There are lots of things I do very badly and a few things I do pretty well. One of the things I do pretty well is managing people.
The comments from a post over at Revanche's blog made me start pondering this topic over the past few days. As I've mentioned before, I've been managing people in a corporate environment for about thirteen or fourteen years. I started with summer interns (always a little unpredictable) and gradually took on permanent employees of different grades, and today my team of direct reports consists of mid-level managers and subject matter experts.
Over time, I've developed a philosophy of people management. Some of it comes from books I've read or training courses I've taken over the years, but most of it is the result of processing my own experiences, good and bad, as an employee. Here are a few characteristics and behaviors that I think are integral to becoming a good people manager:
Lead by example
Model the behavior that you expect to see. If you expect work completed by a certain date, don't let your own deadlines slip. If you expect people to demonstrate good analytical work, do good analytical work yourself. If you expect them to treat people with respect, then let them see that you always treat people with respect. Perhaps most importantly, if you want your people to be energetic and enthusiastic about their work, you've got to be their biggest cheerleader.
Get to know your people as people
Show an interest in their families, their hobbies, and how they spend time outside of work. It'll help you help them achieve and maintain balance in their lives, and that makes the whole process of allocating work and managing expectations about when it'll be done all the more effective. It'll also make you more approachable to your team members because they'll feel warmth from you as a person. Moreover, I've always found that having insight into my team's lives outside of work is both personally rewarding and really helpful when it comes to gauging how they will respond to difficult situations.
Build a culture of trust and respect
Employees deserve honest feedback, delivered respectfully, on both their strengths and growth areas. This is feedback that needs to be delivered continuously: It's not fair to either withhold well-deserved praise or blindside someone by bringing up constructive criticism for the very first time on a formal performance review. It's also important not to shoot the messenger when something doesn't go as expected. My experience is that people who trust their managers not to fly off the handle at bad news feel safe to alert them about mistakes up front instead of sweeping errors under the rug. This matters because early warning is key when it comes to effective damage control.
In addition, make sure your actions match your words. Don't ask your team to move heaven and earth to get something done and then let it sit for two weeks before you review it. Don't promise to do something and then not do it. Many managers blow their credibility (and the trust and respect that go with it) by falling short on the follow-through.
Look out for your people's interests
I mean this in two ways, engaging your team members' attention, and giving them opportunities. Just about every job carries a certain amount of drudgery to it, but matching work to people's interests will go a long way towards generating momentum. Not everyone likes to be taken out of their comfort zone, but encouraging your people to push the boundaries of their current knowledge and develop new skills will generally serve them well in the long run, as long as they get the support they need to to be successful. In addition, broadcasting their successes, providing the resources they need to help strengthen their growth areas, and standing up for them when they're taking flak over something that didn't go so well are all critical parts of developing their careers.
Listen more than you talk
I usually aim for a ratio of 30% talking to 70% listening. When someone is talking, his or her receptors for non-verbal cues are not working at full capacity, and that can mean missing something important. In addition, employees who don't feel heard because their manager never shuts up don't feel valued or respected, and feeling marginalized at work affects everything from motivation to follow-through.
Listen with your full attention
Body language matters. When meeting with team members, especially one on one, it's really important to reinforce the message that they are valued by showing that you're giving them 100% of your attention. Non-verbal cues that indicate attentiveness include forwarding the phone to voice mail, setting cellphones out of sightline, turning away from the computer screen to avoid distractions from incoming mail or instant messages, and sitting in a neutral body position (directly facing the person, leaning slightly forward to show interest when they're talking, arms and legs not crossed, hands relaxed, and sustained eye contact without initiating a staredown). These body language techniques don't come naturally to everyone and they are certainly not natural to me, but they can absolutely be learned.
Have difficult conversations
It's not easy to tell someone that he or she isn't measuring up, but it's so important. In most cases, I think the assessment that someone is simply a bad employee is something of a cop-out. Sometimes employees honestly don't know why they're struggling. In those cases, how will they figure it out if the person who is responsible for managing their performance doesn't speak up about how their actions are perceived? If you've built a culture of trust and respect and really plan how you deliver the message (role-playing is very helpful here), my experience has been that team members will respond well because they believe you're looking out for their best interests and trust you to tell the truth.
In other circumstances, there might be something in the employee's personal life that has affected his or her performance. This is where having a culture of trust and respect and knowing your people as people are invaluable. Alternatively (and this is something I've certainly seen happen as the result of internal reorganizations), the employee might not be in the right job. I find these latter situations the most difficult situations to solve, and sometimes they just aren't solvable. That doesn't mean it's okay not to try, though.
Build a sense of ownership and responsibility
I don't like it when people dump problems in my lap. A tool I've found effective in counteracting this is to push people to take ownership by analyzing the problem and proposing solutions themselves. Questions I like to ask include:
-- How do you think we should solve this situation?
-- What do you think you could have done differently to produce a positive result?
-- So and so sounds very [add negative emotion of the day here]. Why do you think s/he reacted that way?
There's a time when issues escalate to the point of needing air cover, and it's important for managers to be able to recognize that and act accordingly. For most problems most of the time, though, refusing to take on the role of Mr. or Ms Fix-It empowers (or possibly forces) team members to really become invested in and responsible for the quality of their work. It also helps them build their own soft skills, problem-solving skills, and leadership skills.
Don't believe your own press
It's important for a manager to have confidence in his or her abilities, but the minute a manager tells someone to model themselves on the manager, that manager has lost it. We all have room for improvement, and team members can provide really valuable insight into how their managers can improve. To me, this is part of the continual feedback cycle I mentioned above. One of my favorite expressions is Challenge me if you think I'm wrong. My team does, and we all produce better results for it.
I want to stress that I'm very far from perfect, but that's what I believe in and do my best to live by consistently as far as people management goes. Do you think it makes sense? What other qualities or techniques help a person become a good people manager?
Check back here in a couple of days for a little background on some of the things that went into the development of my management philosophy. In the meantime, for a really outstanding book on managing and motivating people, I'd recommend It's Your Ship by Captain Jack Abrashoff. It's engaging, funny, honest, and in my experience, very, very accurate.
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