My New Direct Reports Are a Trip
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

My New Direct Reports Are a Trip

A manager is only as good as their team — and mine is a mixed bag

There’s a difference between being a manager and being a boss — or at least I believe there is. In my opinion, a boss is someone who cares about the people who report to them strictly through the lens of productivity. They tell their direct reports what needs to be done; when it’s done to their satisfaction, they direct them to the next task. It’s all output and little-to-no input.

A manager is more collaborative. They see the people who report to them as important to the overall business and therefore invest in them beyond projects and tasks. A manager measures their own success by the success of their direct reports — if they’re thriving, the manager is thriving too.

How do I manage someone and help them grow in their career if they’re already halfway checked out?

Which one am I? The answer depends on which of my three direct reports you ask. With the exception of my intern, I didn’t hire my team. Instead, they were assigned to me as part of the same company restructuring that resulted in my recent promotion. Of course, this influences the relationship I have with each of them as do their unique personalities, which is why I feel it’s important for you, dear reader, to meet my team.

Black Karen

Associate content strategist
For the sake of this column, it’s important to be clear that I manage a woman named Karen — but she’s not that type of Karen. For the sake of clarity, I’ll henceforth refer to her as Black Karen. BK has been at the company for a year, yet we’ve never directly worked together nor made the transition from skinfolk to kinfolk. The best we could do is give a head nod from our Zoom windows in biweekly all-hands meetings.

That has recently changed. I’m not quite sure how she feels about it, but I’m definitely trying to manage her up beyond my role — and honestly beyond the company. She’s sharp, thorough, and has a ton of potential. She understands the assignment, consistently. If I do my job right with Black Karen, she’ll be somewhere else in a year doing way more than me and many of her colleagues. That is, if she wants it.

In my first meeting with Black Karen, I asked what she wants to do. She kept it real with me by saying she’s seriously considering going to law school full time because she’s tired of waiting on her bag in the marketing industry. I can relate to that last part, but I can’t relate to her strategy. How do I manage someone and help them grow in their career if they’re already halfway checked out?


Marketing lead, partnerships
Mitch is White, but unlike Black Karen, I don’t call him White Mitch because, well, there are a lot of White guys named Mitch. However, it’s important for me to establish what race he is because I can’t lie, managing a White man is something I never imagined myself doing. And, I wonder if Mitch ever imagined reporting into a Black man.

My guess is no, but I also don’t think me being Black and him being White is going to be a big factor in our relationship. The real dynamic that we’re going to have to deal with is more fundamental. I’m his manager and like most people who report to a manager, Mitch probably thinks he can do my job better than I can. He also probably thinks he’s smarter than me. But what he might not understand is that him being smarter than me actually works to my benefit. Just the other day, we were given an opportunity to pitch a new client, and Mitch, eager to prove his aptitude, asked if he could lead the presentation to our new clients. Since I’m all about empowering my direct reports, I told him I had no issue with it. We’ll see how that goes.

Marcus the intern

Our company’s internship program is not very well-structured. Sure, they have to be enrolled in a college program at the time of their internship. And they get paid better than I ever did at their age. They have to be approved by human resources, but beyond that, the teams that have been approved to hire interns aren’t enforcing some rigorous criteria. I, as a manager, get to bring in who I want. I brought in Marcus.

This is Marcus’s first internship. Honestly, there were a few applicants who were more “qualified” on paper because they had internship experience at companies similar to ours or doing work similar to the work my team does. However, needing to have experience to be an intern is a little bit of a joke. For me, internships are all about grit — I picked up on that in our initial interview, when he told me about his summers working in construction. I too worked on construction sites growing up and let me tell you something, that isn’t work — it’s labor. So while Marcus is a little rough around the edges given his lack of experience in a corporate setting — and his current major is accounting rather than marketing — I could tell he was going to work his ass off if given the chance. So I’m giving Marcus a chance.

Did I mention Marcus is the cousin of a guy I play pickup basketball with on the weekends? Yeah, there’s that. Dude asked if I could get Marcus in the door there, insisting that his relative is a fan of my company’s work despite being undecided on his future career path. I told the guy “say less” and made it happen. Now if only I could get him to not go AWOL for hours of the workday and chill out on dropping borderline inappropriate (but admittedly hilarious) memes in public Slack channels. Our next 1:1 meeting should be interesting.

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