Lessons from the World’s Worst Manager

There comes a time in everyone’s career where you’re so fed up, you start wondering why you’re not in charge.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a chef, fitness camp counselor, Acura dealership overnight security guard, MCI telemarketer, or project manager—I’ve been all but one of those things, by the way—at some point, you’ll think, “Things would be so much better if I were the boss.”

Maybe it’s because you’ve been doing the same thing for too long and you’re burned out. Maybe your organization has a culture of treating employees like they’re children instead of hiring them because they’re great and then letting them be great. Maybe it’s because your manager just really sucks.

Hey, maybe you just have a bad attitude.

Workplace happiness isn’t what this is about, though. What it is about: the things I learned when I was put into a position of leadership without any experience, mentorship, or training. These examples are from my time running a kitchen, but you can apply them to any job.

Yep. The world’s worst manager was me.

If you have to say you’re in charge, you’re not

Job titles don’t matter. Oh, you’re VP Senior Head Regional Manager of All Operations In the Universe, Times 900, Underlined? Show me, don’t tell me.

Years ago, I found myself suddenly in the role of sous chef at a busy restaurant in Austin. I was a fantastic line cook and I got along with everyone, both front and back of the house.

But once you’re put into a position of leadership, everything changes. Your co-workers no longer look at you as one of them—they see someone who could get them fired. Someone who might point out that their station is too messy, or that it’s not okay to take 10-minute bathroom breaks during Friday night service. There’s an immediate loss of trust that you must earn back as quickly as possible, or it’s gone forever.

Just because you have the title doesn’t mean you’ll be looked at as whatever that title is. Don’t expect anyone to call you Chef unless you’re acting the part.

Stick up for your people

Without your staff, you’re nothing. Never forget that.

And always remember that every single person you work with has terrible, sad things going on in their personal life and they’re doing their best to navigate that. Today, Susan in Accounting may have started an anti-depressant and feels totally off, or John in Marketing is thinking about the news that his son is autistic, or Jane in Sales has been sleeping in a different room from her partner for the last few weeks and isn’t sure if things are going to get better.

They probably all seem fine.

So, a few weeks before Thanksgiving back in 2012, my best line cook requested the days before and after the holiday off so he could spend time with his mom, who he hadn’t seen in over 2 years. I was fine with it—it’d be difficult without him, but we were closed on Thanksgiving so it was only 2 days—but the owner of the restaurant said no.

When he said he wasn’t willing to budge, she fired him on the spot.

I should have stepped in and stressed that this was important and absolutely not worth losing someone over. I remained silent, which spoke volumes.

Let people have ideas

Oddly, in most restaurant kitchens, the cooks have no say in what goes on. No input on the process, which is usually kind of a mess and has tons of room for improvement, and no invitation for feedback on dishes.

Imagine how much more efficient a restaurant could be if you sat everyone down and asked them for ideas on how to work faster and make the food taste better.

Ever been out to eat and your food takes forever? Those people need to talk.

The fry cook surely knows a way to make those fries crispier, but maybe he feels like he’ll just get shot down.

Just like a developer probably knows a way to save their designer about 3 days’ worth of work, but she feels weird about speaking up.

The best teams are made up of people who are empowered to do their jobs, and part of that means they’re allowed and encouraged to have ideas. No one should ever be afraid to say an idea out loud.

Managers set the tone for work culture

I once sent an email to an employee on his day off just to say he’d forgotten to order apples. Pretty awful, huh?

If you never take vacation (or lunch), stay in the office until 8pm, and send email and Slack messages in the middle of the night and all weekend, you’re telling your staff that’s what you expect them to do as well.

They’re watching you more closely than you think, and they’re making assumptions about your behavior and what it means. Make it a point to go on vacation, and actively encourage your team to take time off when they need it, even if it’s just a day to reset. Know when someone’s been working a ton—acknowledge that hard work, thank them, and let them know it’s okay to take a break. They’ll come back refreshed, maybe even with a new perspective.

Employee vacations are good for business. Tired, bitter people are not.

Stop taking all the credit

People need to be recognized often and they need to be recognized publicly. Managers are often the ones who see and hear great feedback from customers, and it’s really easy to smile, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, then go tell whoever is above you that you did something awesome.

But you didn’t do it by yourself. It was a team effort, and you know it.

Getting a glowing review in the local paper that specifically calls out something you cooked? Niiiice. Be proud of yourself for a second, but then spend many, many seconds thinking about why that thing tasted so good to the person: sure, you grilled the steak to a textbook medium-rare and plated everything beautifully, but yesterday the prep cook portioned that steak and also perfectly seasoned the blanching water those asparagus tips went into and then put them into an ice bath at the perfect time, the dishwasher peeled and cut the potatoes that morning, and the garde manger cook fried them to order and salted them before handing them off to you. Plus, the front-of-house staff did an impressive job of taking care of the reviewer from the moment they walked in the door.

Oh, and the farmers who grew those potatoes and that asparagus. The rancher who raised the cattle…

When a good thing happens, great managers know who to credit within seconds — and then they say something to the responsible parties. For really amazing stuff, or maybe just because someone might need it, shout it out from the rooftop. Send a company-wide email, @here a team Slack channel, call everyone into a room and then pour champagne, write a thank-you note.

People who aren’t recognized for great work will eventually take their great work somewhere else.

Managers need mentors—and a willingness to learn

You can’t just promote someone and hope for the best. When someone moves into a position of leadership, they need mentorship and training more than ever to help them lead their team, not alienate or intimidate their team. Few people just know how to manage—so higher-ups should treat this type of promotion like an entry-level new hire who has no idea what they’re doing. Expectations should be clear on both sides. Goals should be set.

At the same time, managers need to be proactive about learning new things from mentors and asking for feedback from everyone they work with on a regular basis.

They should also be quick to take ownership for and learn from their mistakes, because they’re going to make lots of them along the way.


If you liked this, be real cool and recommend it. Wanna get in touch? kristinhillery@gmail.com is the best way to do that.