I’ve been managing business professionals for several years now. At the start, I managed the boots on the ground. Over time, as we’ve (Deacom) grown as a company, many more layers have been added. With few exceptions, I am now several layers of management removed from the boots on the ground — which I honestly have mixed feelings about at times. Either way, I’m not here to say that what I do is right or that everyone else should lead and advance the same way I have. I am merely here to share some of my approach that has worked well for me in recent years, and if that helps anyone, then fantastic.
(1) Be a Human
People want to be managed by someone they respect as a person and as a leader. People want to look up the chain and respect what they see. This means being empathetic, being a good support system, and yes — rewarding people the way you would expect to be rewarded for your efforts.
Years ago, when I was first managing a few software developers, I had a reputation as a bit of a hothead. I was trying to make a name for myself in a new role. I was the young guy in charge and wanted everyone to respect me. Unfortunately, this led me into the starkly common trap that many managers run into.
Barking orders and talking down does not earn respect, even if people (begrudgingly) do what you tell them to do.
My management style started to change when I got my first two weeks’ notice. I had been very rough on a senior developer. We had an aspect of our product that didn’t work and was causing issues for our customers, and this developer was responsible for that segment of the application at the time. Was I right to be upset? Absolutely. Was the right answer to vent my frustration to the guy in email form on his day off? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t appreciate it and neither did he. Granted, you have to make mistakes and learn from them to get better, I still look back on many of my early mistakes with regret.
So, how do you avoid the trap? Easy.. Just be the person you would like to report to.
This can mean:
- Asking how you can help your employees reach their goals. My go-to in interviews is “interview me.” My go-to in performance reviews is “what more do you need out of me.” Management is a support role, never forget that.
- Rewarding and recognizing, not just financially, but also through simple gestures: with a hand written note, a bottle of wine, a public announcement, whatever it takes to make sure people understand that they are valued.
- Empathizing with an employee’s current work load and overall life situation.
Overall, just put
yourself in the shoes of others and remember that your fancy title doesn’t make
you better than anyone. An organization needs everyone bought in and marching
forwards to be successful. That is.. Unless you want to do all of the work yourself
rather than with a team.
(2) Replace Yourself
As I’ve moved from managing doers, to managing managers of doers, to managing managers of managers, I’ve noticed some trends. One interested tidbit that sort of amazed me at first but now makes glaring sense is: someone that is an effective manager of doers is not necessarily an effective manager of managers. The two roles require different skills.
I’ve always sought to replace myself. I’m generally lazy and I like variety in life, so I need new challenges to solve in order to keep things interesting. Therefore, I need managers that are good at managing managers as well as doers.
Here’s how I constantly replace myself by growing managers:
- (2.1) Coach, Don’t Solve – Managing doers is quite a bit easier than managing managers. When you’re managing the boots on the ground, you need to come up with the plan and make sure the plan is executed on time using least cost resources. When you’re managing managers, you need to teach people to come up with the plan. Not just any plan — the right plan. No open book tests can be allowed when a manager comes to you looking for an answer.
I tell my management team, “Don’t bring me a problem that you haven’t attempted to solve.” It’s actually quite similar to what I used to tell my developers — “If you’re going to ask for help on a coding problem, I need to see Google/StackOverflow up when I walk over.” Managers need to be able to come up with a plan in a pressure situation. Being that person is half the battle, the other half being a good talent developer. While it might make you feel like the bigshot-genius to always have the answers, solving rather than coaching will limit the growth and development of your direct reports and therefore limit your ceiling.
- (2.2) Give “Dual Feedback” – Remember, most people that you give feedback to have a job they’re doing now and a job they want to do later. For some of them, that job they want later is your job — and you should hope that they earn it. The biggest mistake here can be seeing your employees as competition and therefore holding them back by not giving them the keys they need for success.
I coach people with “Dual Feedback.” This means, you need to give people feedback for the job they do now. You also need to give them feedback that relates what they’re doing now to what they would need to improve on to handle the job they want. Everyone has hopes and dreams, and only giving feedback predicated on what people are doing today will keep them in their current spot and potentially cause long term negative turnover.
- (2.3) Get Peoples’ “Take” – I like to get peoples’ opinion on decisions I’m making, emails I’m sending, or whatever else I’m doing on an average day. Usually, I feel as though I already have it figured out. The exercise sometimes nets some useful feedback, sure, but that’s not primarily why you do it. The goal is three-fold: 1) you get someone involved — helping improve buy in and your approach-ability, 2) you get to see how someone would handle a situation in your shoes which can be a valuable coaching opportunity, and finally 3) you might get some useful feedback that alters your plan. Either way, with the exception of a little lost time now, soliciting the opinion of your team on decisions you are making is a no-lose move.
Don’t be greedy with
your role and responsibilities, don’t job-hoard. If you want to do more in the
future, you need to stop what you’re doing now, and that means coaching so you
can replace yourself long term.
(3) Constant Feedback
If you’re currently a manager, how long has it been since you’ve talked to each of your direct reports? Of your last conversations, how many concerned their work and what they need to do to move forward in their career?
If the answer to these questions is longer than a week or two, you’ve got a problem. Your problem is either too many direct reports (we could have a whole different dialog on the rule of sevens and the overly-flat org chart) or too much of a hands-off management style.
Having conversations with employees about their performance is hard, which is why it can be easy to simply budget twice a year to have these chats: mid-year and year end. The problem is, while it’s easy in the short term, it’s harder in the long run. Not addressing performance immediately is unfair to the employee, it’s unfair to you, and it’s unfair to the company.
- Employee – Employees need and expect to understand where they stand. They’ll take no news as good news, and if there’s no feedback (good or bad) they will keep doing what they’re doing and potentially get complacent. Surprising an employee during the year end process is uncomfortable and unfair. Surprising an employee with a termination process can actually be the catalyst for something that’s already awful being much, much worse for all involved. Employees should never be surprised, and if you’re doing your job as a manager, every move will be expected and understood.
- Yourself / Your Company – Your goal is probably to make your employees better so you can advance further. See: “Replace Yourself” above. That’s not going to happen without the right feedback at the right time. Also, from a company standpoint, your job is to maximize the performance of your employees for the overall efficiency of the business. Businesses that need to overstaff to keep up due to inefficient employees cannot compensate the way that they would (probably) like to. This can create an endless cycle of turnover and malcontent that can destroy a business culturally from within.
Overall, if you want to be a good manager it’s really not that hard. Act with authority but compassion. Think about what your superiors see in you, but also what those on your team think of your leadership. Figure out how to grow people, replace yourself, and then teach those people how to grow people as well.