A Real Look Inside The Mental Health of Managers
Editor's Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we're pleased to welcome you to the first in our series of 'A Real Look Inside The Mental Health of Managers, a series of posts focused on different roles within a startup, authored by our very own Chief Revenue Officer, Wade Lowe.
Wade is an entrepreneur and business leader with over 20 years of experience driving top-line growth, coaching teams, and scaling business for companies ranging from early-stage tech startups to established corporations.
When asked to contribute to our blog, I immediately agreed. I also thought, hmmmm, why me and why now…. Kidding aside, I like to write and have deep personal experience in this domain, so it seems like a good fit. Let's get started.
I'll write a series of posts on Mental Health specific to different roles in a business, specifically a rapidly growing startup. Rapidly growing startups are different from big corp, mid-market, family-owned, PE-owned, legacy, or declining industries. I'll cover the four primary roles: individual contributor roles, management roles, leadership roles, and founder roles. They're all unique and affect one's mental health differently. For example, in IC roles, people often feel like they have less agency. Whereas in leadership roles people feel they have agency, but also feel tremendous pressure to use that agency effectively.
After being asked to write the post, I did a personal inventory of how my mental health has been, specifically related to work/career. I used to do this much more often, but over the last 9-12 months, my life has been so "full" that I stopped checking in with myself as regularly. Not a great place for me to be, so I took the weekend to get re-centered, spend more time with my kids, do non-business reading, and sit to meditate.
This ability to pause and reflect is the key to knowing how to make adjustments when needed and being attuned to what's happening with the weather patterns in one's mind. While awareness and attention to your stress level may seem simple enough, it's incredibly challenging to focus on when you're a manager at a startup. In this post, I'll share strategies that have worked for me and suggestions for managers working in a fast-paced startup environment.
Mental Health + Management at a rapidly growing startup
First, let me be clear. I am not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be. I only write from personal experience and nearly 25 years in professional settings + 15 years in startups. There are mental health issues that require outside help. I encourage everyone to explore getting help when needed, actually before it's needed, as it gives you the tools you need for when it's required (see above). I'm a huge advocate of personal development, which can entail therapy, coaching, non-business practices, retreats, etc. This post will be specific to work, however.
So, you're a manager at a rapidly growing startup. Maybe a first-time manager. Awesome! You've taken that next step in your career path. You will take all the lessons you learned from your managers and the ideas you've always had and build the best team the business has ever seen. But, as Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. And that's what being a manager in a rapidly growing startup can feel like - like getting punched in the face every day for 250 days a year - and that can affect your mental health.
Let's start with why. Why does it feel so hard? This was supposed to be excellent and advance your career. Some people even take pay cuts to transition from individual contributors to management because it's better for their career path. So, making less money, working harder, and getting your ass kicked every day. Whelp, that's the point.
Think of management like boot camp. Virtually everything you think you understood isn't applicable. You quickly realize there are literally hundreds of things you don't know - how to have effective 1:1's, how to deal with underperforming ICs, how to interpret data and make decisions, how to know where to get the data, how to manage people older than you, how to manage/communicate with your leader, how to find time to get actual work done while having a calendar blocked with calls...and on and on and on.
The good news is, this is all normal. The tricky part is that, in a rapidly growing startup, there is very rarely the infrastructure set up to give you what you need to develop formally. Not because the company doesn't care, it's because the company is trying to keep up with growth while not having the wheels fall off the business. This can create natural stress on the management team because there is a lot of pressure, and the structural dynamics shift without warning. Because speed is of the essence, it's not always possible to hold people's hands as they make decisions regarding their team and job.
What To Do
So, what can be done regarding a manager's mental health? I'll answer this in two ways, but considering the company's responsibility and the manager's responsibility. The company's responsibility is to make good hires and promotions to management, first and foremost. Sometimes people aren't ready, or it's not the right fit, and that's the company's responsibility.
It's also the responsibility of the company to create an environment where making mistakes is part of the learning process, especially in situations where adequate support is not provided. However, it's crucial to be very clear regarding role expectations and top priorities from the outset. Clarity reduces cognitive load and stress on managers, especially new managers. When left to their own devices, they will likely not know what the best thing to do is in any given situation.
Lastly, the company should encourage people to raise their hands and ask for help if they are stuck, unsure of what to do, and have questions about how to do their job. Providing outside resources, as well as offering training and coaching, are super helpful.
Next is what is the responsibility of the manager. Managers in rapidly growing startups have to evolve and grow as fast as the business. This can have the effect of creating stress, and that stress can impact one's mental health. While my personal experience suggests that making time to do things you enjoy outside of work can help reduce feelings of burnout, there are two things that you can do within the confines of your job to help, too.
The first is finding an internal peer set to help foster collaboration and generate new perspectives. Your peer group should ideally consist of folks at the same level of seniority who sit on different teams. Peer groups are helpful because they act as a sounding board, provide you with access to diverse perspectives, and deliver insight regarding how various teams work together to support the larger organization.
The second way to help manage stress while on the job is to identify and develop a relationship with a mentor. Mentors differ from peers. Ideally, a mentor is someone who is a couple of levels further along in their career and is well poised to offer guidance and help connect you with experiences and knowledge that will positively impact your development. Mentors provide specific leadership perspectives, honed through experience, which helps you learn, grow, and develop as a leader in your own right.
Lastly- and maybe most importantly - regularly check in with yourself. Personally, I like to write to check in with myself because it helps clear my mind and often reveals unconscious patterns and ideas.
The best way to improve your mental health (as it relates to work) is to be good at your job, as it breeds confidence, and the best way to foster confidence is to learn, and apply what you learn, to your job. Continuously. It's a virtuous cycle. Doing something you like and are good at is a recipe for good mental health.
If you are looking for additonal resources for Mental Health As a Manager, check out the resources below.