Being a people manager is tough.  Much harder than you expect.  There are many things that no one tells you about what it’s like to manage other people’s jobs as well as your own.

You join a large corporate in your 20s or early 30s.   You work hard to deliver good work.   As a result, you get given higher profile projects that attract the attention of senior management.   After a few years of hard graft as an individual contributor and with a bit of luck and timing, you move into your first junior management position.   This is when things can get really tough because the skills that got you noticed and secured you the promotion, won’t be enough to make you shine in your new elevated position.

While many companies offer training for managers, most of us learn from what we experience while being managed ourselves.   You may have had some great managers that you aspire to emulate.   Chances are that you’ve also experienced downright shockingly bad managers who you vow to never be like.

We resolve to be different from that awful boss who was terrible at planning and would constantly throw random last-minute urgent tasks at you.   We tell ourselves that we are never going to expect our teams to work through weekends all because of our lack of preparation.   We all want to be more like the awesome leaders who inspire others to follow them, have clarity of direction and really listen to understand the views of others.

The basic principles of being a good people manager are pretty straightforward but following them is not something that comes naturally to many leaders.   My experience has told me that there simple practices you can adopt that will make for a happier and more productive team.

Prioritise regular one to ones and don’t talk about yourself

The one to one time with your team member is their time not yours.  This is their only opportunity each week, month or whatever the frequency, to talk things through with you.   Resist the temptation to talk about yourself and instead allow them the time to talk without interruption.   Encourage them to come prepared with what they would most like to chew over with you by saying something like “what’s on your list for this week?” or “what would you most like to talk over this month?”.

Favour coaching over telling

When you are presented with problems to unblock and you have the benefit of experience, then you are likely to want to jump straight to solutions.   What will the recipient have learned from you simply telling them what to do?   Sure, they will learn what you would do in that situation, but your solution may not necessarily be the right one and they won’t have benefitted from figuring it out for themselves.

Instead, why not try coaching and guiding them to a solution they think is worth a shot?   Not only will they appreciate you not telling them what to do, but your job also becomes easier as you develop a team who have grown through experience rather than copying what you’ve done. Your team will be less likely over time to need to ask you for solutions at all.  Plus, you will learn from them, which will keep you fresh so it’s win-win.

Learn to use active listening skills.   Focus on what they are actually saying and reflect back.  Try using, “So what I’m hearing is……” to force you into active listening.

And for coaching not telling, use “What solution do you think you should try?”  followed by “What else” on repeat until they’ve really run out of options.

Encourage them to try out their own ideas and be that trusted adviser they can keep returning to as they test and learn what works and what doesn’t.

Be clear on priorities and purpose

Few things will make for a more disengaged and unhappy team than having unclear goals.   Within these goals, your team should be clear on which of these are their priorities for this week or month.  Relate the individual and team goals to those of the company mission.   The best-managed companies have goals that cascade down from leaders.   Each step of the hierarchy has goals that are a sub-set of those in the layer above them.    I haven’t come across any examples were bottom-up goal-setting makes for an efficient team or broader company.

Frustrations can set in when priorities aren’t clear such that employees start asking what the purpose of their job is and fail to see the bigger picture.  Consider the parable about 3 different men building a cathedral;

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m moulding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.

A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about the work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

“Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.”

John F Kennedy nicely summed this sentiment up during his recollection of a tour of NASA where he asked a cleaner to tell him about his job who replied, “I’m helping send a man to the moon!”

A big part of your job as a people leader is to help your team find their purpose within the organisation.  Are they hammering a rock or building a cathedral?

Praise, Trust and Support

A team who trusts their manager and are motivated to go the extra mile knows that their manager has their backs when mistakes happen, or times get tough.  You build trust every time you step in to support a “mistake” to learn from it rather than throw anyone under the bus.

Your team knows that you will praise them for good work but will also do whatever you can to raise their profile with more senior leaders whenever they are deserving of praise.   You are regularly looking for reasons to showcase the work that a team member has done, knowing that ultimately this also makes you look good for hiring great people and managing them well.

Ask what you could do better

Finally, the best leaders regularly ask for feedback from their team.  Many tend to only ask for feedback from those above them as these have the most impact on their career path.  This is a mistake.   Your team will know you better than anyone above you and they can hold a mirror up to your worst behaviours.

Don’t be a bad boss

I have worked for a few bad managers who unfortunately have all the exact opposite traits without any apparent regard for the impact on others;

  • They frequently bump one to ones because “something urgent” has come up.
  • And when you do get their time, they take up most of your preciously rare time with them talking about themselves.
  • They don’t hide the fact that they prioritise their own profile and reputation over yours by exclusively managing upwards and not caring about you
  • They throw you under the bus to defend themselves when you’ve made a mistake
  • They don’t listen to any issues you are trying to raise but instead react and tell you what you should be doing before you have even finished your explanation of a problem you are facing.
  • They very rarely, if ever ask for feedback and if someone offers them any, they don’t listen. Worse, they plot a vendetta against the well-meaning person offering their views.

Does your manager display any of these behaviours?   If so, run for the hills as you are not going to grow in your career working for a toxic boss.

Are you a little bit guilty of any of these bad behaviours yourself?  Focus on getting the basics in place – goal setting, coaching during one to ones, active listening and trust, then double down on listening and acting upon feedback.   Making these foundations of solid management a habit will make you the sort of boss that people want to work for.

The additional challenges of remote teams

If your team is now working remotely as a result of the pandemic, then not only will you need to be watching that you don’t slip into bad habits, you will have the additional challenge of maintaining high levels of engagement in a team who are continuing to work in isolation.

You’ve established clear team goals, you continue to hold one to ones over video, you listen to their challenges, praise their achievements and coach them towards solutions for their problems.   What additional challenges might for your home working team have?   What can you do to overcome these extra concerns?

The importance of collaboration and visibility

My team have told me that they are missing the collaboration and chance interactions of the office environment.  As a result, we are experimenting with longer video sessions to brainstorm ideas.   We have been focussing too much on the getting stuff done part of our jobs during the pandemic without taking time out to think deeply about the bigger picture.

Visibility among senior leaders is a real concern.  Often, junior members rely on the chance encounters and simply being seen in the office to get any kind of profile with the very senior leaders.   Your job as a good manager is to ensure you ratchet up the internal PR for times when your team is not physically visible.

Helping to clarify rumours

Rumours tend to spread faster during times of uncertainty.  Listen to the rumours and commit to establishing the facts behind the hearsay.   Share all company updates with them that you may be party to but that they may have missed.

And finally

And most importantly, be kind to yourself.  You are only human and as long as you are continuing to want to be the best leader that you can be then everything will work out just fine for you and your team.   Happy team equals a happy boss.