I was 29 years old when I acquired my first management job. Management wasn’t something I ever thought I aspired to. I was a teacher. But when the position came up I was in the mood for a new challenge, and so I applied. I was the youngest to take on a management role at the school where I had taught for several years.
For the most part my colleagues were supportive — even though many were older and had more years in the classroom, and some had actually taught me when I was a student at the school twelve years earlier.
There was one notable exception.
“Dee” was one of my fellow teachers, hired around the same time I was, but about ten years older. Shortly after my appointment to the management role was announced, she sat across from me over lunch one day. She congratulated my on my new job, and then looked me in the eye, her face a picture of earnest concern, and said, “I hope you don’t change.”
I was baffled. I spluttered that I wouldn’t have sought out the opportunity if I didn’t want to learn new things, and wasn’t learning all about change?
Years later, after several different management positions, I am still unpacking Dee’s comment– still trying to grasp the assumptions underlying her words.
Assumption #1: Change is bad.
I need to stress that Dee was not only a teacher, she was also a counsellor. I have never understood how one could engage in either teaching or counselling without believing that people can change, and that change can be positive. But clearly by saying “I hope you don’t change” she was conveying her belief that not only was I at risk of changing as a result of this new job, I should be doing everything in my power to resist such a horrible fate.
Assumption #2: Change can be avoided.
“I hope you don’t change” implies that it would be possible to take on a new role and learn new skills without changing. The question I still wish I had thought to ask her is, “Have you gone through your entire career without changing in any way? Do you teach exactly the same way today that you did the day you first set foot in a classroom?”
Assumption #3: Different work will make me a different person.
I can entertain the possibility that she actually meant the statement as a compliment. Perhaps she felt that as colleagues we shared a deep connection that we would no longer share now that I was Management. Not that we had ever been best buddies. And I would still be doing some teaching, so it’s not like we wouldn’t still have things in common. But somehow her comment implied that simply stepping into the management role was going to transform me to the core of my very being.
To be honest, I was hoping it would. I have always been a person who learns by doing. I had been teaching the same course for several years, and was starting to feel a bit like I was caught in an endless feedback loop of grade eleven English. I was craving the opportunity to take on a new challenge, and learn all the new things that I imagined that new challenge would bring. But Dee clearly had a darker view of what I was about to learn.
Assumption #4: Being a manager will make me a worse person.
Dee’s tone made it clear that by “change” she did not mean “improve.” Saying “I hope you don’t change” indicated that she was unable to entertain the possibility that taking on a management role might change me for the better. That it might mature me — teach me new relationship skills — make me wiser. I really don’t think she could imagine anything of value that I might learn from my new job.
Assumption #5: All managers are bad people.
In the end it comes down to this, doesn’t it? Saying “I hope you don’t change” conveyed her surprise that I chose to take on the management role in the first place. Something about Dee’s mental picture of who I was as a person was incongruent with her mental picture of who managers were as people. All managers. My choice to take on the new role was the moral equivalent of going over to the dark side.
I’ve spent more than 20 years here on the “dark side,” and I can honestly report that it’s been anything by dark. In truth, it’s been very enlightening. It hasn’t been easy, but then the kind of real learning that brings about deep personal change never is.