When I finished grad school, I walked off the podium with a boatload of confidence, an MBA degree inscribed with fancy Latin words, and sheer obliviousness about what it actually means to lead a team of people.
I was hired as an assistant manager of a Target store and given the keys to a multimillion-dollar retail operation and a team of 50 people.
I quickly discovered that I had no clue what I was doing.
My team stretched both ends of the age spectrum: pimply 16-year-olds who stumbled upon Target as their first job and curmudgeonly 60-year-olds for whom Target would be their last job before waltzing into the golden fields of retirement.
Neither demographic had any reason to respect me.
After all, why would they? I had a fancy degree but zero retail experience aside from measuring shoe sizes at my local Big 5 Sporting Goods during Christmas break.
I was a cocksure 24-year-old who had suddenly become “the boss.”
Early on, I made a lot of management mistakes, but eventually, I was able to earn the trust of the majority of the team, and our team began to produce some of the top results in the district.
The five things below helped me earn the team’s respect.
1. I volunteered for the toughest job.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, our store received a new truck jam-packed with diapers, cat food, electronics, tennis rackets, and a treasure trove of other items itching to fill empty shelf space on our sales floor.
Each truck contained up to 2,800 boxes of product.
I found out early on that the most physically demanding job on the team was “throwing the truck,” which was slang for being one of the two people inside the truck who unloaded each box onto the “line” — a conveyor belt that carried the products to other employees who sorted the supplies.
The two people who unloaded the truck each day would get bruised, battered, and sore from the unload process. They’d occasionally get hit by falling boxes. They’d often pull back muscles moving boxes onto the line.
In short, they were guaranteed a great night’s sleep that evening.
So, I volunteered to unload the truck.
Yup, I got hit with boxes. I was definitely sore at the end of the shift. And yes, my bed felt a little comfier when my head hit the pillow that night.
But I also ended the shift with more respect from the team. A couple of team members came up to me and said they hadn’t seen an executive do that type of work before. They thought I was scrappy.
The simple act of taking on the toughest assignment gave me immediate street cred with the rest of the crew.
2. I explained my job duties.
Just like most management roles, my job required a lot of desk work. And desk time meant time away from the team.
At first, I assumed that everyone knew that I had to do desk work. But I realized my assumption was incorrect when I began to get feedback that I wasn’t spending enough time with the team.
They wondered where I disappeared to all of the time. They thought I didn’t care about them or understand their work.
To fix this problem, I began to announce in our daily team meeting what I would be working on that day — when I would be on the floor, when I would be at my desk, what I’d be working on at my desk, etc.
I also invited one of the most talkative (read: gossipy) team members to check out some of my current projects. I showed her what reports I compiled for our district, and I explained what it was like to build the team’s weekly schedule.
As I went through these various projects, her eyes got big. She said, “I never knew you did all this stuff.”
At that moment, I won her trust. She would now be an advocate for me.
And her talkativeness meant that within a few days, others would also hear about my work and hopefully also become my advocates. (They did.)
3. I fought for the team.
Managers face a litany of decisions that require them to side with their team or another group within the company (management, HR, etc.).
And when those decisions arise, teams want to know that their manager will have their back.
Early on, I heard from my team that prior managers had often sided against the team, which bothered the group. For example, one of my team’s previous managers had agreed to let extra shift coverage go to another team rather than rewarding her own team with the coveted additional shifts.
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Little things like this build tension and pressure, like shaking a soda can. Every time a manager sides against his or her team, the manager/team relationship is fractured.
So I decided to give my team the benefit of the doubt when put in those situations.
When we had to fill additional shifts, I campaigned for my team members to receive those shifts. When another manager came to me to complain about one of my team members, I carefully listened to their feedback but didn’t accept it as truth until I spoke with my team member and heard their side of the story.
I did everything possible to assure my team that I had their back. I was on their side and would fight for them.
4. I began viewing life from their perspective.
When I first started as a manager, I began talking like a manager. And by that, I mean that corporate bullshit began to drool from my lips.
My team wanted to know that I understood the things they cared about.
They wanted me to speak their language and understand their problems. They wanted me to know that it was tough for them to pay for groceries before payday, that our daily sales number wouldn’t put any more cash in their pockets, that the color of our metrics (green/yellow/red) didn’t make them as excited as it made me.
I realized that I had to reframe my thinking and tune in to their channel — the one that plays songs about insurance, paydays, and PTO instead of tunes about revenue, P&L, and metrics.
5. I admitted when others were the expert.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that as a new manager, it’s essential to exhibit confidence and “fake it till you make it.”
I think that’s horrible advice.
False confidence gives off an odor as potent as dog crap on the bottom of a tennis shoe. Team members can tell when a manager doesn’t know what they’re doing. Overconfidence breeds inauthenticity and distrust.
My team wanted me to recognize their knowledge and experience. They were experts in their domain, and they wanted to be treated as such.
As soon as I realized that, I began to defer to others for their judgment when I knew their answers would be better than mine.
When I wasn’t sure how to arrange our Christmas pallets in the back room, I asked a senior team member what he would recommend. When we had to decide what product to put on an endcap in cosmetics, I asked the cosmetics guru what she thought would sell on that endcap.
Rather than causing the team to lose confidence in my leadership, my questions taught the team that I knew their specialties. I respected their knowledge and abilities, which led them to respect mine.
Respect is earned as it is given. By trusting my team, they began to trust me.
By volunteering for the toughest job, I proved I could do the dirty work.
By explaining more about my role, I helped others understand my challenges.
By fighting for the team, I showed that I had their back.
By viewing life from their perspective, I demonstrated that I cared.
By admitting when others knew more than me, I surrendered the spotlight.
I made a heck of a lot of mistakes along the way, but these five things helped me earn the team’s respect.
What does your team need from you?
How can you prove you’re more than a fancy degree or an impressive resume?
Bobby Powers is Gravity’s head of learning & development and people analytics. He writes regularly about leadership and business at BobbyPowers.net and at Medium. This post is gratefully cross-posted with his permission.