Anne-Marie Slaughter is the author of the new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family and the President and CEO of New America. She also wrote "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," which is the most read article in the history of the Atlantic's website. Here, she talks to Lenny editor in chief Jessica Grose about her worst work blunder, and how she recovered.
When I was 42, I became dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. At that time, the Woodrow Wilson School had 300 students, 70 faculty members, and 100 staffers. Before I got that job, the biggest thing I'd run was Harvard's international legal-studies program, which had a staff of four within a program of 150 foreign-law students. It was a huge jump, though I'd been teaching for 12 years. I'd read in some manual for CEOs that if you're going to change personnel — if you're going to fire people — you should do so within the first three months. That's the right time frame because it will be clear you're making room for your own people.
The Woodrow Wilson School was definitely in need of renewal, but not everyone in the school believed that. Because I read that book I thought: I'm going to have to be the one to do this. I'd never fired anyone before, and by the end of the first week, two people had resigned based on my conversations with them. Maybe you should not wait until after the first three months, but the first week is too soon. I immediately made enemies I didn't need to make and I sent the impression I wasn't going to get to know the place before making changes. It made me seem imperial at best and completely clueless at worst.
And so — that was my mistake. I literally created a situation that made my job a whole lot harder than it needed to be. I was a brand-new leader. It was not necessarily a mistake to make those changes, but the way I did it was wrong.
How did I recover? I had one experience where I thought I was going to have to go crawling back to Harvard Law School. It was essentially an awful lot of building bridges to people I shouldn't have had to build bridges to and trying to heal divisions. Some were never repaired, frankly. I was too green to even know that once the damage was done, it couldn't be undone. That's my mantra overall: you can't repair until you recognize. It helped that the president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, really stuck by me. She must have been horrified! She chose me, she brought me in from outside, but she never suggested she'd lost confidence in me.
I have entered two organizations since then, and my mantra still is that you should make the changes reasonably early on, but in the first three-to-six months. If you're brand-new to an organization, it can take up to six months to understand fully the lay of the land. You want as full a picture as possible before you make decisive action.
All that said, managing people is still by far the hardest thing I have to do. Finding people, holding on to people, making your expectations clear. I find it easier to be a leader than a manager, and the skills and attributes that can make you a good leader — vision, charisma, and energy are great at setting direction — don't always translate to knowing when to follow up and stay ahead of the game.
–As told to Jessica Grose