This year, I celebrate 15 years operating as a manager, in one form or another. I am by no means an expert, I certainly wouldn’t be the sort of person to conduct high-priced seminars that espouse "empowerment" or "entrepreneurism". I’ve had the luxury of having some really good managers over the years, who were solid mentors, able to point out what it would take to guide others, to handle problems practically, and offer feedback in constructive ways.
My many years of not being stuck in the weeds has also allowed me to look around at those with similar roles, and see how they approach the same challenges. The ability to talk to them, to see the results of their labours, to hear from those they manage also lets me get a better idea of what I’m doing right, and where I can improve. That’s given me a strong sense of what makes a good manager.
Like I said, I ain’t perfect. But if your manager fails any of the following, they’re doing it wrong.
Management is a tough gig. Well, good management, anyway. Our popular culture is replete with examples of terrible ones, from Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss to The Office’s David Brent/Michael Scott to Office Space’s Bill Lumbergh. Sure, there’s also some examples of good managers, but they don’t stand out as well as the bad ones. And that’s telling — bad managers stand out, hurting like the hammered thumb. They hurt for a simple reason: their impact is damaging to individuals on their team, to the dynamics of their team, and to the dynamics of other teams that interact with theirs.
Managers Come Last
So many times have I see situations where a manager accepts the success and praise for work that someone on their team delivered. It’s bad enough when it’s a group of peers (like a manager’s meeting), but it’s a straight-up insult when that person is also present. It’s my single biggest pet peeve with management: taking credit for others’ work.
Some people get into management because they like the thought of power, of being the one in control, of directing the big show and delivering the great success. The reality couldn’t be further removed: a good manager is someone who supports the team from sinking into the muck, opens the doors to dangerous places and walks in first to discover the traps that lie within, duels with the dragons that threaten the team and its success, tends to the weak and injured to bring them back to health, finds new comrades for their cohort, all the while remaining invisible until needed.
In short: stow the ego, manager. This is about your team, not about you. If your team can’t shine, you won’t either.
Micro-Management Never Works
I’ve seen my share of micro-managers. I’ve had the ones who dictated the approach to a solution; I’ve seen the ones who lean over shoulders, seizing mouse and keyboard, saying "just let me in here a moment". It’s the worst example of control: a manager who doesn’t trust in their own people. As a manager, you have to accept that your team is not going to do something the way you would do something. It doesn’t matter if you like that or not, what matters is that your team feels empowered to do the work without interference.
Bonsai trees are a wonder of Asian culture: perfect, living miniatures of full-grown bushes and trees. In reality, they’re stunted aberrations, constantly retarded in growth by their owners who repeatedly prune and restrict. As gorgeous as they may appear, the plant itself will never grow to its potential. Instead of treating your staff as tiny plants, let them loose in the rainforest, and monitor the fires that threaten to burn them. You’ll find they grow to heights you can’t imagine.
So here’s rub: If you don’t trust your team to do the work, odds are they won’t do it. They’ll resent your involvement, and pile all the work back on you. Or worse, quit, and you’re having to start all over again. Next thing you know, you’re doing the work of the team, and I won’t have to tell you twice that you’ll be sorely wishing you had someone who could do all that work.
In short: if you can’t trust in your team, the fault isn’t with the team.
Develop Your Team
Following on the heels of letting the trees grow in the forest, you really need to take a position of a cultivator, not a harvester. The success of a manager is your team, so you’d better make sure it’s the best possible team it can be. Any team that doesn’t operate well, falls. I’ve been through enough (formal) training to know the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing thing, and I’ve been through all four stages with multiple teams. The worst part, hands down, is the Norming.
Yes, I said Norming: the part where you figure out where everyone fits into the picture so that everyone can start finding their groove. It’s a subtle step, and one that is grossly overlooked. A lot of managers either believe their constantly Storming (with personality clashes) or Performing (their teams are good); in my experience, Performing only comes with structure and planning, and Storming only really happens if the manager isn’t paying attention.
Your team succeeds as a group, and it fails because of individuals. A single person who is unwilling to work in a team, or is oblivious to the team’s needs, isn’t a risk — they’re a bucket of water on a fire. That single person can kill relationships, murder creativity, and slaughter enthusiasm. It’s the manager’s responsibility — for the benefit of the team — to coach that person and bring up their abilities, or remove them entirely.
In short: Cultivate your team to grow the best apples, ever; but make sure the one bad apple doesn’t spoil the batch.
All For One, One For All
Your team is a forest make of individuals: when the individuals are strong, the team is strong. When someone weakens, they can be like their arboreal counterpart and weaken the rest around them. As much as you need to watch your team, you need to care for the people in it, too.
One person can become significantly overburdened and stressed, another can become overly negative because they’re overlooked, another could be bored and uninterested in working. These sorts of behaviours can lead to extreme behavioural problems that must be addressed for the sake of your team: the diseased tree will infect those around them.
A good manager will identify those individuals who require help, even those who claim they don’t need it, and work with them to return to strength. Doing so shows care for the individual, an acknowledgement of that individual’s part in the team and their contributions, and letting the team know that its overall health is assured.
In short: Don’t forsake the team for a single person who needs attention.
Management Has Many Partners
(Almost) No team ever works alone. (Almost) Every team works with other teams to achieve a goal. And as a result, any good working relationship is pretty much akin to a marriage: partners who are willing to live together under the same roof, for better or for worse, through thick and thin. They have to be willing to listen to one another, to speak their mind without fear of retribution, to know that concerns are heard so that things can be handled. Arguments will happen, but in the end everyone walks away, hand in hand. Of course, because (almost) every team works with other teams plural, this marriage is ... well, polyamorous.
That means that the managers need to not only recognize that there are many partners in the same bed, but everyone needs attention. This — and I know the metaphor is well-entrenched at this point, so I do apologize for the statement coming next — is where things get uncomfortable.
One-to-one relationships are infinitely easier to manage. When you stray into multiple-sided relationships, the fairness isn’t as clear, and can very easily become lop-sided, with one partner taking more from multiple partners than they give back. As a manager, it’s a recognition of unfairness, and knowing that — if not resolved — that unfairness will one day come back to haunt you. Understanding your partners’ needs will help ensure an even playing ground, and build up those all-important karma points for the days when you might need to call in that all-important favour.
There is, however, an insightful portion to the equation as well: knowing that not all marriages are equal, and where you sit in that relationship. There will always be situations where one partner must come before others, for a litany of reasons (such as politics, inexperience, incorrect analysis, poor communication), and trying force a different scenario leads only to trouble. Off-set relationships lead to disagreements, and ultimately failure when the other partner(s) become(s) unable to address the concerns adequately.
In short: Knowing what value you and your partner(s) bring(s) to a relationship is often more important than what the relationship produces.
First Line of Defence, Last One Standing
The role of a manager is beset on all sides by the inequity of reality: people need things done, and your team is the one in the way. Whether it’s in the way for the right reasons (delivering the answer) or the wrong reasons (the figurative scrapegoat) isn’t the issue — it’s where the manager stands as part of that line of fire.
As mentioned in Managers Come Last, a manager stands at the front of their team, with a shield, to deflect the things that distract a team from doing their jobs. The manager addresses the issues, and either removes them as concerns or ensures that they’re dealt with directly and consistently. That line of defence keeps teams focuses from unnecessary distractions, and from the periodic hurtfulness that sometimes comes around.
There’s also a flip-side: covering your team’s butt. Like it or not, vacations and illness will happen, people will move on. If you’re not taking that into account, your team is doomed to hit that very uncomfortable bump on the road that sends your proverbial car airborne, destined to land in very bumpy ways. The only way to ensure that your car’s trip is as soft as possible is to make sure there’s shock absorbers: redundancy.
Any good manager will build redundancy into their team, and make sure that there’s a primary and a secondary for nearly every task. That doesn’t mean that there’s perfect redundancy (that’s not only expensive, but difficult beyond most reasonable expectations), but functional redundancy: your team can continue in the short-term until a person returns, or a replacement is found. And in the event if Real Disaster™, it’s the manager who should fulfill that role.
I personally don’t expect any manager to be a perfect backfill for anyone. But I do expect a considerate amount of understanding of what happens within their team. Does that mean things get resolved at the same pace? No. But it should mean that serious issues don’t hold the team up as a whole, or lead to team failures. In the end, any competent manager should have enough knowledge to at least understand the challenge of a given role within their team, if not backfill it for a short period of time.
In short: If you don’t understand your team and what they do, you’ve already failed.
I won’t lie, there are days I wish I wasn’t a manager. I wish I was in the corner, working on just what I needed to work on, and doing nothing else, worrying about no-one else. But the reality is that I’ve been there, and I’ve seen what happens with teams that don’t get the support they need. It’s why I ended up doing what I do — to help others be better at what they do, so teams can be better.
I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be paid to talk about my experience, but hopefully a few pointers help others be better managers. Because if we have better managers, we can all be better people.