Ship's Captain

 

March 7th, 2018

 

At 26, I became the General Manager of a two-story restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Overnight I gained responsibility for the livelihoods of 80 employees and had to manage millions of dollars in annual sales. It sounds impressive, but I was in over my head. Most days, it took everything in my power just to keep the place afloat, let alone lead the staff towards bigger and better things. I used to imagine the restaurant as an enormous ship: bystanders on the shore would look at the ship in the distance and comment on how beautiful and impressive it was, but underneath the tranquil surface it was full of holes, and inside the hull I sat alone, sopping wet, dredging up buckets of water all day and night to prevent it from sinking.

After a year, the restaurant group hired a consultant to come and work with their GMs.  The aim was to teach the team how to utilize a cost-management software, which required extensive set-up and ongoing input to be effective. Some managers protested, insisting the system was unnecessary, but I recognized that I needed this guidance, and fully bought in, thirsty for insight and information. I gradually became empowered thanks to the knowledge this consultant shared.

As the months passed, I spent less time putting out fires, and more time being a leader. Service began to improve, the restaurant was in great condition for the Department of Health, and I knew exactly what my numbers were and how to manage them. When I turned 28, I had earned the title of General Manager, and garnered the loyalty and respect of my team.

But you would never know it from the way I spoke.  

Perhaps it was because I started out so under-qualified, or because I’ve always had an aversion to confrontation, but without exaggeration, I must have apologized twenty times a day.  Every interaction was like a delicate dance, where I tried to get what I needed out of staff members or lower management, without making them feel like they were following the orders of a woman under thirty who looks like she’s sixteen:

“I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind…”

“Will you do me a huge favor and…”

“I’m sorry to have to ask you, but will you please…”

But I wasn’t asking for favors. I wasn’t inconveniencing anyone. I was simply doing my job by asking them to do theirs.

One of the most jarring moments of unnecessary apologizing was when I started interviewing new General Managers to fill open positions within the group. The managers I brought in were often twice my age, with twice as much as experience.  Upon meeting me in person, after ongoing email communication and a phone screen, some candidates couldn’t contain themselves: “You’re Alexa? You are the GM here?” I would then transition into my well-practiced apology dance:

“I’m sorry, I know I look young.  One of the greatest things about working for this group is that they invest in their good people. I’m very lucky they took a chance on me and gave me this opportunity at a such a young age.”

After this, the seasoned manager who I was meant to be interviewing, would accept my apology and give me advice on how to do my job, recommending vendors they were sure I’d never heard of, and filling me in on some tips and tricks of the trade. Of course, they were rarely able to answer my questions regarding cost of goods sold and budget management, but that did little to instill confidence in my qualifications after I had led the conversation with an apology.

One of the biggest things I've learned as an apology-addicted Lady Boss is that the apology perpetuates the perception.  When we say we're sorry for something we have no reason to be sorry for, we jeopardize our own authority; we allow people to believe that they are doing us a favor instead of respecting our position of power. 

These days, I still catch myself apologizing for no reason. Maybe I say I’m sorry ten times a day rather than twenty, but that’s progress. But now, when I meet someone for an interview, and they look at me, mouth agape, and ask if I’m really the General Manager, my answer is “Yes I am. And I will be making this hiring decision.”

Alexa Mullen