What makes a great manager great? What separates the best bosses from the mediocre or subpar supervisors who give management a bad name – the ones who bully their employees and drive them to quit, aren't capable of providing the right kind of leadership to their staff, and can't put together a high-performing finance team?
To be sure, it's not always easy being a manager. The late great business scholar Peter Drucker famously said that management is "all about people." But as the even later, if not greater, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, "Hell is other people."
As a manager, you find yourself being pulled in many different directions by the parties you're responsible for keeping happy – from the employees below you to the executives above you, not to mention the shareholders and investors, customers and vendors outside of the company. Answering the very disparate needs, interests, and demands of these very different groups of people involves a tricky balancing act that can leave even the most surefooted individual free-falling to the ground.
Predictably, succeeding as a manager in any industry starts with managing the people under your direct supervision. Founder of Magna International Frank Stronach, in his autobiography The Magna Man: My Road to Economic Freedom, likens the role of a manager to that of a ship's captain: "As a captain you must look after your passengers. If there is labour unrest within the division, if there is grumbling about unfairness or bad working conditions, then it's a clear sign that the manager isn't on top of things." Here, then, are some tips to ensure you have a happy crew.
Do be accessible
The best managers I've met are the ones who are always available to their staff. Lots of new managers start their tenures by announcing an open-door policy and encouraging their staff to chat with them about their specific needs or concerns, but then they quickly become incommunicado when their own workload starts piling up.
Sure, there will be times when you can't take a meeting because a deadline is bearing down on you. But notwithstanding those rare occasions, try to make yourself accessible to your people, so that you have an idea of the shape and morale of the team.
Do give feedback – both motivational and developmental
Many employees need to learn how to receive developmental feedback, just as many managers need to learn how to give it. Whether formally or informally, you should always provide your staff with feedback that praises their strengths – so they can keep doing what they're doing well – and identifies their weaknesses – so that they can stop doing or change what they're struggling with. And don't just give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It's easy enough to say, "You're good at seeing the big picture, but not as good at keeping deadlines." Instead, gently propose some solutions that Employee X can use to build on their capabilities and address their limitations.
Don't berate your staff publicly
The old adage is wrong or, rather, incomplete: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it...in public. Developmental feedback should always be delivered on a one-on-one basis, never in front of others.
By far and away the worst way to 'send a message' to an employee is by shaming or embarrassing them in front of the rest of the team. Some managers mistakenly believe that flexing their managerial muscles before an audience helps to establish their authority. In fact, such outbursts usually have the opposite effect: they galvanise your staff against you and undermine your credibility.
There may unfortunately be occasions when you need to be firm (which is not the same thing as being harsh) with an employee, but again, lay down the law in private.
Do celebrate milestones and accomplishments
Opt for the carrot over the stick as much as possible. When your team completes a project, beats a target, or leapfrogs a benchmark, be sure to celebrate with them.
Managers, after all, aren't the only ones who need to rack up easy wins. Your celebrations don't have to be extravagant – they can be as simple and modest as taking everyone out for lunch together, or sharing a congratulatory e-mail with other divisions and managers.
The point is to not pass on an opportunity to grow together. The easiest way to succeed at team-building – the buzzword du jour in management and HR circles – is to build your team through its successes.
It's one thing to be detail-oriented; it's another to be obsessive-compulsive. Certainly, every manager ought to care about the small things, and ensure they're being attended to by the right people. But 'the right people' means your team.
As a manager, your job is to hire the best talent and provide them with coaching and mentorship; to ensure they have everything they need to perform and succeed; and to promote teamwork and a winning attitude. Your job is not to try to do the job of your team just because you don't trust them to do it right. While you shouldn't be afraid to join your team in the trenches when necessary, odds are, your job description doesn't overlap with theirs.
The best managers often look like they're not doing any 'managing' at all. That's because they've empowered their staff to take action and make decisions on their own. And frankly, if an employee requires you to be constantly looking over their shoulder or holding their hand, they may need to be trained new, reassigned, or even let go altogether.
Management is as much about granting autonomy to employees as it is about exercising authority over them. If you're afraid to leave the office for a couple of days, or you demand weekly meetings and progress reports to make sure things are getting done, either you need better staff – or they need a better manager.
Don't be afraid to be human
Many employees see their manager as distant and aloof. To some extent, that's unavoidable. The title, the office, the salary, the authority – all these managerial perks can separate you from your staff.
But just because you're someone's superior doesn't mean you're superior to them.
The biggest mistake a manager can make is to let their ego get the better of them, and to act like a bigshot who has all the answers.
Your staff don't need you to be superhuman – just human. For example, there's evidence to suggest that the most productive workplaces are the ones where people are allowed to have a sense of humour. Crack a joke at your own expense; everyone admires a boss who doesn't take themselves too seriously. And don't be afraid to fraternise with your staff outside of working hours. Get to know your team members as individuals – it will help to humanise you in their eyes.
Do focus on results and performance
Remember: it's not about being loved or adored by your employees, or some other wishy-washy goal. Managing people is not a popularity contest. It's about maximising your team's productivity and energy. Establishing rapport with your staff is a means to an end – to helping both you and them realise your targets and goals, and eliminating any issues or problems that might be in your path to achieving those goals.
Jennie Marshall is a double award-winning Learning Professional who joined QA in 2011 as a Learning Specialist in our Management, Leadership and Personal Effectiveness team. In her career she has enjoyed a variety of roles within different industries including Estate Agency, Imports and Exports, Financial Services, Call Centres, Utilities and Staff Unions.
In January 2014 she moved to a new role within the same department, as Head of Courseware Development where she was responsible for the overall quality, design, development, administration and coordination of our market leading courseware.
In January 2016 she then moved to a new role of Learning Consultant in the same team, where she now leads the design and delivery of innovative learning programmes linked to business / individual performance improvement for our customers.
She is a respect and trusted advisor within the team, and known for her experienced and dedicated approach to learning and development, with expertise including management, leadership and talent and training and facilitation developed within a variety of environments. Jennie has also supported our customers as a Product Owner on a secondment basis, using Agile methodologies to manage and deliver new learning products to their business. Her experienced was recognised in December 2018 when Jennie was awarded Chartered Manager (CMgr) status.
In her role she acts as lead consultant for a number of large clients and remains frequently involved with the development of various initiatives and programmes from graduate programmes to modular skills development journeys.
Alongside developing great learning products for clients, Jennie also works on refreshing the Management, Leadership and Personal Effectiveness curriculum and is a regular blog contributor on QA.com.
When not absorbed in course development, Jennie can usually be found in her garden, or involved in various pursuits through the Women’s Institute, where she is a Communications Secretary. She also features frequently on her local BBC radio station as a newspaper reviewer.
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