Two-Sided Leadership: A Favorite and a Frustration, But All Good in the End

I had heard stories about her…people up at all hours of the night working on spreadsheets or slide presentations, just because that is what she demanded or expected.  They didn’t want to do it, but they didn’t want a crappy end-of-year rating either. When I heard that our supply chain team was getting a new senior manager and that it would be her, nervousness set in.  I had heard stories from others about how tough she was, and all I could think was, she is going to tear me to pieces.  I wasn’t competitive, I didn’t totally like confrontation although I could handle it, I didn’t even like my job that much and moreover, had a hard time understanding parts of it.  I was also a bit rusty after working as a buyer for eight months and then coming back to subcontracts where shortly thereafter she took over as our leader.  She was going to tear me up, I had a bad feeling.

Pam’s introductory conference call with the team went pretty much as expected.  Intimidating. She outlined her expectations, specifically stating they were high, and yet admitting that she didn’t set expectations for anyone that she also didn’t set for herself. But she just seemed very regimented and methodical, and well…we all hung up and thought, you don’t want to be on her bad side.

I was so nervous for our first one-on-one call.  I was filling in for a peer that summer whose programs I was unfamiliar with, and being back in Subcontracts after being out of it for close to a year, I couldn’t remember the simplest things, like where to find the subcontract templates.  But we got on the phone and started talking and I explained my background and that I was trying to re-learn some things and she said, “no problem, I will help you and we’ll go through it together”. “Well that’s nice of her,” I thought… “that’s not so mean”. She got to know my work since the person I was filling in for reported directly to her, and thankfully she liked what she saw.  When we finally got to meet in person and have one-on-one conversations then, I was completely honest with her, as I am not the kind of person who holds back. Knowing her background – ex-military, single, no kids, workaholic, I didn’t expect her to understand.  But I told her straight out, “climbing the corporate ladder is not important to me.  Do I want to do well at my job? Yes.  But it’s not as important as…” “Work-life balance,” she finished my sentence for me. “Yes” I said.  And I told her that in all actuality, I didn’t even really enjoy my job.  Subcontracts was not my thing and I wasn’t business-minded.  I took no business courses in college, I had no background, it didn’t interest me. “Well that’s funny that you say that, because you’re so good at your job” she said.  “OMG – she thinks I’m good!”, I thought. Insanely rigid, hard-ass Pam thinks I’m good at my job, and doesn’t care that I don’t want to be a workaholic. When she asked what I wanted to do I told her something in the security field, and eventually be a stay-at-home-mom.  “What a waste”, she was probably thinking.  But I let her silently judge me and figured, so be it.  She needs to know who I truly am. I’m not like some others on the team who will tell her exactly what she wants to hear, just to get by.  She’s going to know the truth.

And from then on we had a good relationship.  I was a strong performer on her team and I was on her good side, probably even one of her favorites, and yet I didn’t like being thought of that way to some of the others on the team. It’s not like I was a kiss-up…I challenged her when I needed to.  And yet she liked me.  Maybe it’s because she knew I wasn’t a threat because of our previous conversations or maybe it was because I was always honest with her. Over the years I worked a lot of stretch assignments or challenging assignments and there were some frustrating moments with her.  Three hour meetings where she demanded ridiculous amounts of information in order to prepare for a briefing she had to do where she probably would be asked one or two questions. Some pickiness about spacing within documents and why didn’t I do a better job of cleaning it up. Why I didn’t listen to her when she told me to prioritize items by the most work that would need to be done when we were in danger of missing a deadline that could not be extended anymore.  But the work always got done, she was always proud of me, and she always stuck up for me and did what she could to help, all the while knowing I was looking to get out of the organization and into something better.

And then the day came five years later when she was in town again and scheduled another one-on-one, and this time I was pregnant and had to talk to her about the extended maternity leave I wanted to take. I thought for sure she would give me a hard time.  After all, she wasn’t married, had no kids, worked all the time, there was no way she would understand me wanting to take six months off to be with my new baby, although that wasn’t my only reason.  I also wanted time off to continue taking classes for graduate school, something she had pushed me to take on in the first place.  And to my surprise, she was very supportive and agreed, noting that even though I was taking a risk in that my job wouldn’t be protected after twelve weeks, that I would always have a spot on her team. I was so relieved.

She ended up taking a new position ahead of a big reorganization announcement while I was out on maternity leave, but kept in touch with me to see what my plans were and to make sure that I would have something to come back to.  At one point it seemed like she was more concerned about my own job than I was, but I was grateful…she was looking out for me, just like she always had.

Her people skills may have needed a bit of work at times, but I was appreciative of my relationship with Pam.  She made me work harder and helped me to realize some of my potential.  She was tough but didn’t take it personally or hold it against me when I challenged her when some others on the team only wished they could say the things that I said. I’m thankful that I was able to be true to myself and be who I am, and still be able to succeed.  I’m thankful that that was good enough for her.  While she could certainly be as tough as some had said, I learned that you can’t judge people right away.  You need to give them a chance to work with you, because every relationship is different.  If you’re a hard worker and you’re honest up front, it’s likely there will be less of an issue.  I also learned to take help where you can get it…not everyone is willing to offer it in this cut—throat world these days. It’s important to recognize the good in people and what they can do to help you.  Pam wanted to see me grow and thrive as an employee and potential leader one day, and I’m glad I let her in


  1. Diego Gonzalez February 11, 2018 at 10:52 PM #

    Nice article Kathryn. I’m a single father myself and I can relate with her situation.

  2. Nika Nichole Barnard September 7, 2016 at 8:33 PM #

    I enjoyed reading this. An exemplary example of a leader. This article reminds me to not judge a person based on reputation and another’s relationship.

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