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What are the key behaviors of a great manager?

A long-time colleague recently moved to a new job where she will be supervising direct-reports for the first time in her career. Shortly after accepting the role, she called to ask me what was presented as a simple question – what are the key behaviors you have used to be such a “great manager.”

My first reaction was to be honored that she considered me a great manager. While we had worked together for nearly 10 years, I had only been her manager for about 18 months of that time.

I do take great pride in my efforts to manage my team. And I have been rewarded with minimal team turnover, strong effort and outcomes even during the most challenging times, and caring relationships that go beyond simply our work responsibilities.

Of course, you’ll find very few people who will readily admit to being terrible managers much in the same way that you don’t hear people claiming to be terrible parents.

I quickly realized this wasn’t a question to be answered off-the-cuff. Knowing she would use my guidance as the foundation for her own management style, I suggested we schedule a meeting for the following week so I could spend time pondering what one might consider my own management philosophies.

There is no shortage of self-proclaimed gurus when it comes to managing staff. I did quick search for ‘staff management’ in the books section of Amazon and can report that more than 50,000 options are available for your purchasing pleasure. Exactly zero of those titles are authored by me.

Like most managers, my style wasn’t a carefully crafted method resulting from multitudes of leadership classes or reading ‘Managing for Dummies.’ Thus, I don’t write this post claiming to be an expert in managing people nor would I suggest that my way is the best way – or perhaps even the right way.

What I can tell you is that the below tenets have worked well for me throughout my nearly 25 years of managing the work lives of others.

Take a look at the “wisdom” I provided to her and add your best staff management suggestions in the comments. I also welcome you to critique and improve upon what I listed below. These are listed in no particular order.

They get the credit. You take the blame.

You can learn a lot about the self-confidence of a manager by the pronouns they use when accepting credit or taking blame. A confident manager uses pronouns like she, they and we when reporting on good outcomes. The word “I” is never uttered except when saying I’m proud of the great work my team did. A manager concerned about their job security or being replaced by an underling will almost exclusively use “I” when touting accomplishments.

On the other hand, when things go badly, I subscribe to the same philosophy as the football coach who is faced with questions about a fight between two players on the sidelines. As the leader, I am accountable for when problems arise or the team doesn’t meet expectations. Like the football coach, if tough conversations need to take place with my direct reports due to poor performance, I take accountability publicly then will handle the situation in-house away from the eyes of my team’s peers.

Trust is huge

I realize this is a bit trite, but it cannot be overstated. The maxim is very true - trust takes a long time to build but can be lost in an instant. As a result, I never lie to my team. If there are times when I can’t answer a question due to a sensitive situation, then I let that be known. My early career was spent in the rough and tumble world of election politics. One thing you learn is that the truth will always come out. If you get into the habit of lying to your team, you will eventually be exposed.

Affirm. Affirm. Affirm.

I must admit that, for me, this is one of the most challenging aspects of managing. Personally, I require very little external affirmation. I know when I’ve done well. My reward for that comes from within. However, we’ve all seen the studies about how Millennials and Gen Z require more regular affirmation than their older brethren. It is true. And that means as a manger you need to regularly be affirming and thanking your team members. There are plenty of articles and blog posts around doing it most effectively. But, done well or poorly, the key is to do it.

Don’t wait until review time to address problems.

If you or your direct reports are nervous before a formal performance review (annual, semi-annual) then you are doing it wrong. I’ve learned to treat those HR-required review meetings as little more than a formality that never include any surprises for my direct reports. Instead, I check-in with my team regularly throughout the year. If there is a performance issue or other concern, it gets addressed immediately in a constructive and planned way.

Know where they want to go with their career and show you want to help them get there.

Since the day I graduated college my mother has impressed upon me the need to have a five-year plan. I’m not sure that I’ve ever truly had one in place, but that hasn’t stopped me from talking with my direct reports about their own desired career path. I’ve always been very clear with each of them – either I will help you get to where you want to be at our organization or I’ll help you find it somewhere else. Yes, I’ve even sent an external job description to one of my employees whose role I knew wasn’t eligible for promotion.

Hire people good at what you’re not good at.

Yes, I realize this one is a staple of likely most of those 50,000 books on Amazon, but that’s because it’s true. As a manager, you don’t have to be the expert on everything.

Don’t try to be best friends.

For the past 19 years I’ve been privileged to work on teams where the people really do like each other. They eat lunch together (pre-Covid). They socialize outside of work. They attend each other’s wedding and baby showers. As a manager, however, it is important to have at least some level of a boundary with your direct reports (which doesn’t exclude you from doing any of those things I just mentioned). Even for the best employee there will be moments when you need to have difficult conversations. And, no matter how you might perceive it, you are still their manager and they will always view and treat you differently as a result.

Demystify the leadership meetings.

For years you have watched the senior executives parade through the office once a week and disappear into the conference room for their leadership meeting or senior staff meeting. Oooh, the highly strategic discussions that must be taking place. Ahhh, the confidential information that is being shared.

There is nothing as mysterious and intriguing to junior-level staff than the leadership meeting. Yet, once you have been promoted and welcomed into that hallowed hall, you realize that very little of what takes place is truly brilliant or confidential.

As best I can, I try to brief my team on what takes place in that meeting each week. During Covid these meetings took on added importance as everyone knew topics like layoffs and budget cuts were being discussed. And, in those situations, I affirmed that those conversations were taking place (denying it would have violated trust and everyone knew they were happening anyway) and set expectations as to when I’d be able to share any information. But, in normal times, there is little discussed in those meetings that can’t be shared, even if you might not be able to get into the details. I promise you that your team is wondering what was said in the room. So even if you didn’t find it all that intriguing, share with your team.

Give them chances to shine even if that means giving up a chance for yourself (most of the time)

I will once again compare managing to parenting. In parenting, rightly or wrongly, when a child does something great it reflects well on the parents. The same is true of a member of your team. If they lead a fantastic training or give a great presentation touting the team’s work, the mental accolades from the audience will naturally extend to the entire team and organization.

Hogging the spotlight for yourself – internally or externally – will build resentment from your team members. Let them present at the all-staff meeting. Let them accept the award at the conference. Of course, there are times when you need to consider your own personal marketing or career advancement as well. So yes, it’s okay to be selfish sometimes, too.


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