I was the grand old age of 24 when I was first made a manager, and - no bones about it - I was genuinely bad. Having come from a family where sarcasm was banned, not only did I take myself far too seriously, I actually couldn't tell a joke from an insult. As a result, I spent half of my time feeling insecure, and the other half feeling offended. I was also a bit of a tyrant: because so much of my self worth was tied up in what I produced, rather than who I was as a person, that came through in my management style.
Thankfully for me (and for everyone who has ever worked for me since then), the school of hard knocks delivered me a couple of roundhouses to the heart, and I found my empathy, which, you know, is kind of essential for leading people. Since then, being a manager has been an ongoing lesson in humanity - both my own and others - and humility (or, humiliation, depending on the day) as I continue to learn new things.
Want to kick butt as a manager? Adopt the following approaches:
1. Be confident about what you do and don’t know, while staying across “who knows what” in your team.
Organisations are structured so that different roles are across different levels of detail. That means that you don’t need to know the finer points of everything that’s going on in your department, but you do need to know who you can find out more about it from.
It’s a screaming indicator of insecurity when a manager lives down in the detail of their staff’s work. Your staff might not be as blunt as me, but rest assured, they hate that approach. You’re getting them off side, while neglecting your actual job. No one is winning, here.
Check out my article “New Manager? Mistakes you’ll be tempted to make right away,” to find out how you can respond when you’re asked about a level of detail that you’re not across.
2. Perfectionism will paralyze output, so be pragmatic instead.
“Near enough” really is “good enough” most of the time (unless you’re giving legal advice or doing brain surgery. Near enough is not good enough then). If you keep aiming for perfection or something close to it, you’re going to take far too long to get things done, and that will annoy everyone far more.
3. You need to let people do their jobs, while enabling them to do their jobs, while holding them accountable for doing their jobs.
Let: Don’t dip down or re-do their work. Your staff should have clear areas of responsibility that they actually get to take full responsibility for.
Enable: As a manager, your job is to remove the obstacles that prevent your staff from getting things done.
Hold accountable: People will take you seriously when you take them seriously. If they say that they’re going to do something by a certain date and to a certain standard, you’re entitled to take them at their word. And if it is not delivered, you’re entitled to ask why and express that the non-delivery (or the non-communication about the non-delivery) isn’t acceptable.
4. You are human. You have flaws that will impact other people. Be strategic about mitigating the effects of these flaws.
Repeat after me: I am human. As such, you need to know that you have both strong and underdeveloped ways of doing things that impact other people.
- Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are (take a CliftonStrengths assessment);
- Invite feedback on what other people notice your strengths and weaknesses to be;
- Accept yourself, and be self-forgiving rather than self-flagellating; and
- Do whatever you reasonably can to mitigate the impact of your weaknesses on other people.
For example, I find administrative tasks particularly burdensome (don’t even get me started on how I feel about filling in forms), so I avoid them like the plague... Which would be a real issue for everyone that I work with if I didn’t mitigate that quirk by finding someone in my team who likes administrative tasks, and who is happy to take them on so that things keep moving.
I once gave a team of mine “The Guide to Hacking Anna” so they knew precisely what they could and couldn’t expect from me, and how to get what they needed.
5. You do not have the monopoly on good ideas. So, don't act like you do.
People will love you and give you enormous amounts of respect if you’re able to facilitate their great ideas. That doesn’t mean that all of their great ideas will get to come to fruition just yet, but if you have to say no to someone’s idea, then give them an explanation as to why. As a manager, you’ll have (or should have!) far more context about organisational strategy than your staff will, and it’s important that whatever they’re suggesting is sense-checked by you against what you know about that organisational strategy.
6. Do not agree to deliver additional outcomes without receiving additional resources or renegotiating previously agreed priorities.
If you’ve got a great idea that needs additional resources or additional budget in order to be delivered, and someone approves the idea but not the resources or the budget, then say that you can not deliver it or negotiate something else that can be left by the wayside.
A finite amount of time and money and brains can only produce a finite number of outcomes. Do not let yourself become the schmuck working all hours of the night because you didn’t know how to set realistic expectations. Do not be the schmuck who thinks that he’s going to be rewarded for all of this unnecessary effort. We are given the respect that we give to ourselves, so respect yourself enough to advocate for what you need.
7. Expect to fail from time to time, and get over it when you do. Apologise unselfconsciously (but sincerely) and move on.
I’ve had some epic failures in my time - things that lacked any form of sober-minded judgement, and which, in hindsight, I would not do again. However! I’m human, and what’s done is done. I apologised, I learnt the lesson, I got back up, and I kept going. What more could anyone else ask of us? We’re human and failure is inevitable, so do what you can with it.
8. Do what you say you will do. And if you can’t do that, then, as soon as possible, renegotiate what you’ve said that you will do.
People will forgive you renegotiating a deadline, but not if you attempt to do that just before it is due. Have the courtesy to forecast ahead, and, depending on the size of the task, give an appropriate amount of notice.
9. Apologise when you inconvenience the people working for you.
Inconveniencing your team is one of the inevitabilities of being a manager. If you apologise, and don’t make a habit out of it, people will forgive you. If you apologise, and then keep doing it, you will quickly lose any respect you may have already gathered because your apology is (apparently) insincere.
To be completely clear: do not be the manager that constantly reschedules meetings with his staff. You’re communicating that they are not important. That makes you look like a jerk, which I’m sure you’re actually not.
10. Create space for people to be utterly genuine, but know what you can and can’t provide.
You’re working with people, not robots (okay, you might also be working with robots, but you’re managing people). Routinely ask your team members how they feel, really. And create space to hear the answer, while knowing that you don’t need to fix it. Some of it you may be able to fix. But it’s actually often just in the fact that we were sincerely asked and made space for, that we experience care and respect.
11. End every meeting with a staff member by asking, “Do you need anything from me?”
This approach became a game changer in my role as a manager. Once I started doing this, several things happened:
- My team knew I was serious in my expressed care for them, which made it a lot easier for them to care about me. Our relationships became very reciprocal;
- I started getting genuine, and extraordinarily useful, feedback; and
- I started hearing about interpersonal issues before they escalated into conflict.
This question also provided a platform for me to express what I needed from my staff, in a way that didn’t feel threatening or conflictual (because what I need isn’t about them or their performance - it’s about me).