If you’ve ever had a job, you’ve had a manager. Assuming you’ve had multiple jobs and multiple managers, chances are good that the poor managers far outnumber the good ones. What makes a good manager, and how do you become one?
This article is for first-time managers, especially for those who have been thrown into the deep end with few role models. The goal is to give you the 80–20 of management in 10 minutes.
You Are Here
There are many ways to become an accidental manager. You may be:
- In an organization that grew in funding or work, and suddenly needs to get more done in the same amount of time. In this case, as a competent individual contributor, you need to hire and solve your original line of work at a greater scale.
- Starting a new project or initiative and need to manage contractors. This could include new business needs such as hiring developers to build a website, or hiring builders to remodel a kitchen, bathroom, etc.
- A leader in a volunteer organization, whether formally or informally, and coordinating other uncompensated teammates. This could include organizing a chorus group, throwing a conference, planning a party, etc.
Becoming an accidental manager is often a side effect of happy growth stories. Incidentally, you may already be a manager in many aspects of your life: sports team captains, managing a trip with friends, coordinating utilities with your roommates, etc. Whether you’re managing unpaid interns or a volunteer team fundraising for a charity, the principles of management remain the same. They are:
- Relationship Management
- Efficient Communication
Why Bother Becoming a Good Manager
Effective management is an interdisciplinary skill that pays immense dividends any time one works with people. Before servers and technology, written language and process, management was the original “scaling,” allowing individuals to collectively get more results for less individual work.
From an economic standpoint, division of labor and specialization lets everyone gain systems gains from doing the work that is the best for their comparative advantage.
From a transferability standpoint, managing a regular meetup is the same as managing a group trip itinerary, which is the same as managing a household.
From a fulfillment standpoint, effective management can become the highest act of leverage for humanity: structuring the working lives of other adults to help each of us self actualize and progress society forward.
Discipline One: Decision Making
“Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done, let alone with its techniques and tools.”
Peter Drucker, the Effective Executive
Management is responsible for one thing and one thing only: results. From there, we naturally ask, how do we achieve results consistently and at the highest quality? Great results are the consequence of effective decision making: thus, the first and most important responsibility of any manager is making good decisions.
For example: starting a new search engine to compete with Google in 2020 will fail, not to mention, lose you billions of dollars, no matter how well you manage your talented team. Just ask Bing. In Microsoft’s case, Bing is meant to play a portion in an integrated ecosystem of software and cloud solutions, but no matter how much money and engineering talent Microsoft throws at Bing, it’ll never compete search-for-search with Google.
In the day to day, more commonplace-but-still-critical decisions you will be expected to make:
- Should I hire this person? Should we interview more candidates or are we spinning our wheels?
- Does this new feature meaningfully contribute to the organization’s top-line goals? Does this feature deserve more development time or should we re-prioritize?
- What type of problem am I dealing with? Is this problem recurring or novel? Should this problem be solved by people, processes, or technology?
In addition to making decisions, generally, managers must focus their decision making on the biggest problems they have authority over. We all have seen examples of a manager wasting their time, frequently manifesting itself as micromanaging:
- Tweaking a powerpoint slide’s colors and typography, instead of focusing on content
- Individually approving emails and communication interdepartmentally, instead of setting clear goals and objectives so teammates can communicate autonomously
- Having individual meetings with hyper tailored conversations, instead of organizing individuals by function and communicating in one-to-many methods
Note: this doesn’t mean the manager is ever above the work she/he expects her/his reports to complete. Rather, it means prioritizing the biggest, most consequential decisions that only the manager can take responsibility for, and trusting the team to fill in the rest. Examples of this include securing the budget/funding equal to the task; giving clear task requirements, deadlines, and contextual information; and identifying opportunities for value-add activities, such as preventative measures, instead of constant firefighting.
Effective decisions lead to results. Whether that result is a passive income stream (e.g. a business so well-managed you don’t have to do anything to drive results,) or winning a competition, good decisions are the leading indicators to all goal achievement.
Action step: define your goal, what results accomplish that goal, and come up with a feasible plan for how you and your team will tackle this goal, and the metrics/outcomes that you will be measured by.
Discipline Two: Relationship Management
Gerald Weinberg, via Jeff Atwood, Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse.
Once you define your objectives, it’s time to figure out how people fit into that puzzle. This ranges from the obvious, such as managing interns and full-time employees, to the more subtle, such as managing vendors and investor relations.
Work feels good when our relationships are strong. But practically, what does this mean?
Relationships can generally be modeled as a set of rights and responsibilities. In other words, all relationships are social contract and covenant, explicit or implicit. Parents gain the right to parent by bearing the responsibility for their children. Licensed drivers gain the right to drive by going to driver’s ed and passing requisite exams. Freedom isn’t free, and similarly, managers gain the right to manage by bearing responsibilities for results and those whom they manage.
Of note, relationships can and often change as a function of how much responsibilities people are willing to bear. If someone takes on more responsibilities, it’s natural for that relationship to grow higher, and vice versa.
Strong relationships are ones where we feel rights and responsibilities are balanced e.g. with great rights come great responsibilities. Generally, the more of someone’s time you manage, the more responsibilities you owe to them in their workday, workweek, and career.
In order to more effectively take responsibility for your report, you must understand what makes them tick, what they need, and how. To understand someone at the most basic levels, answer these questions:
- What is this person’s story?
- Who is this person? Likes, dislikes, values?
- What has this person done? How does this align with their personality?
- Where did these experiences take place? In a large org? Small org? No org?
- When did this person come to this org and function? When would they like to progress to the next step?
- Why does this person do what she/he does? What meaning does she/he ascribe to all these actions and choices?
- How do you align the motivations of you, the manager, your report, and the organization?
Although their accuracy is contested, personality tests are a crude-but-quick way to gather data on someone’s way of being:
- Big Five: https://www.truity.com/test/big-five-personality-test
- MBTI: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp
- Whether you believe in personality tests or not, they will provide you with data about how that person conceives of themselves. Having a result state that a teammate is “bad at socializing” doesn’t imply they’re bad at socializing, but implies they think themselves bad at socializing. Understanding someone’s image of self, taken with other data points, is very helpful to appealing to their motivations
Frequently Asked Questions about Working Relationships
How do you manage someone you have both a personal and a professional relationship with?
When you share a professional and a personal relationship with someone, the professional relationship always takes priority because the responsibilities and consequences are greater. At its most extreme, your professional relationship with your report determines their primary source of income, which has downstream effects to where they live, their disposable income, and when/if they’ll have to search for a new job.
While there are many professional relationships that benefit from the trust of strong personal relationships, when push comes to shove, work and the importance of one’s livelihood means a professional context always trumps a personal one. Happily, a strong professional relationship generally strengthens the possibility for a strong personal relationship, and vice versa. If this framework seems inflexible, remember that you can always resume a normal personal relationship with someone after they no longer depend on you for a paycheck.
What do you mean by “it’s always the manager’s fault?” And why is that the case?
When there is conflict between a manager and someone she/he is managing, by default the manager is always at fault. This is a tall order, but harkening back to “managers are held responsible for results,” an unproductive working relationship is a failure that is assigned to the manager by default. This is why as a manager, it’s “always your fault.”
More granularly, there are also accompanying rights that sufficiently empowered managers have to make working relationships with those they manage productive. For example:
- Managers have the ability to write a job description, design an interview process, hire the right candidate based on personality, motivation, and skills. Managers have all the time and institutional knowledge about the organization to understand the true factors required for success.
- After bringing someone in, managers can put and take responsibilities on and off someone’s plate. For exemplary work, managers can also give bonuses and promotions as a way to properly incentivize and reward teammates.
- Finally, in addition to hiring and day-to-day management rights, managers also have firing powers. If someone cannot perform at the level needed fast enough, it is the manager’s job to let that person go. After that individual has been separated from the organization, however, the failure remains with the manager and it is her/his job to identify what prevented that hire from succeeding, and to bring in a better replacement.
Action step: write down a brief narrative of the person you’re managing, why/how their motivations can align in working for you, and a job description of their responsibilities to you.
Want a sample and template of a personal narrative I wrote for someone during an interview? Click through to muhanzhang.com/management-resources to download a template.
Discipline Three: Efficient Communication
“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”
Jeff Bezos, by Brad Stone, The Everything Store
Communication is a necessary means to an end. In the ideal world, there would be few to no meetings, overflowing inboxes, or endless messaging threads to catch up on as everyone would already be on the same page. In practice, however, business objectives can change often, things go wrong, and there are always new developments that need to be addressed in the form of meetings and check-ins. In addition, as a manager, you will naturally have asymmetrical information, and consequently, asymmetrical understanding between numerous parties. Once you’ve got your goal and have assigned clear roles among your team, your daily task will be listening comprehension and efficient communication in and out of different teams.
It is critical, however, to distinguish form from function. Being stuck in long, endless meetings with no clear objectives is the perennial purgatory of professionals. Meetings that don’t feel clearly valuable are default failures. Following are several popular types of meetings and how to make them productive.
Popular Meeting Functions
Update Meetings are for reviewing progress, identifying blockers, and assigning actionables. There are many frameworks for these, such as “rose, thorn, bud,” or “start, stop, continue.” Reviewing progress both serves as an accountability feature and a form of publicizing and celebrating progress that other teammates may not know about.
Identifying blockers is ideally where you spend most of your time, as problems can be complex or even mistyped. This cannot be emphasized enough: as a manager, your job is to tirelessly demand the bad news, as bad news seldom takes care of itself. Assuming you’ve done a good job identifying blockers and correctly diagnosing the problem, the actionables should naturally come after.
For those who are running large teams and project updates, getting one’s team to take 30 minutes before a meeting to write an agenda of their points can dramatically trim down meeting time.
Decision Meetings are for exactly what the name intends. Before Decision Meetings, the relevant stakeholders should collect all key information and organize it into executive summaries. Because Decision Meetings are also often conducted with external teammates, managers should tailor communication only to information that helps. Taking the time to explain to the CFO what a DDoS attack may fall on deaf ears, but ultimately, the only measurement of whether the manager communicated effectively is whether she/he secured the budget for a solution to protect business interests.
Check-In Meetings are often informal and take place in environments where all individuals feel comfortable. Ideally, personal life and professional life should seldom overlap, but the reality is that compartmentalization has its limits. Check-In Meetings give a healthy arena for people to be human and give context in a comfortable environment to share how they’re doing. Formal versions of the Check-In also include the monthly or quarterly review, where teammates receive clarity about their professional contribution and growth.
Non-Verbal Communication, Culture, and Naming Conventions
Actions speak louder than words. From whether the CEO chooses to literally have an open or closed door at the office, to how late teammates stay at the office or take vacation, communication is happening at all times in and out of the workplace.
How do you conduct meetings where you get the bad news?
The foundation to all effective meetings and organization is trust. While there are many ways to build trust, the most immediate way to establish a psychologically safe environment for your colleagues to share bad news is for you yourself to do as such. Managers who publicly acknowledge their own mistakes and growth experiences model for their teammates that teammates who make mistakes are not mistakes. If one is not comfortable sharing professional vulnerability, sharing personal vulnerability is also an effective method: acknowledging that one is stressed, working with scarce resources, or has doubts about certain developments, all demonstrate that it is acceptable to be a normal human being at times.
In addition, if you’ve hired good teammates, they may default to taking on personal responsibility even when the problem is a structural one. Becoming an individual who can talk about problems without identifying with those problems, gives your colleagues permission to do the same.
If you are having a regular Update Meeting, try to explicitly allocate half of your team’s time to answering the question “What sucks? What is not going right?”
Rectification of Names 正名
When Confucius was asked what he would do if he was a governor, he said he would “rectify the names” to make words correspond to reality. This “rectification of names” is a critical tool in the manager’s belt. When managing departments and teams, take time to define individuals by their function, rather than on an individual basis (e.g. sales, assurance, website team, etc.) This means that when you send emails, register for accounts, or invite people to meetings, anyone who is on that function (or has been recently added to that function) is automatically added and you’ll save yourself many keystrokes. This initial investment in intentionality saves massive amounts of time and improves the consistency of your communication.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Similarly, managers should always be asking: if a meeting takes place and no meaningful outcome or clarity is obtained, did it even take place? Efficient communication is the art of sharing information for superior results.
Action step: as much as possible, share the things you wrote down in previous steps (your team’s goals and your teammates roles in achieving those goals) with your team. Ideally, get them to write and reflect on these documents too. Set up a regular cadence of checking in that is appropriate for the speed and lifecycle of your org. Make meetings productive by defining outcomes so your teammates look forward to, even crave, meetings so they can remove obstacles and achieve results.
Management is a complex and ever-changing art form that will continue to evolve as organizations evolve in the new century. With the rise of positive psychology, the gig economy, and winner-take-all dynamics, managers in the 21st century must learn how to meet the needs of those they manage in circumstances that were unconceivable even just a few decades ago.
While circumstances and competitive landscape may change, however, the key principles delineated in this piece have been drawn from and should remain fairly persistent criteria to evaluate one’s own performance as a manager.
In addition, following are a few other characteristics for managers to be mindful of.
All Management Starts With Self Management
There is an expression in Chinese: “修身齐家治国平天下”, which translates to “improve yourself, manage your family, govern your country and right all things under heaven.” Similarly, all management of others starts with management of the self.
All the principles listed here for managing others are just as applicable (though a bit excessive) for managing oneself. Whenever one is working on any kind of individual project, whether it’s weight loss or a blog post, clarifying one’s intent, establishing supporters and allies, and establishing regular check-ins are all the hallmarks of good management. Although it’s a hackneyed phenomenon, this is the reason strong individual contributors are often asked to become managers: the same skills in individual decision-making, managing one’s emotional state and personal life, and communicating those results are the often leading indicators of effective managers.
How To Identify Whether You’re a Great Manager/”It’s Working”
Results: large, complex projects get completed on-time and with ease. Emergencies are never existential because you design projects and workloads well enough to have plenty of margin for error.
Upside: your team understands the key objective clearly enough to know what is helpful to the goal, are motivated enough to go above and beyond bring their best contribution. Happy surprises happen all the time where your teammates bring solutions that you hadn’t thought of.
Joy: clarity and understanding of cause and effect leads to ease and a joyous work environment.
Once you’ve got the basics of management, you’ll have the working foundation to further refine what kind of manager and leader you are. In addition, while there are always rules to management, there are also exceptions for unusual circumstances. Maybe there’ll be situations where you have to come off as “micromanaging,” so you can show your colleague how to increase consistency and accountability in a new field of work. Maybe you’re managing a highly transient workforce who doesn’t receive investment well and the best case scenario is maximizing tenure in a churn-and-burn workforce.
In most professional organizations, however, long-term professional development and nurturing can be a dramatic competitive advantage. If management and professional development aims to increase the professional capacity of all teammates through learning, then the goal of all relationships is to evolve into “manage and be managed” e.g. C-suite executives being peers while teaching each other, entrepreneurs educating their investors to ignore short-term fluctuations and focus on long-term value. Management can fluctuate and vary wildly across organization, from being a full-time role to part-time job to managing peers.
For more resources on management, I’ve compiled a list of books and articles at the bottom of this piece.
Final Summary of Action Steps:
- Define your goals and decide what actions your team must take to achieve these goals.
- Learn about your teammates as individuals and their motivations. When in doubt, lean into FORD and the who/what/where/when/why. Write job descriptions and assign responsibilities that align motivations with outcomes.
- Implement communication structures (stand-ups, end of day emails, 360 reviews, book-end meetings, whatever works for all parties,) that expose as much information permissible in the most efficient method possible.
- Ultimately, align all decision-making, personnel management, and communication protocols to outcomes.
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- Drucker (Effective Executive)
- Wiseman (Multipliers)
- Dwecker (Mindset)
- Raghunathan (HappySmarts)
- Achor (Happiness Advantage)
- Newport (Deep Work, So Good They Can’t Ignore You)
- Sutherland (Shamu)
- Chapman (Love Languages)
- Myers-Briggs (Gifts Differing)
- Goldsmith (Triggers, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There)
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