How to Be a Relatable Leader

Yellow Co Blog: being the best supervisor
I felt like I was an intern forever.

Every summer in college was another one I spent writing cover letters and going to interviews and passing out smiles and handshakes like they were free, because they were (sort of like my labor).

I interned with five different organizations before I graduated and got my first full time job in Los Angeles.

Honestly, I thought I’d had enough of the whole being-a-student thing.

Then I became a supervisor. All of a sudden, I was expected to know things. Like how to deal with crises and media inquiries and advertising agencies that won’t stop calling. Like how to work the demon-possessed fax machine and where to find that check request form the Finance Department insists I use.

Even how to lead another person, who might even be older than me.

No one prepared me for this.

I look at my current intern, and I remember what it was like when I was in her shoes only a few years ago, when my then-boss was content to give me only the busywork that seems in some ways to be a rite of passage.

And after stumbling through my first few supervising experiences, I’ve realized if I’m going to become the kind of teacher I wished I had, I’m going to have to remember what it was like to be the student.

Yellow Co. blog: being a stellar boss. Here are a few points I use to remind me how to be a leader who can relate and empathize with those I’m teaching:
1. The I-Don’t-Know-BUT

Confession: I’m really good at convincing myself that I know everything until it’s painfully obvious that I don’t.

When I was an intern, my favorite supervisors were the ones who not only asked to hear my ideas and opinions, but also genuinely cared about them. But when I became “the boss,” I began to realize how tempting it is to close myself off from other opinions.

A few days ago, my intern asked me a really good question about social media strategy. I’ve lived practically half my life saturated in social media, so much so that it’s now my full-time job, and I sat there thinking that I would like nothing better than to talk my way out of admitting that I didn’t know the answer.

Instead I told her, “That’s a great question, and… I don’t actually know. But let’s talk about it.”

In telling her “I don’t know BUT…” I wanted her to hear that I’m on her team and she’s on mine, and we can have conversations where she’s empowered to contribute rather than be lectured. It’s a great reminder that I don’t and will never have all the answers. Shockingly enough, just because I’m no longer an intern doesn’t mean the learning stops.

2. “Yes” Syndrome

When it comes to taking on more responsibility, I’ve never been good at saying no, even if it means I slowly break myself trying to do everything. Coincidentally (or not?), this is also a pattern I have noticed repeatedly in interns I’ve supervised.

If we say yes to everything, we will be known for nothing.
-Jeff Shinabarger

Every time I become a yes-woman, I create another monster in my life that I can’t slay because it only answers to a two-letter word that I never learned how to say. I should have learned it when I was an intern, but I thought it was expected of me to say yes to everything. That’s what you’re there for, right? To say yes, and do all the things? Yes, pilgrimage to Staples. Yes, I’ll clean out the storage closet. When I said yes, I meant, please remember me.

Now I see interns bending over backwards trying to please everyone. The thing is, we shouldn’t have to say yes to everything to be remembered. At this past year’s Yellow Conference, Jeff Shinabarger (author of Yes or No and founder of Plywood People) said, “If we say yes to everything, we will be known for nothing.”

I’m not saying that I think interns should only do the projects that they want to do. Nobody has that luxury, and of course there are appropriate times and places for saying no.

I am saying that, as a supervisor, I’m interested in what would happen if I respected their time as much as I guard my own. What if rather than asking them to prove themselves to me, I stood in their corner from the start What if I could show them how to appropriately say no by learning to say it myself?

3. Build the Room

When I was an intern, the best supervisors I had were the ones who didn’t just provide me with the space to do things in an unconventional way, but also expected me to think outside the box.

So maybe your company isn’t used to letting interns take the lead. That’s fine. But when you build the room for creativity, and let interns fill it with their wonderful, weird, wild ideas… you might just decide to live there for a while, too. And fill that space right along with them. Build the room.

When I was an intern, the best supervisors I had were the ones who didn’t just provide me with the space to do things in an unconventional way, but also expected me to think outside the box.

I once interned at a start-up creative agency that would pull the entire staff into a tiny room with four chairs, a table, and a sofa shoved into the corner, and we would sit practically on top of each other and wouldn’t come out until every person had gotten the chance to share every half-decent idea in their head.  Even the totally not-decent ideas got thrown around. No one was made fun of, and no one laughed at the interns when we said we wanted to play a worldwide game of telephone and film it.

yellow co. blog: tips for being a stellar supervisorWe threw it in the pile. We wrote it on the whiteboard. We doodled rocket ships and film canisters and telegrams. And we—interns and supervisors together—tried to figure out how it would work…
It didn’t end up working. But it did lead to another idea, and another idea, and that idea became something great, and if we hadn’t built the room, it might never have existed.

Letting our experiences as interns, students, or employees can shape the way we lead and teach, if we let it. Learn from your experiences and grow from what you don’t think worked, and glean from what you enjoyed most.

Photos by Haley George

Samantha Chaffin

Founder at Her Inklings