How To Be A Great Manager

29 Dec

The Role (and Value) of a Manager – A manager is the key position in any company and their performance is the foundation for any truly high performing team of employees. Therefore, front-line managers are the most important role-based employee in any company. Call them supervisors, managers, whatever you want. Your employees who are responsible for the day-to-day task execution of your business by leading a team of other associates are the oxygen on which any company depends. From now on, I’ll just refer to them as managers for simplicity.

Over fifty years of research has proven time and time again that the key to higher organizational performance depends on the manager leading great teams. Having great employees on that team, making sure they have adequate resources, and having a solid business strategy are all important and necessary. However, what I’m talking about here is truly differentiated performance. If you want your company performing at that next level, you have to have high performing teams … and to have high performing teams, you MUST have great managers.

The Golden Rules – While not debated and thoroughly researched for decades, the value of great managers has never led to clear and concise guidance for actual managers. Literally tens of thousands of research studies and thousands of books have led to a confusing mess of guidance. Luckily, the key to great management is actually pretty simple.

Great mangers are critical but what does it mean to be a great manager? When looking at managers and all that has been written about them, you can quickly surmise a few golden rules, if you will, for being a great manager leading high performing teams. I’ll save you about five years of research and ten years of reading and summarize these rules for you:

  1. Great managers have a bond with their teams built on trust
  2. Great managers are clear in their guidance to the team
  3. Great managers are constantly zoned in on their team’s performance

Well … that’s about it. Yes, half a century of study and research, writing and pontificating, consulting and preaching all boils down to these three basic rules. I’m no genius but this is what I’ve found in the nearly fifteen years of self-study and academic pursuits. Additionally, I’ve got fifteen years of on-the-job experience as both a front-line manager and learning and development professional directly responsible for creating great managers. I do have some credibility on the subject but if you want, go look for yourself. However, all those management books at the airport and HBR articles you download for free usually get down to these three basic elements.

The One True Goal – While I just outlined three golden rules for great management, I think I can reduce that list to just one item … or one goal. That’s right. One simple activity any manager can do to be better. One target for any manager to shoot for that will lead to better team performance:

  1. Great managers coach their teams every single day

A manager must be the personal coach of their team members. All of them. At a personal level. On a daily basis. A great manager must create one-on-one relationships with their team members, they must know them as a person first, and they must build that necessary trusting relationship with the team member. A great manager must understand what the team member’s role is on the team, know what the team member should be focused on, and be able to communicate that goal to the associate. Finally, a great manager must constantly monitor that team member’s performance providing support, instruction, and guidance when required on a daily basis. This single goal of a manager beautifully brings all three golden rules into one target for managers.

Coaching for Trust – A bond between a great manager and a team is built on trust. To have trust, a manager has to have personal rapport with each of the members of their team. This sort of trust requires concerted effort from the manager. It requires knowing about their lives, their goals, their issues, their joy, and their sorrow. Great teams are a collection of human beings after all and a great manager is well served to remember that. The ups and downs of performance always mirror the daily lives of the members of the team. A manager with a solid rapport with each team member keys in on this and understands the larger picture. Understanding equals caring. A team who knows their manager cares trust their manager. Trust is never a one way phenomena. Given time, trust is always two-way. A manager who is trusted will trust. That bond between manager and team pulls them through a lot of ebbs and flows. That trusting environment is the fuel a great team feeds on and a great manager has to take the first step in establishing the trust.

Coaching for Clarity – Great managers also provide clear guidance. This is the simplest of the golden rules to link to every day coaching. Great coaching requires clear guidance and a manager has to know where their team needs to head in order to be a great manager. Great coaching requires clear communications … a great manager has to be able to unequivocally paint a picture of expectations and directions for their team. For a team to be high performing, each team member needs to know how they support the team’s overall objective and a manager must be clear in expectations. A manager that coaches their team every day is also providing guidance and communicating direction every day. Daily communication norms the team and gets everyone on the same page. Communication methods are constantly tweaked and adjusted … as the team bonds, they are learning to communicate. An everyday coach is constantly practicing that team communication. As this high performing team gels, their communication becomes tailored to their distinct make-up. Clarity of communication ensues.

Coaching for Performance – Great managers zone in on their team’s performance and coaching is the fundamental activity that addresses this. In other words, a great manager has to be able to monitor and address performance issues in real-time. This requires a manager to be very present … on a daily basis … in order to deal with problems as they occur in real time. A great coach is there when they are needed. Zoning in on performance means a manager has their thumb on the performance pulse of the team. This micro-coaching that occurs every day ebbs and flows with the team becoming more right-sized for the unique team composition the more a manager coaches every day. Trusting team members are oriented around clear goals and begin to understand more and more what their manager expects. The bond between manager and team means a manager’s performance management is custom to the team and more meaningful as a result.

This is why I can reduce fifty years of management research and publishing, fifteen years of personal experience, and those three handy golden rules to this one goal for managers. The only way a great manager can bond with their teams, provide clear guidance, and zone in on their team’s performance is to coach on an everyday basis. Coaching requires trust but builds and strengthens it, coaching requires clarity but supports the sharing of that message best, and coaching requires targeted performance management but provides a means to deal with performance issues.  It is simply the required activity any manager must do.

Putting It Into Practice – Okay, so this goal of a manager is clear and easy to understand. Its link to the three golden rules is pretty easy to explain. At this point, you are either sold on the idea or at least must admit that being a coach for your team on a day-to-day basis won’t hurt anything and likely will help the team. However, you can tell it’s hard to implement. Doing this every day with every team member is tough. I can concede a lot … but I won’t concede these points. Great managers bond with each of their team members by whatever means works for each person. This requires tremendous EQ on the manager’s part. Great managers are clear in their guidance so they know the job required and where the team needs to go in order to achieve the results they need to achieve for the organization. Managers have to be great communicators. Finally, great managers must be laser-like focused on team performance constantly monitoring, adjusting, addressing issues, and securing resources required for their team to perform. This takes nearly all their time and attention at work.

By now you have moved past the “damn, this doesn’t look so hard” phase to the “damn, does he know I’m just one person” phase. At this point, I’m going to get a big brusque. Forgive my directness but let’s just say, I’ve engaged in this sort of conversation before with managers. Let’s also say, I’ve been in all the situations I’m going to talk about below. I’ve made every mistake and crawled out of most holes I’ve dug for myself. Just to be clear, a large part of my credibility is due to the mistakes I’ve made and … most importantly … learned from along the way. Here is my response to some common challenges I hear from current managers all the time:

  1. I do not have enough time … you are focused on the wrong thing when you are at work. This should be your priority. If you don’t think building a trusting relationship with your team is important or worthy or your time investment, you likely have no emotional intelligence which likely puts your management career on ice anyway in the long-term. If you know you need to but aren’t doing this, you might be afraid of building the rapport. Maybe you haven’t had this modeled for you by good managers in your career. Either way, learn how. EQ is a learnable trait … address it … it will serve you well in your future. If you have too many personal projects and deliverables keeping you from focusing on these relationships, your manager is cheating you and your team. You aren’t a manager and everyone under you is suffering … you are an individual contributor. You either should not be a manager or your manager needs to increase the size of your team so you can carve out time to actually be a manager. If your manager just placed you in the position as a manager to clean up their org chart … see the next note. If won’t work.
  2. I have too many team members to do this … your team is too big. You probably are looking at a few teams then. You are either a micro-manager, your manager is trying to create a fake team being led by an individual contributor (you), or you haven’t done your job to create new managers under you. You’ve likely taken on too much or had too much forced on to you. Either way, the system is broken and team performance is suffering. Coach the next great managers on your team, split up the team, and do everyone a favor and focus on a little bit less. Step up for yourself and your team. In the end, your organization cannot afford for you to be so weak-kneed.
  3. I can’t measure our performance … you don’t understand what your team is doing or their value to the organization. If you can’t do this, neither can your boss and you and your team are in trouble. Many managers like to say their team performance is too complicated to put in words or to measure. This is a smokescreen protecting their ignorance. If you cannot track and measure your team’s performance you are either not spending enough time with them or … must worse … you have no idea how to measure their performance. Get back to the basics and look at your strategic guidance and team objectives. Is everything linked to where the organization is going? How does each team member support what the team needs to accomplish? Get help from your manager. If you don’t know what great performance is for your team, you cannot be a coach and therefore you cannot be a manager.
  4. We’re too complicated for this … your team is spread too thin without a clear objective and … to top it off … you aren’t being a good communicator. If you don’t know what everyone should be doing … your team doesn’t either! See the above issue we just talked about. You have to be able to clearly state your expectations. Write it down, practice giving guidance, and ask for help from your manager. If you cannot communicate where your team is headed … being a coach is a non-starter and so is your role as a manager. If you cannot but someone else is … you aren’t the manager anyway … no matter what the org chart says … and you can stop worrying.

As you can tell, I have trouble mustering much empathy for managers who challenge the core tenets of management and the role of the manager. Managers must embrace their role and responsibility to get really good at that role for the sake of their team and the organization.

In Conclusion – Great managers are critical to an organization’s success. Luckily being a great manager is actually pretty straightforward. Focused on the golden rules of great managers, a manager who coaches their team every day lays the proper foundation for a high performing team. A manager who coach’s their team everyday strengthens the trusting bond between the team and themselves, polishes a clear set of expectations for the team everyone understands, and creates a performance culture adjusted to the day-to-day realities of the team. Coaching a team on a daily basis is the single unifying activity any great manager can do that address all three golden rules. When all this comes together, a high performing team is the product. While fairly clear in design, coaching teams every day takes tremendous effort on the manager’s part. What we have to remember is that the performance of the team is the bottom-line responsibility of the manager so the work required to support high performance is … in the end … the manager’s role and reason for being a manager.


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