How to Step it up as Manager

Little_boy_stepping_up_the_winding_stairsAfter writing about behaviours that help new joiners to be successful I finally got around to write about managers. What does a successful manager look like. And here I don’t mean specific practices like the ones you can learn from www.managertools.com but rather the more high level behaviours. This is what I expect from a manager who works for me. It surprises me that so little guidance is provided for new managers (or at least I didn’t know where to look when I first got promoted). The below is what is in my head when I think of successful managers, with many years of managing managers it was well overdue to move this from the frequent coaching discussions into a blog post.

  • Servant leadership to set a positive example
    Servant leader sounds good, but what does it mean? A servant leader puts the team before his own interest. There are a number of behaviours that servant leaders show:
    – External blame stops with him – if there is a problem with something that the team has done, a good manager never blames an individual on the team. To the outside world he absorbes the critique and takes it on himself
    – Praise gets spread liberally – The opposite is true for praise. When the team has achieved success, a good manager goes to extra length to make sure everyone in the team gets credit. A servant leader knows that credit multiplies and by giving credit to team members, he will also be getting credit for managing that team
    – Sets good examples by doing what he expects from the rest of team himself. For example he also comes in when he asks the team to work weekends and makes sure the team has what it needs to be successful – and yes that might mean as a manger to get the coffees or pizzas if the rest of the team is busy and the manager can afford the time.
  • Ownership of the outcome
    As a manager you own the outcome of your team and yes that includes any dependencies that the team has to manage. As a manager it is your job to get things done with the help of your team – the times of “the dog ate my homework” are now truly over…sadly 😉 You should consider any deliverable that your team produces as your own deliverable, so make sure you are comfortable with it. Trust the team to get it right, but check on it as you need to. You cannot claim ignorance if someone in your team produces sub-par deliverables.
  • Has financial and schedule control for the project
    No matter whether it is explicitly stated, the expectation is that a manager knows what budget and schedule he has to work with and that at any point he knows how much of it has been consumed. If it has not been explicitly mentioned, you should get this information and understand how you can track it. If no support is provided create your own tracking mechanism. Communicate the status of budget on a regular basis to make sure that people are aware when things change and can let you know when external factors change (e.g. budget reductions). It doesn’t matter whether you run a small team or a large project this basic is important and the earlier you learn it the better. You might never get asked for it (good news) but when you are (mostly when things start to turn bad) you are ready and have all the answers
  • Communicates double as much as he think he should
    As a manager you are likely not working on your own tasks anymore (if you do, lucky you!) so a lot of the work is in stakeholder management. It does not matter what you think, it is likely that you don’t communicate enough. There is so much noise out there in regards to emails, collaboration tools, text messages, etc. that your job is to communicate with the target of being understood. You will have to tailor your approach to each individual. If you have to refer back to a memo from a while back when being questioned about a decision is bad news for you. You want to make sure your stakeholders are well informed and never surprised. That means over-communicate at all times and check whether you have been understood. Sometimes you will have to try several times before you are understood. If anything changes on the project, communicate this and the reason for it as early as possible even when its bad news. Bad news only get worse as time goes by.
  • Respects the basics and makes sure his team adheres to them
    The manager feels responsible that his whole team adheres to the basics of professional behaviour and provides feedback when this is not the case:
    – Meetings run efficiently, have agendas and notes are sent around in timely fashion
    – Actions are defined by “Who does What by When”
    – All major work products are documented at sufficient level
    – Commitments are being upheld and when things change it gets communicated early
    – Everyone in the team treats other people with respect and behaves professionally
    – Team members adhere to corporate policies
  • Knows his team and himself
    Besides delivery of the business outcome, a manager helps everyone to improve. This means he understands the ambitions of each person in the team and coaches them to achieve these ambitions. He has a plan for everyone in the team and a succession plan for when its time for someone to leave the team for bigger and better things. A good manager plays to the strength of the team members and does not focus on the weaknesses. He staffs his project by getting a diverse group of people with different mindset and working preference to avoid group think. He encourages productive arguments and discussions and steps in when they become unproductive. He also knows his own limitations and is able to ask for help from his team. Last but not least he always knows who is doing what and is aware of the status in case someone asks.
  • Escalates early and transparently
    A manager is careful when reporting status and risks, which means if in doubt she adds a risk or changes the status to something different than green. While many supervisors don’t like additional risks or non-green status, the ethical correct and best thing to do for the company is to provide the status to the best of the knowledge of the manager. Any doubts or concerns should not just be in the managers head (she might win the lottery tomorrow and disappear to the Bahamas) but rather be documented and represented in the status report. Someone once told me that a project status is amber until you have the first working version, as any green before that is absent of any objective validation. I like that, but perhaps wouldn’t go as far with the reporting. A good manager also never hides anything. While it is not strictly lying, omitting something relevant is pretty close to it, so similar to the earlier point you should rather overcommunicate so that there a no surprises, ever!

I know that there is probably a lot more to be said, but the above are for me critical things I want to see from a manager above and beyond and project or technology specific things. After all each project is different but the above characteristics create successful teams and winning cultures. Something we all aim for.

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