I am not your obvious figure of authority. I am too short, for a start. And I like discussing diets and ovulation cycles

4th April 2003 at 01:00
I had to manage someone not too long ago. I had to ask them if they had done something and, if they hadn't, find out why. Complicated. Far too many scenarios and not enough time to rehearse all the options in the bathroom mirror. I was a few months into my new job and had just about memorised the names of my form in alphabetical order so I didn't need to look down when taking the register. Still jubilant at the amount of money I was getting from that extra management point, I soon realised that being a second-in-department wasn't just about taking minutes in meetings and nodding wisely whenever my head of department said anything. I had to manage as well.

I had always thought managers were people who managed better than others.

They were the kind who managed to leave the house looking groomed and impeccable without a piece of buttered toast stuck to their bum. They managed to get through meetings without falling asleep, and managed to avoid having a nervous breakdown if the chocolate machine wasn't working.

But I've realised managing is not just about managing yourself. It's more tricky than that; it's about managing other people. To do this, you need to have some confidence in your own abilities. You need to manage to sound vaguely authoritative even when you haven't got the faintest idea what's going on. I am not your obvious figure of authority. I am too short, for a start. I like discussing diets and ovulation cycles. I am too ready to divulge the underwear secrets of my husband in the middle of a girlie chat in the staffroom.

Most scary for me, the people I have to manage are all vastly older and more experienced than me. My parents didn't go in for imparting wisdom, but they were hot on respecting your elders. I was never allowed to have the last word. I should never be sitting if an older person was standing.

Except in the cinema and in the doctor's waiting room. I find it difficult to shake this off, so I approached my earliest management opportunities with extreme caution.

Having only ever been managed myself, I struggled to make that transition to managing others. I was convinced it would involve a confrontation and everyone would hate me and not let me sit with them in the staffroom. My mum, who's spent 30 years managing my dad, let me in on some secrets: keep it short, agree with everything, and always bring biscuits and coffee. Not the greatest start for my management career, as I realised later, although the biscuits and coffee seemed to work well.

As I've progressed, I've grown more comfortable in my new role. I'm not terrified of expressing an opinion that might lead to lively debate. I've realised that differing with others doesn't automatically lead to confrontation. Some might even call disagreement "healthy" - a new concept for me, and one I reported back to my mum with interest.

I've a little more faith in my career experiences, even though my life experiences may be less broad than those of some of my colleagues. Could I dare to say I'm developing my own management style? I hope so. And don't worry - there's still scope to discuss weight loss, however far up the ladder you climb.

Gemma Warren is an assistant special needs co-ordinator at a London secondary school. Email: gemmablaker@hotmail.com

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