The Modern Survival Guide #104
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And as a long-term participant in the American workforce, I’ve had more than enough opportunity to develop some serious views on management — both as a victim and as a perpetrator — and I have to say that good managers are very hard to find.
There’s a lot that goes into being a good manager, and it’s more an art than a science; you can train some of it, but ultimately that training has to mesh with a complimentary personality. And then a good manager usually has to forget about half of their training and deal with the real world, because MBA degrees, books, and online help articles are only good for just so much.
Nonetheless, in the interests of making work into a better experience, it’s incumbent on anything so presumptuous as to call itself a Modern Survival Guide to at least briefly touch on ten traits of good management:
- Scaling oversight
- Delegating tasks
- Supporting your people
- Practicing good communication strategies
- Solving work process problems
- Knowing what you don’t know
- Knowing what kind of decision to make
- Knowing when to back off
- Knowing when to use your experience
- Demonstrating leadership
We’ll cover these, then end on a little bit of the art that has to accompany them.
Scale Oversight to People and Projects
Oversight means you’re checking to see what your people are doing and how well they’re doing it. Different people and projects require different levels of oversight, which should come as no surprise to anyone.
With people, tailor your oversight activities to the person — a strong, competent, experienced employee should need far less oversight than an inexperienced, incompetent, or weak employee. With a good employee, you may be able to get away with just letting them do their thing and having them submit the occasional status report along with their work products. With a poor employee, you may need to watch their every move.
DO NOT mix these up. The easiest way to drive away competent employees is to force them to account for every moment of their time, in triplicate countersigned forms. The easiest way to torpedo your business is to let incompetent employees run amok.
If you can’t tell who is competent and who is incompetent, you’re in trouble and management might not be the career for you.
With projects, tailor your oversight activities to their level of importance. It is not necessary to rigorously monitor the purchase of office supplies (unless that starts to go way over budget). It is necessary to keep close tabs on mission-critical projects and programs, even if that means creating a little inefficiency, because these are the things that make or break the business. It’s bad form to not know what’s happening with them.
In general, I would advise against having more than one oversight-related meeting per week (not counting scrum meetings). If you must have more than one oversight meeting a week, for whatever reason, they should be no longer than one hour and you should make every effort to ensure that people only attend for as long as they need to be there.
Remember, any meeting costs at least fifteen to thirty minutes of productivity, what with people closing down work to go to the meeting and then settling back down, getting snacks, taking bathroom breaks, and getting back in the zone after the meeting ends.
Also in general, be very careful with using dashboards as an oversight tool in lieu of meetings. Remember that dashboards are only as good as the data that goes into them, and garbage in/garbage out problems are endemic in metrics-based management. NEVER assume that metrics equal actual business realities. If you must use a dashboard, make sure you have a mechanism or trusted person in place to police the data flow.
Delegate Non-Managerial Tasks
If you are a manager you should make every possible effort to avoid doing line work. If you don’t know what that means, read this. Delegate these tasks to trusted people as fast as you can, and then back away and let them get on with it.
I know, I know, everyone rags on managers for not doing any “work,” but here’s the thing… that’s not what managers are for.
Managers are for making sure that other people do work, stay within budgets, follow policies and procedures, meet mission goals, and play well with others. They have to hire, fire, and keep track of their employees, while smoothing out any bumps in the road to progress. And these are exclusive tasks of a manager; a subordinate cannot do them. In any group larger than a handful of people, that’s more than enough to do without adding line work to the job description.
That being said, this is often the hardest thing for a manager to do because, frankly, if you want something done right you do it yourself. It can be very hard to let go of direct control of work products, particularly on critical projects, and let someone else do it. One of the most common causes of the Peter Principle¹ is a manager being unwilling to delegate work.
This brings into play a concept which should be a constant refrain in any job, which is: perfect is the enemy of good. It’s a waste of time trying to achieve perfection; it doesn’t exist. Good enough is good enough, and if you can consistently hit “good,” you’re well on track to be excellent from time to time.
If you feel that you have to get involved because a work product isn’t perfect, check yourself. Maybe what you really need to do is fire a poor performer and hire someone better.
Support Your People
I know, it’s a little ironic to lead into this after that last sentence, but here we go!
As a manager, you have to support your people. That doesn’t mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean you support everyone indiscriminately. It means that you support your people. It means you curate your team, to the best of your ability. You hire and fire the people you need to hire and fire to get a good team. And then once you have a team that you think is capable of doing the work, you give them every tool you can find to help them do the work.
You pay for training, as much as you can. You pay for equipment, as much as you can. You provide incentives, as much as you can. You fight for budgets, as best you can. You protect your people from office politics, as best you can. You pay attention to your employees’ life events and figure out ways for them to have those life events, as best you can. And you make sure that everyone knows precisely what is expected of them, and whether they are achieving those goals.
Most managers get this wrong, and the most common way they get this wrong is to impose the Tarkin Doctrine. For those of you who aren’t unrepentant Star Wars nerds, the Tarkin Doctrine is “rule by fear.” It’s easy to be a tyrant when you’re a manager. You have all the tools you need to keep your employees in a state of continual fear for their jobs (and I won’t list them here, because it’s not my job to promote bad strategies). But the catch is, that doesn’t make people want to succeed, it just makes them want to not fail.
Remember: you’re shooting for “good” performance. People who are just trying to not fail will give you consistently average performance, with random spikes of good, and will quit the instant they get a better offer. People whom you have supported will also probably change jobs when they get a better offer — but in those cases it’s entirely possible that the better offer will come from you, and in the meantime they’re much more likely to give you good work.
If you can’t support your people because your company isn’t organized to make that possible, then unfortunately your best option defaults to the Tarkin Doctrine.² In that case you need to change jobs, because you will not be able to be a good manager.
Practice Good Communications
A core truth of being a manager of any sort is that most of your work will consist of communication. Emails, meetings, and random stops at the job site or in the hallway will take up the bulk of your time. That’s because one of your chief duties as a manager is to be a routing node of information.
If you’re doing your job well, information flows to you, you make decisions based on that information, and then you pass information up and down the line to give people their next assignments and let your bosses know about anything important that’s going on.
If you’re not doing your job well, you never receive the information in the first place or you don’t do anything with it. Let’s try to avoid that.
This is a much, much bigger topic than we have room for in this article, but here are a some quick communications tips for managers:
- Always phrase commands as commands. The first and often greatest sin of bad management is giving poor or unclear directions.
- Establish approved modes of communication for your employees. Make sure people know how they are supposed to get information to you, and then make sure that they are doing so.
- Use email for quick messaging, and meetings for in-depth discussions.
- Keep control of meetings. Make sure people stay on topic and remain cordial. Make sure each meeting has a point and purpose.
- Learn to listen with patience. Too many managers interrupt subordinates during presentations, for example, because they get bored. Sometimes boring things are important.³
- Learn when it’s important to speak over someone. Sometimes you will need to cut off a rambler and get your point across. A rule of thumb is that if someone is talking for longer than five minutes in a meeting, they’ve probably expended their time (unless they are presenting).
- Keep track of your stakeholders. Make lists, if you have to. But make sure you know all the people who need to know about every major issue that crosses your desk.
- Make time to talk to your subordinates. If nothing else, practice management by walking around. People need to know they can have space to talk to you and raise issues.
- DO NOT USE THE PHRASE “MY DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN.” Everyone knows that’s a lie, and it’s disingenuous. I have never worked with a manager who was genuinely thrilled with the idea of random people popping into their office to occupy their time. A more accurate statement is “If you see something that needs changing, or if you have an idea you want to discuss, feel free to work with my secretary/assistant to get on my calendar.”
- Don’t lie. Lies hurt credibility, which impacts trust. Your people should trust you.
- Don’t always tell the whole truth. There are things your people don’t need to know. If you don’t know what they are, get a new job.
- For every major issue, use multiple modes of communication. Never assume people read their email.
- Address major issues head-on. Never beat around the bush or attempt to hide big changes for the business.
- Always communicate resolutions to major issues, problems, or projects both up and down your chain of command. Always praise good work, and always address bad work. Make sure people know when their job is done and it’s time for new work, and make sure your boss knows that you deserve credit for completed work.
I could keep going, but this article is going to be long enough as it is. I’ll write another one on communications later on in the series.
Solve Work Process Problems
Good managers identify problems with work processes: the office environment, business practices, employee relations, and paradigms used to complete work. Then they solve them. Part of the point of being a manager is that it’s your job to smooth the way for your employees to do work. If you aren’t doing this, you will encounter continual, annoying, wasteful speed bumps on the road to progress. If you aren’t solving problems, you’re not doing your job. If you think there aren’t any problems, you’re ignorant and that’s the first problem to solve.
It’s useful to dedicate a specific portion of your week, and at least some time in every staff meeting, for the express purpose of problem solving.
Know What You Don’t Know
Ignorance is not bliss. It’s just the state of not knowing which rock is about to trip you.
Part of your job as a good manager is to quickly, efficiently, and thoroughly identify areas of your own ignorance with regard to the work your organization is doing. Then learn what you can, and for everything else find or hire people who can fill those gaps in knowledge. You don’t have to know everything about what your company is doing, but you do need to get people who are or can become experts in the jobs you need done. Remember: a manager accomplishes work not by knowing how to do things, but by knowing who can do things.
As a side note — once you find those people, respect the hell out of them. Or they’ll leave and find some other manager who will.
Know What Kind of Decision to Make
Broadly speaking, there are two overarching categories of decisions: decisions where the most important thing is that they are made correctly, and decisions where the most important thing is that they are made.
To put that another way, sometimes it’s a good idea to take the time to examine every angle and perform lots of analysis in order to be as sure as you possibly can be that you make the correct choice. And sometimes it’s only necessary to pick the most palatable immediate option, because things simply have to move along.
This kind of consideration is necessary because it is very easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis — going round and round with discussions and tests and documentation and never making a choice. Paralysis is not a good thing, but it’s endemic in bad management. Identifying choices where analysis is unnecessary is a good first step in avoiding analysis paralysis.
In general, the requirement for analysis tends to scale up with the importance of the project or decision to be made. Something that is mission-critical needs mission-critical-level analysis — weeks or months of consideration, alternatives analysis, and cost/benefit discussion. Buying a new mouse for your computer does not. A rule of thumb is that if you can use product reviews to make a decision, you don’t need exhaustive analysis. Just pick something with a good rating.
Remember: businesses thrive based on decisions that are made well, but they operate based on decisions that are made.
Know When to Back Off
Sometimes the best thing you can do as a manager is to get out of the way. Micromanagement is almost never good. Your people need both the space and time to work. This translates to a couple of things you need to do.
The first thing is to leave people alone after you assign tasks. Do not hover over their shoulder. Do not repeatedly ask for status updates or send constant reminders for deadlines; that’s just a recipe for distraction. As a general rule, you get to send one reminder. If you have to send any more than that on a regular basis in order to ensure work gets done, that’s a personnel issue and needs to be addressed as such.
The second thing is to avoid scheduled disruptions as much as possible. Staff meetings and corporate events should not be scheduled during productive hours, if you can at all help it. Meetings in general should be avoided to the extent possible; if you can say it in email, messenger chat, or conversation, do that instead of having a meeting. Remember that every meeting carries a productivity hit on both ends — people have to interrupt what they’re doing to go to the meeting, and it takes time for people to settle back into their groove after a meeting.
Knowing when to back off is the difference between running a healthy, productive, focused workforce vs. a harried, disrupted, frustrated workforce.
And a quick aside — back off of the mandatory “fun” activities and team-building sessions. I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but teams are built through shared work and action, not through trust falls. If you want to have a work happy hour, or bowling night, or picnic, or whatever, feel free to do so; but do not force or pressure people to attend. Same thing for team-building.
Know When to Use Your Experience
Each manager comes to their job with some level of experience. Maybe it’s experience as a line worker. Maybe it’s experience from other managerial jobs. Maybe it’s technical experience with particular products or work processes. Whatever your experience is, it’s important to remember two things about it:
- It is a foundational element of your ability to make decisions.
- It is almost certainly stale.
You should use your experience to make decisions. For example, knowing that one process worked in one situation but didn’t work in another situation is valuable knowledge, and should help you to choose which process to use. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that every new situation is a new situation, and any technical knowledge you once had is almost certainly out of date.
So what does this mean in practice? Simple: your experience should be used as a touchpoint and baseline set of assumptions, but should never be treated as definitive truth. It should inform your choice, not make your choice. Make your choice based on appropriate analysis and the facts on the ground.
Leadership is a nebulous concept, but there are a few aspects that must be kept in mind as a manager:
- Always act confident— Waffling isn’t a good look and does not inspire trust. You should act confident in yourself, your team, and every decision you make. You can always change course later, but change course with confidence that the new direction is correct.
- Always be the example — Never ask someone to do something you are unwilling to do yourself. If you want people to use one communications product over another, you’d better be using the chosen product. If you want people to work late hours, you’d better stay late. If you want people to talk to stakeholders a certain way, you’d better be doing it yourself. Be the example, not the exception.
- Always communicate decisions — Never leave anyone in any doubt as to the chosen project direction or strategy. Never leave anyone in any doubt as to their mission or job purpose. Never leave anyone in any doubt as to what was said or not said. Over-communication is always better than no communication when it comes to making sure people understand that a decision has been made.
- Always have a plan — Never leave anyone in any doubt as to whether you know what’s going on. Never leave anyone in any doubt as to whether you are capable of responding to a crisis. Always have a plan, and don’t leap into action until you do. This may require some forward planning and contingency planning.⁴
- Always show respect — Never leave anyone that you value in any doubt that they matter. Never publicly disrespect an employee’s work or ambitions. Watch your tone of voice and the volume of your speech — these should be “polite” and “indoors,” respectively. Praise in public, criticize in private, and mind your p’s and q’s. Disrespectful managers inspire people to find new jobs.
- Avoid friendships with employees — You are not in your job to be liked, and you’re not in your job to make friends. You are in your job to make sure that work gets done, missions get accomplished, processes are followed, and strategies come to fruition. Friendships with your employees should be avoided; they have too much potential for real or implied bias and favoritism, both of which are toxic to a good team. It’s advisable to be friendly as much as possible, not to be friends.
- Always do your job — Last but not least, do your job. Do not put off employee reviews or personnel decisions. Do not flinch from making hard choices. Do not hesitate to get involved and straighten out problems. You make more money and have more authority than your employees because more is expected and required of you. Live up to it.
Wrapping Up: The Art of Management
The difference between art and science is that in art I know what I like when I see it, and in science an equation or natural law tells me what is correct. There is no perfect equation for management. I know a good manager when I see one, and a good manager in one environment may be a very poor manager in another.
The art of management is, therefore, to apply the lessons of management to your environment in the best way possible. There is no magic bullet for every managerial problem; no a + b = c solution for workforce disputes or project resolution.
The only thing you can do is judge by results, and make changes as necessary.
Are your people staying with you? Are your projects getting done on time, with good results? Are your employees focused and committed? Are your people comfortable using the word “we?” Are your orders obeyed and acknowledged promptly? These are some of the questions your should be asking to see if you are a good manager.
If you are not a good manager, and there are a lot of you out there, it’s time to make a choice. Are you going to try to be a better manager? Or is it time to look for a career change? Because if you’re not going to do the former, you should do the latter. You’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself, by trying to be something you’re not.
Ultimately, not everyone is cut out for management. That’s OK. Not everyone is cut out for scuba diving, either. Some personalities simply do not need to be doing certain things. Trust me… if you’re not good at management, you will very quickly realize this about yourself. The important thing in this life is to match up your talents and nature to your work, not to try to force yourself into a mold that simply isn’t for you. So do everyone a favor, and if you’re not good at management stop being a manager.⁵
But if you are good at management, be the best damn manager you can possibly be. Read management books. Practice management strategies. Try to apply best practices to your work. Experiment with what works for your workplace. Simply trying to be a good manager will make you a better manager.
And folks, we need all the good managers we can get. Good luck to you!
¹The “Peter Principle” is the tendency of people to get promoted to their level of incompetence.
²Machiavelli said it: it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
³A personal story is relevant here: I’ve given way too many presentations over the years where it was necessary to lay out information step by step in order to educate the audience on the chosen path or strategy. I found in short order that many of my managers simply didn’t care about the information, they just wanted the conclusion. Then they proceeded to fuck everything up, because they didn’t understand why the conclusion was correct and made poor intermediate choices. Part of that is my fault. Part of that is the fault of those managers for being lazy assholes who couldn’t be bothered to figure out what was important.
⁴That doesn’t mean you have to have the best plan ever or most completely detailed plan of all time. It just means that you need to have a reasonable idea of how to get from point A to point B.
⁵This has nothing to do with whether you are introverted or extroverted, or where you fall on the Myers-Briggs, by the way. Personality is more complex than that, and different jobs call for different managerial personalities. It’s about whether you fit the job, not whether you are INTJ or extroverted or whatever.