Paula Singer | Crain's Pittsburgh

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Paula Singer

Background:  

Laureate’s network of nearly 70 campus-based and online universities in 25 countries offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs to over 1 million students worldwide. Paula Singer recently celebrated her 24th year with the Baltimore-based organization, and previously served as chief executive officer of global products and services.

The Mistake:

Your biggest mistake is always an interesting question because people make mistakes all the time, and that’s the way you learn. A mistake that I made early in my career, that made me stop and think about things a bit differently, happened when I was a young regional manager for a learning center business. I was in my mid-20s, and I was opening a brand new region. I had to hire a whole new team and get them trained and ready. It was my first big management job, and the first time I had that many people reporting to me.

It was a startup and we couldn’t afford to have turnover — I really needed to get this right, right from the beginning, so we could meet expectations. I went ahead and I hired people and I did everything I needed to do. But within the first six months I lost two of my best people, people I was counting on. That put reaching our expectations at risk, and it put me at risk.

As I sat back and was able to reflect on it, and after talking to the two people who left, I realized that it was my fault. What I had done as an inexperienced manager was make some assumptions that were inappropriate. I assumed that I should treat my people the way I would want to be treated. I was sort of using the golden rule: Do unto others as you would want them to do to you. I assumed my employees needed the same things I needed, which was clear expectations and the freedom to get the work done.

When those two people left — one because I had to let them go, the other because she was unhappy with the role — I found out that I had made a big mistake. Both of these people were leaving basically because I had not taken the time to understand what they needed to be successful.

So why do you have failures? It’s always management’s fault.

The Lesson:

With the person I had to let go, I realized she needed me to meet with her more regularly. I didn’t give her the mentorship she needed. With the person who left of her own accord, I realized that she needed more personal time. She was very experienced and didn’t need me to tell her how to do things, but she needed to know that she had me as an advocate, and that there was more of a personal relationship there.

I realized that the golden rule I was using needed to be adjusted for managing people — do unto others as they want to be treated. At first I started by trying to listen very carefully and figure out the people, then I realized that all I had to do was ask. I got into the habit of saying to folks, “Here are the things I need for you to be successful working with me. What do I need to do to help you be successful? How can I help be that resource for you? What is it that you need?”

From that moment on, I developed a philosophy that I’ve taken with me. If an employee doesn’t make it, it’s always management’s fault. I’ve never met an employee that when you hire them, and they accept the job, they think, “Wow, I can’t wait to get there and fail.” They never think that. They want to go and be fantastic and do the work.

So why do you have failures? It’s always management’s fault. You either didn’t hire the right person because you didn’t understand the job and what they needed; you didn’t train them correctly; or, like I did, you didn’t give them the proper environment for them to succeed on a daily basis.

When you really take the time to personalize your approach and work with those who report directly to you, and you try to help them not just do well for the company, but do well for themselves, you’ll build a lot of loyalty. A lot of loyalty between the company and the employee, and the employee and the company. That was a very valuable lesson for me, and something I think about on an ongoing basis as I work with people.

Laureate Education is on Twitter at @LaureateIntlU.

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