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The 4 Lessons About Managing People I Learned a Little Too Late

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Q: I just got promoted to my first management job. I will be leading a team of five people and I don’t have a clue what to do. What advice do you have for new managers?

A: This is a pretty exciting moment in your career.

When I think back to my first management role, I can say with certainty (and a tinge of regret) that I underestimated just how challenging it was going to be. I talk in my book about how disheartening it was for me, after 5 years managing people, to finally realize that in fact I was a terrible manager and the people working for me were really not enjoying themselves. The truth of the matter is, every one of us sets out with the intention to be a great manager but so few of us get it right the first time. In the years leading up to our first management roles, most of us get to experience more than our fair share of bad bosses. We tell ourselves, I will never be like him. I’m going to be the best manager these people have ever had. But then the cruel irony of management takes hold. Everyone sets out, determined to be a great manager, but inevitably we fall short. There are just as many people complaining about their crappy manager today as there was ten years ago. No matter how hard we try, it seems being the manager we always wanted, is always harder than we imagined.

Like many of you, I was tossed into the management mix without much warning and absolutely no training. One day I was an individual contributor with a great track record and all the potential in the world, and the next day I was managing a team of 4 people and screwing it all up. I made every mistake. And what’s worse, it took me many years to realize it. I did a lot of damage without even knowing it. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I started feeling like I really understand what the purpose of a manager is, and the mindset you need be a good one. My hope in sharing some advice, is that you can accelerate the path we all have to go through. Sadly, in my experience, there’s no avoiding the mistakes entirely. I don’t think anyone is naturally born to be a great manager – born with leadership qualities, yes – but effective management demands purposeful practice. You have to make a point of being a good manager, you don’t just get to be one because you’re talented.

Here are four lessons about managing people that took me a lot longer than it should have to learn. I often wish I had come to realize these things earlier. Maybe I could have had a more positive impact on the lives and careers of the people I was leading at the time. I hope you find value in them and become a great manager for the people you lead.  

1. Embrace your authentic style. 

There is no optimal style of leadership. There is no approach or personality or tone that you must follow. The only rule about management style, in my opinion, is to express your authentic self. The biggest mistake I see young managers make is be inauthentic. They behave as though they are playing the role of a manager on TV more so than exhibiting any kind of authentic leadership. They are “acting” like they think a manager is supposed to be instead of actually leading with the best parts of their true personality. The result, more often than not, is a very rigid, overly formal, disconnected manager, who is too busy portraying the stereotypical manager persona to actually connect in a meaningful way with the people they’re meant to be leading.

One good litmus test for whether or not you’re embracing your authentic management style can be found in your communication. Compare how you speak and write at work with how you speak and write with your family and friends. If you discover a material difference, you’re not being authentic and you need to change. Sure, you should drop the F bombs when you’re at work (probably with your family and friends too … just sayin …) but there really shouldn’t be a significant difference between how you communicate in life and how you communicate at work. One of my biggest peeves in the workplace is how much faux-formal business correspondence there is. Managers spend so much time packaging their communication to sound professional that it completely comprises any measure of authenticity they might have. 

My advice to managers is to drop the pretense. Stop with the formal communication. Stop positioning what you say. Stop trying to sound smart. Stop acting like a leader and just be one. When you write, when you speak, be your natural, friendly, goofy self and your team and colleagues will embrace it. 

2. Stop directing traffic. Start enlisting support. 

This is one that took me a particularly long time to figure out. When you first start managing, you instinctively start telling people what to do. You think that’s what a manager does – delegate, direct. But while direction and delegation have their place, they aren’t what really drives a team to success. The best managers rally support for a common purpose and provide team members the autonomy to pursue it together.

Instead of focusing so much time telling people what you need them to do, you should spend far more time energizing people about what is possible. Directing is easy, inspiring is hard. The importance of this only increases the higher you get in an organization. By the time you’re in the executive ranks, you can’t realistically direct the people you’re managing to how to do their jobs anyways – they’re the experts. What you can do – what you must do – is give them personal reasons to embrace the vision and goals you have set for the team. If you can get your team to WANT to reach a goal, you’ll have a much better chance of hitting it than if you simply deconstruct the goal into projects and delegate them to the members of your team. 

Often times as managers we feel like we should always know what to do and how to do it. I disagree with that premise entirely. A great leader, in my opinion, provides a clear vision of the desired outcome and creates an environment for people to come up with creative ways to get there. They don’t necessarily know how to get there themselves. Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with would come into a meeting and say something like, 

“Guys, we have to find a way to deliver the new web site this quarter. To be honest, I’ve never built a web site this big – that fast, but its important to the business, and could be a big win for us. How can we do it?”

For me, as an employee, that would be exciting. Knowing that my boss had a clear vision but didn’t have all the answers, and needed my expertise to get it done. That’s what I want in my manager.

My advice to new managers is to stop focusing so much on delegation and direction, and start focusing more on providing a clear vision and rallying support of your team to help achieve it. 

3. Get in the middle of it all. 

When we first get into management, I think a lot of us assume that the manager’s job is to sit on the sideline and supervise. We’ve all had bosses like this so we naturally veer in this direction. I see a lot of managers maintain an arm’s length from what the team is actually doing on a day to day basis. This is a mistake in my opinion, and I made it for years.

We tell ourselves as new managers that whatever we do, we won’t, under any circumstance, be a micro manager. We’ve all had experiences working for micro managers and we hate it. And while our intentions are certainly noble enough, they too often result in unintended consequences. The only thing worse than a micro manager is a manager who is so disconnected from the team that they can’t fairly assess the people on the team and they can’t help people get better. The other damaging byproduct of sitting on the sidelines is that when your team does present their work to you, your role is reduced to criticism. Work is completed by the team and presented to you and then you tell them if its good or not. That’s not management. That’s assessment and it doesn’t lead to high quality work or a positive workplace environment.

In my experience the best managers spend a ton of time sitting in the trenches with their teams – right in the middle of everything. They aren’t micro managing – they’re participating, helping, understanding. I’m sure some of you will be thinking, “whoa, I don’t want my boss hanging over my shoulder all day while I’m working …” but that is because you have a crappy boss. When you’re managing effectively, and your team knows you genuinely care about them, they will want you in there with them. When you’re there all the time, as part of the process, the pressure of presenting final work to you will be reduced and the probability that the work is of high quality will be increased.

My advice to managers is to get off the sidelines. Get out of your office. You need to strike a balance between being an active participant in the daily work lives of your team without becoming a micro manager. Its a delicate balance to be sure, but one that when reached will pay big dividends for you and your team members.

4. Find out what your team members want and help them get it. 

When I first started managing people I operated under the false assumption that they were there to help me reach my goals. I had objectives, targets, a quota … and I had human resources in place to help me achieve them. Maybe that sounds callous to you, maybe it doesn’t, but until recently I don’t think I fully appreciated my real mandate as a manager. Nor did I appreciate how that mandate, when executed with sincerity, ultimately leads to optimal outcomes for the company and for my own career.

As I talked about briefly in my recent blog on Recruiting Unicorns, the job of the manager, in my opinion, is to create an environment where people can be the best possible versions of themselves. A big part of that is to understand what each person on the team wants for themselves and for their careers, and to get personally invested in helping them achieve it. Where the real magic comes into place is when you find creative ways to align the attainment of those personal goals with the attainment of team and company goals. If you can do that, you create the kind of sincere energy you need to have a truly exceptional team.

Too many managers fixate on company and team goals and forget about the individual goals of each member of the team. Without a real connection and understanding of what people dream of for themselves, you can never get their full emotional energy directed at the goals and objectives of the company. My advice to managers is to start by seeking to understand the people on the team and then figure out how to tie the attainment of your goals with the attainment of theirs.

Managing people is tough and it’s a journey. You may have been born with natural leadership qualities, but being a great manager takes practice and experience. I hope you can benefit from some of the lessons I’ve learned along my journey to being a better manager. I’d love to hear about some of your experiences as first time managers. Send them to me or share in the comments.

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