3 rules that helped make me a better manager

A friend of mine was recently promoted to his first management position, and let’s just say he does not love it. He was always a fantastic individual contributor, but as a team lead, he’s struggling. He came to me and asked how I’ve survived being a manager for so long, given his experience has been “like something out of Dante’s five circles of hell.” After I informed him that there are nine circles of hell – and therefore his world of management could technically be much worse – I told him that management could be an amazing experience.

Maybe it’s because I come from a family of teachers, but I’ve always loved being a manager. Watching individuals on my team grow, get the recognition they deserve and move up in their careers is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Here are a few of things I’ve learned along the way that has helped make management a positive experience for my team and me.

Spend as much time as you can with the your top producers. This makes sense when you think about it, but it can quickly be ignored when a “problem child” enters your group. A good manager by nature is inclined to want to make sure everyone is successful. You’ve all probably seen the silly “boss vs. leader” motivational memes that have been going around these days. Usually there is an image of an evil “boss” riding their people to the finish line compared to a proud “leader” guiding them there. The problem with this notion is that not everyone can be guided. Some people are not motivated, the wrong fit, burned-out or just generally unhappy in their job and no matter how much time you invest with them it will go to waste. They key is to understand that your time is valuable and you must use it wisely in order to be a successful leader.  And this gets me to my second point…

Set appropriate goals and spend all of your time driving towards them. Let me say upfront that the way I work tends to be a bit different than the masses. I’m not an early bird, I’ve never read a business book past the first page, and I don’t make to-do lists. But the most critical part of my day always revolves around goal setting.  When people hear “goal setting” their mind immediately jumps to 50 page business plans and board meetings, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For me it usually breaks down into three simple categories:

Long Term Goals. What do I need my group to achieve to set us up for the future? These are the more strategic goals that don’t always have a specific timeline, but are issues you know you need to address to prepare for growth. These are large systems/product changes, staff development/training, future hiring and organizational plans.

Intermediate Goals. These goals are the specific steps that get you to an end. Intermediate goals are both short and long term tasks/projects that help support your long-term mission. It could be a feature update to a product, a new system that gets you on the road to more productivity or hiring the first person charged with building a future team. Again, these are not about specific timelines. In some situations, an intermediate goal can take longer to finish than a long term goal.

Daily Goals:  How many days have you left work and thought… “I was extremely busy all day and put out a lot of fires, but what did I actually do today?” I believe that we’ve all been there. Daily goals are an excellent way to keep you on track (and also keeps you working more closely with your top producers). The problem with daily goals is it’s on you. You have to create them, and you have to hold yourself accountable if you don’t complete them. So whether you’re to-do list crazy, love the smell of marker on a white board, or are like me and just keep it in your head, find a way to set daily goals – then remember them and stick to them. Work can become a very demotivating experience if “putting out fires” is your only accomplishment for the day (even if my cousin Jon the firefighter disagrees).

Honestly, care about the people who work for you. I’ve always cared about everyone who works for me. I want them to succeed and grow, I’m interested in their lives, I hope they enjoy what they do and are as happy as they can be coming into work every day.  I know some schools of management consider this a sign of weakness, but I’ve considered it my greatest strength. No one wants to feel like a pawn, and we all know that sometimes a simple “great job” can make your day. This doesn’t mean you let your team walk all over you, and it doesn’t say that you don’t get rid of the weak links. In fact, the most demotivating situations in my career have always been when I was on teams with people who didn’t pull their weight and should be cut. Sometimes firing someone is the best thing you can do for a team of people you care for.

Over the years I’ve asked many friends, co-workers, and interviewees who were their favorite managers and why. The answer almost always includes some variation of, “I felt like he/she cared and respected me.” This is an area where MBA courses can’t help you and where so many managers fail. The 80’s obsession with “The Art of War” led to a generation of executives who believed that “being tough” was the only way to motivate. But times have changed. There are cases when it’s necessary to turn the pressure on and other times when it demotivates your team and derails your goals. So how do you find balance?

The thing is, it’s not that hard. If you follow a few simple guidelines, you’ll be on a path that will motivate your team members and retain the employees you would typically lose through the traditional fear-based approach. You don’t have to be friends with everyone on your team, you don’t have to put on the “false friendly” smile, you don’t have to be in the trenches doing grunt work every day to show you understand and you don’t always have to be Mr. Nice Guy (or Ms. Nice Girl).  Just be yourself. Take an interest in the people that work for you. Respect their time – especially their time with their family. Get involved with what they’re doing. Offer advice (positive and negative), keep your emotions in check and generally just care. In short: be a human being. It doesn’t take much.

Now for the disclaimer. I’m not a management consultant. I don’t have my MBA. I only have a few gray hairs. Tony Robbins hasn’t asked me to head out on tour with him. Worst of all, I’ve made many of the mistakes I mentioned above; but for me, these tips have worked.  And they’ve helped my friend develop a slightly more positive outlook on management, too.

Josh Garland

Josh has 17+ years of b2b agency, publishing and digital marketing experience in technology markets. He’s a self-proclaimed​ “cat loving marketing nerd” with a passion for learning about technology and its impact on the future of marketing. Josh currently owns and operates bettertechmarketing.com.

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