on, team happiness. This really is what my job should be as my team grows, less time on the individual issues and more time on strategic issues like developing a career path narrative for my valued employees.

A Second Chance

The work feedback did improve over time, but let’s go back to wedding planning. Years later I got another chance with my mom. My brother was now getting married, and it was going to be a posh affair on the East Coast. Now, my mom needed an amazing Mother of the Groom dress. I told my mom we’d go to bridal stores, and we could get a dress custom made if that’s what she wanted. She found a dress she loved at the second store, and we tailored it for a perfect fit. We customized the approach to her needs, made her feel like a million bucks, and it was just as efficient for me. #winning

Note: I don’t provide names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples are carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.

This piece is selected from an ongoing series, chronicling my 17 years at Google and the performance feedback that has helped to shape my career. People often wonder what has motivated me to stay so long at one company. I usually tell them it’s the people and career opportunities that Google affords; it’s also the ability to level up my personal growth. I consistently ask myself: what have I learned along the way and how am I continuing to improve? As you may know, we love data at Google. In this vein, I dug back into past performance reviews and cataloged the feedback I’ve received. This has been a humbling journey, but also one where I can appreciate just how much I’ve grown over the years and help others with feedback they may be receiving today.

For more pieces in this series, please see Ambition, a Foreign LandIt’s Delegation TimeAccepting Emotions and ChangeDealing with Frustration on the Job, Strategic Thinking, We Meet Again, and Prioritization – the Visible Invisible Skill.

Alana Karen

Alana Karen

Alana Karen has spent 17+ years at Google in various customer service and operational roles. She's committed to growing people-focused leaders at Google and beyond, most recently with her LinkedIn series "Still Learning: 17 Years of Lessons Learned at Google". Alana raises her 3 kids and dog in California with her husband.

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