Editor’s Note: Folks, this is a heavy one. I wrote this story for you, the organizational leader who is doing everything you can to be proactive about the inevitable problems that arise when rolling out company culture changes in your organization.
As you read this, think about the situations in your professional life where you knew there was a relational or communication problem starting to arise that you chose to ignore rather than meet head on. We all have a story like this buried somewhere.
It was by far the quietest and longest day in the Oneshot office. Nobody made a single phone call. I was in no position to ask anyone why not.
Only three years earlier, I was a bright-eyed recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. I had graduated in three and a half years, instead of the standard four, which allowed me to sneak away with my degree without the need for a loan — a fact I know is a clear sign of how privileged I was.
(Fun fact: Recently, I learned that a group of Karen’s are called a “privilege.” I haven’t completely stopped laughing about that yet.)
At 22 years old, I was ready for a real challenge.
Thanks to my compulsory need to be notably different than others — sometimes just for the sake of it — I firmly believed that middle management in a local Fortune 500 company for me would have been a death sentence. At the time, I saw that as the dream of the complacent Joneses of the world who were destined to always be followers. And I was no follower.
So, when my freshman-year college roommate approached me to go 50-50 with him in the founding of a small business venture — a real estate photo and video company — it took me all of two days to abandon all other plans and tell him yes.
Did either of us own a camera? Or have a passion for photography? Of course not. My roommate, however, loved real estate and identified a need for such a business. And me? I loved a challenge. We (naively) thought we would just figure the rest out.
Here goes nothing — let’s start a photo and video company!
Shortly after becoming the first full-time employee of Oneshot Media, I found myself standing in front of a few classes at my alma mater pitching unpaid internships in a “lucrative start-up environment” to undergrads.
Following 30 (!) interviews, we hired two rockstar interns. And, over the course of their time with us in that first year, they learned a ton about relationship-building, sales, small business process development, the real estate industry and investments, and so much more.
It was such a positive experience, those two interns are still close friends of mine, and it makes me so happy to see how they’ve both gone on to amazing things professionally.
We ended our first year not only feeling good about the bottom line results we achieved, I also felt a sense of pride in my first experience in people management, mentoring, and organizational leadership.
So, of course, we “later, rinsed, and repeated” the same process for our second year.
We lived it up in our new office in downtown Minneapolis with two new interns. We shed the snakeskin of the first year, improved processes, met bigger clients, and began to operate much more like a true company. We tripled our sales without burning ourselves out.
Again, we created a learning environment out of our small business for our interns. And again, I was proud of how we managed and treated our team… and I could see they were grateful, too.
Talk about a good feeling.
I knew without anyone saying anything out loud, everyone felt positive and thankful for the experience all of us were sharing in working together.
“I’m so proud,” I thought to myself. “And I’m one of only two people responsible for this. This is what's important to me. This is how I want to measure my success.”
This truly was my intention at the time. But like I said, I love to challenge myself, and sometimes I set my ambitions way too high. I bite off more than I can chew. I spread myself too thin.
And then something gives.
The smell of failure in year 3...
My business partner and I were determined to double our sales. We also wanted to do all of the work in-house, instead of through contractors as we had been.
To do that, we retained an intern from the previous year to manage a sales team of four new hires. We also hired a full-time editor and two part-time photographers.
Our headcount virtually overnight went from four to 10.
Our business also became more complex, as we adapted to insourcing all of our creative work, in addition to starting a second business for property management and investment properties.
Want to know the only thing we were thinking about? Arbitrary financial goals.
Every decision we made in the third year had only these goals as decision-making factors. It was like we thought running the company was a zero-sum game. We had to pick money over people as if it were binary.
I think organizational leaders get caught up in this type of decision making all too often.
Did we hit our goals? Not quite, but we got 75% of the way there, and that ain’t too shabby. Plus, all signs pointed to the fact that we were still growing, which was another point in ye olde win column.
Did our people once again enjoy another year of feeling grateful to work in a positive and productive learning environment?
No. No, they did not.
I went from a coach-like manager to... well, a neglectful one
Through that third year of high expectations and fast changes, bridges were definitely burned.
We burned some clients, we burned some contractors, but I’ve rationalized those away to be the inevitable cost of growth. Those don’t keep me up at night.
To this day, what keeps me up at night are the bridges we burned with those hopeful third-year interns. We promised them an extremely valuable experience, with hands-on mentorship.
Then, we gave them none of our time.
We didn’t intend to, but that’s what happened.
I would explain why or how this happened, but it doesn’t really matter.
Bottom line, we neglected our four unpaid sales interns. We knew it was happening, and did absolutely nothing to rectify it. What’s more, we assumed they’d keep selling as best they could without our guidance.
“They’d learn from each other,” we told ourselves.
Of course, we were wrong. And, over the course of two months, we watched what was once a bustling office of go-getters and positive energy passively deteriorate, with fewer words being spoken among us every day.
And then, I tried to play my beloved “Irish Goodbye” card
Do you ever have those moments where you don’t know someone’s name, but you should because it’s like… the fourth time you’ve met them? You stand there, too embarrassed to ask for their name again, so you just wing it, calling them “bud” or “pal,” as you pray it doesn’t all blow up in your face?
That’s how I felt going into the final in-office week for our interns in that third fateful year. So, instead of scheduling and facilitating exit interviews for them as planned, I chose a different path.
I told everyone I would be out for a family vacation, and I would be gone for the entirety of their final week. The quick glances immediately exchanged around the table when I told everyone confirmed all of my worst fears that I had been trying desperately to push out of my mind.
They were already disappointed in me, and this was just the cherry on top of the sundae.
I robbed them of their only opportunity to hold me accountable for how poorly I had managed their internship experience that year.
I believe that people almost always have the social awareness of knowing what needs to be talked about, it’s just a matter of whether they’re strong enough to do so.
Note: The above thought could easily be the boiled down anecdote for the first half of my 20s, something that I’m determined to make sure I don’t allow to sneak into the second half as well. So, be direct, folks. That's how you get to avoid writing articles like this can of worms.
It was by far the quietest and longest day in the Oneshot office
Nobody made a single phone call. I was in no position to ask anyone why not.
Look at us; we made it back to the beginning! 🙂
(By the way, don’t you love it when a movie says the name of the movie IN THE MOVIE? Well, I just pulled that on you, but article-style. Roadhouse.)
I had a late afternoon meeting with a hotel manager to talk about services that we could provide for them. I was begging for that meeting to arrive, so I could sneak out of the office and put those botched intern relationships behind me.
When it finally came time to leave, I silently packed up my backpack, thinking I could slip out without having to acknowledge anymore.
That’s when it happened.
I stood up…
...and I erupted into a hiccuping fit. Louder and more frequent than I’d ever had them.
Immediately, I drew two looks my way. There I stood, looking like a total derp, with my backpack on my shoulder. Hiccuping.
Then, one of the interns quietly asked me…
“So, you’re leaving, huh?”
I’d like to think that, on an ordinary day, I’m pretty good with my off-the-cuff word choice. As we’ve already established, however, this was no ordinary day.
In response, I blurted out the flakiest “thank you and goodbye” word vomit of a response. All while hiccuping, mind you, as if to underscore how much of a haphazard mess I was in a moment where I desperately wanted to escape their judgment.
But judged they did. And rightfully so. Those interns looked at me with more disappointment than I have ever personally seen.
Not because of the bad internship experience itself. That ship had long since sailed. Rather, they were disappointed at how I had tried to quietly slink away, instead of handling the end of their bad internship and addressing it head-on.
In their eyes, I was something like a con artist.
To myself, I had been a weak-willed ostrich with my head in the sand, ignoring the most obvious company culture problems that were a direct result of my poor management.
What does my story mean for you, the organizational leader or team manager?
I shared my story because I think it's all too easy for business leaders, department heads, or team managers of any kind to unintentionally or accidentally create this kind of environment of misalignment expectations and broken trust.
I think most leaders never have their moment of accountability the way that I did. Looking back on it now, I’m so thankful to have had a moment like mine. Because of it, I’ll never forget the lessons that it taught me about leading people the right way.
That said, I still haven’t followed up with any of those interns; I don’t think I’ll ever be strong enough to apologize for what I failed to do with them.
Also, I find it curious (and maybe a little too eye-opening) that it’s easier for me to publish this article about my failure, so that you can learn from my mistakes than it is for me to reach out to those interns and apologize for what happened.
I wonder what those interns would say about me now. Maybe I’m over-exaggerating – or maybe I’m spot on.