Over the years, I have had people ask me for advice about management and they ask me about how to be a good manager. Instead of giving this information out individually, I figure a post might be more useful to more people. I am by no means an expert at managing nor am I perfect. I have been managing for eight years and reading about managing for 20+ years though, so I have a decent number of mistakes under my belt that maybe other people can avoid. Anyways, enough rambling let’s get into the meat of it.
I pay particular attention to the following four basics of managing a team:
- Regular 1:1s – These meetings should be viewed as almost sacred. Yes, you will have to cancel them or move them occasionally, but try not to make it a regular occurrence. I remember being told that a 1:1 is the easiest time for an employee to have time with a manager but not vice versa. This makes sense to me because as a manager part of your job is to talk to your team whenever. The team might not feel like they can always do that with you (even if you try to be the most accessible person in the world). I try not to make these status meetings. Instead, I try to check in with team members to get a pulse on how they are doing.
- Setting a team direction/vision/long-term goals – Every team I have been a part of, or led, wanted to know what the point was of their work and what the general direction was of the team. This goes from big to small teams. Most people want to know that their work matters and that they are being useful. Part of our jobs as managers is to step back and tie the work done by individuals into a cohesive vision.
- Taking care of the team’s health – I have a whole section later in this post, but I think it is worth mentioning more than once. A high-performing team isn’t one that is always under pressure, being overburdened, or, conversely, has a constant light load. The key is finding and maintaining a balance. Will a team have to sprint sometimes? Yes. But that means there should also be some planned slack in the system for recovery.
- Focus on building a team – A team is not a group of individuals doing work in silos. A team should be a group of people that work together to help each other do the best work they can. Building out a cohesive and well-functioning team has a huge effect on the team’s effectiveness and well-being. This can take some time, however, the payoff is great.. While building out a team, there are indicators to look out for like: inside jokes, healthy banter, people helping other people without prompting, etc… If done correctly a team will be more than the sum of its parts.
I plan on jotting down more detailed thoughts on each of the above items in future posts. If you can’t wait that long, feel free to reach out as I am always happy to listen and chat.
Short-term vs long-term
Some people call this tactical versus strategic. Whatever you want to call it, as a manager we always have to keep a partial eye on the short-term (i.e. is the work that needs to be getting done, actually getting done) and the long-term (i.e. are we heading in the right direction as a team and as individuals). This can be hard to do and it is a balance that depending on your current events and environment, will slide from one side to another. I have observed that far too few managers think or communicate about the long-term picture. Even if they think they are thinking about it a lot, from a team’s perspective, it is not enough. It is really easy to get sucked into the day-to-day with fire drills, endless meetings, and whatnot. My only advice is to try and reserve some time regularly to step back and make sure the team is heading in the right direction and spend a little bit of time thinking and communicating about the long-term. Because if the team doesn’t know the why for what they are doing it can be hard for them to keep slogging through a tough project or understand how their work ties into the bigger picture. That is up to us as the managers to help them see and realize this.
Take care of your people
No, I don’t mean wipe their noses or hold their hands. Get to know your direct reports, build a vested interest in each of them, and make sure that they understand that you have their backs. I know this is hard to scale as you get more and more people reporting to you, but it can be done to a degree. Given that people have a lot of choices where they work, by making the investment in the relationship you will demonstrate your appreciation for their choice. What does this look like? Here are some examples:
- It means having a general understanding of what is going on in their life (as much as they want to share)
- Where they want to go in their career and what their long-term career aspirations are
- What type of work interests them and trying to find those projects/tasks for them
- Explaining to them what their career progression looks like based on what you know of their desires
- Making sure they take time off
- Are they working with the correct people so they can continue to grow and improve
- Are they improving themselves and are you giving space for that
There is a lot to cover in this area but it can be shortened up to this: give a damn about the people around you, they aren’t “resources.”
Take care of yourself
Managing/leading a team can be a lonely business. As you go up the ranks it seems to get more lonely. More and more people depend on you and fewer people want to know about your struggles. So it is important to find trusted people you can talk with and get feedback from. It is also important to make sure you do stuff for yourself, such as exercise, meditate, journal, go for walks in the woods, or whatever action helps you recharge. My only reminder to people is our brains and bodies are tied together, if you don’t take care of your body by staying healthy your thinking will not be as clear. This is something many people seem to disregard or only attend to with intense bursts, followed by extended periods of neglect.
The tension between the business and managing the team
I am not sure why it took me a while to realize this but it did. Most businesses want to hire good managers (setting tasks, delivering on said tasks efficiently, etc…) while most people want good leaders. So, there is a natural tension between what the business needs and what the team needs. However, it seems the vast majority of books and management advice focus on leadership but rarely on what the business is wanting. Maybe it is self-evident for many people but it wasn’t to me. For me managing a team well means improving things at the company, figuring out what is needed for the business and what the people on the team want to do and figuring out a happy middle ground, taking an interest in each person on the team, and trying to help them achieve their goals while also delivering value to whatever company I am working at. As a manager, you get to try and balance these two items (business needs and managing the team). You need to help meet the business needs, but also don’t drive the team like machines. Companies don’t hire you because you are good at growing a team, taking care of the team’s individuals, and building a cohesive team. Sure, they might say they want that, but that isn’t the primary goal for hiring you. I also think most companies don’t really know how to hire good managers even more so than they don’t know how to hire good individual contributors. For a few years, I would ask people what percentage of good managers they have worked for and sadly, the average percentage was around 20-30%. These individuals are super important for a team and yet the percentage of solid ones is still very low. This is concerning.
With great power comes…
I don’t mean this in the Machiavellian sense. As a manager (or leader) of the team, you have an outsized influence on its culture. If you swear a lot your team will swear a lot, if you say a phrase often the team will start to pick up on that. Tim Ferriss is known for saying that you are the average of the five people you are around the most. Professionally, managers tend to be one of those people, so it makes sense that managers have an outsized influence on the team. What does this mean? It means that people are always watching you (not in that creepy sort of way… hopefully) but, as an example, if you go into a meeting and you are grumpier because you got a speeding ticket and you do not explain that is why you are grumpy, people will read into thinking something is wrong with them or the team. Your influence can be used to great effect by setting standards, bringing a certain type of energy to the team, etc… All you just need to do is act how you want the rest of the team to act. This can also be daunting because if people on the team are acting a certain way you don’t like, or in general the team is doing something you don’t want, you have to look in the mirror and realize you might just be the cause of this trait. Conversely, if the team is acting a certain way or doing things you like it might not be because of you, it could just be luck or other factors.
Those are my overarching thoughts about what great managers should be doing. Be on the lookout for future, more in-depth articles about the above points. Drop me a line if you have any feedback, questions, or thoughts. I will reply.