Sunday, August 20, 2006

Management Style….

Is that sort of like “Jumbo Shrimp”? A classic oxymoron?

At times I think so.

Most managers have about as much ‘style’ as a laundry bag.

I talk (or write) a lot about bad management, so I thought it was about time I put some words together about what I think makes a good manager. What separates the good from the bad, those with style from the ugly?

It’s a combination of elements actually, not simply one thing.

  • staying cool in the midst of disaster
  • fostering teams, as opposed to superstars
  • ability to see both the big picture, and the details as well
  • an understanding that while deadlines are important, so are resources to meet them
  • knowledge not only of those being managed, but their jobs as well
  • an understanding of the company, it’s revenue sources, and how their department aids in revenue development
  • Remembering that everyone, including their ‘stars’ makes mistakes, often at the worst possible times.
Stay cool

One of the best Unix guys I’ve ever known used to compare working at a client site to being a concert pianist. That regardless of the obstacles or set backs, you could never let the client wee you sweat.

The idea behind it was if the client saw that you, the ‘expert’, were concerned, or flustered, it would affect their confidence levels. That if they lost confidence, it didn’t much matter what happened next, you were doomed with respect to any ongoing client relationship.

I felt it was a pretty apt analogy, one that also applies to managers. Workers look to the manager in times of trouble to gain a perspective, to understand the extent of the emergency and to be reassured that everything will get resolved. Not only that it will get resolved, but what they need to do to aid in that resolution.

A good manager will rally the troops around a problem, hand out assignments (to everyone not just one or two key players), as well as assist where they can, and monitor the progress. In short, involve the entire team in achieving a resolution, giving each team member a stake in solving the problem.

There won’t be any yelling, screaming or finger pointing. There will be an ability to focus on the problem, and how to fix it, rather than finding an individual to ‘blame’ for it.

There’s plenty of time, after the problem is resolved to take those involved in creating it aside and determining what went wrong, and if there’s a ‘responsibility’, to determine where the breakdown was that created it. Once that’s done, to act swiftly to do what’s required to ensure it will not be repeated.

Foster teams, as opposed to superstars

This one is tough for many managers. It seems that anyone can manage superstars, but it takes a real manager to turn a group of average or above average folks into a superstar team. I suppose if it was easy, there be a league wide tie every year in the NFL.

Any manager can shine with ‘superstars’… the fact is though, that for every one true superstar, there are 100 maybe a 1,000 of the rest of us. If you want to manage people, to do it effectively you need to learn how to play to the strengths of each of the individual players. Learn to maximize their efforts, and therefore their contributions, to their strengths, not their weaknesses.

That might seem like a no brainer, but I’m willing to bet everyone of you has seen a manager assign a task to someone not at all well suited to it, simply because there was ‘room on their plate’. The harder call is to reallocate some of the existing tasks, to get the right person on the right tasks, so that everyone is playing to their strengths where ever possible.

Fostering teams, also means doing more than just saying you want everyone to work as a team. It means encouraging team meetings, both formal, and informal. Encouraging, no, expecting, that the team members talk to each other, toss around ideas, argue, and find the best solutions, together, not as individual components.

I’ve seen too many managers focused on the ‘head down’ mentality, and in virtually every case, the team suffered. The results of their efforts where diminished, and deadlines loomed, had there been a little more communication, a lot more could have been accomplished, with a lot less stress.

See both the big picture and the details as well

Most managers can see the big picture; the best managers see each of the details as well. They understand the whole model, front to back, end to end and everything in between.

Some managers focus solely on one, or the other, the best give appropriate focus to both the overall plan, and the details involved in achieving that plan as well.

I’ll admit it’s a delicate balance, and often a tenuous one at best. Regardless though, to be a truly great manager, that person has to strike the balance, often rebalancing several times a week, or even a day, as events dictate. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the plan itself and lose sight of the obstacles facing your team. Those little details that seem fairly unimportant today, if left to resolve themselves, can end up tripping up the entire team’s progress. The good managers know this and attend to not only the big issues, but the details as well.

This does not involve ‘micro-management’ however. It’s more a role of facilitator, spotting those obstacles as they arise, listening to the team when they talk about the issues their facing. In fact, it’s a culture of encouraging these issues to be raised. Not simply accepting the “no problems” response, but actively looking for and eliminating roadblocks to the team’s success.

While deadlines are important, so are resources to meet them

I wish I still had a dollar for every ‘deadline’ centric manager I’ve worked for. I could retire now.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of deadlines, and meeting them. Rather to point out that a team can’t meet their deadlines if they don’t have all the resources they need to do so.

One of my favorite sayings is:

“I’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that now, I can do anything with nothing.”

That, unfortunately, is the plight of the average worker these days. Increasingly tight deadlines, diminishing resources, more pressure for flawless performance and increasing expectations for the finished product.

The great managers see all of these changes, weigh them and determine the best way to meet them. Either head on, or in a flanking maneuver, one way or another they must be met, and overcome. They understand how to most effectively deploy the team, maximizing their strengths, and minimizing their weaknesses as they address every obstacle to success.

It’s another delicate balance this mix of deadline commitments and resources, but one a manager has to master to be good, or even great. Without mastering it, they’ll just be another manager, who’s managing, to get by. They’ll never be one of those managers who always seem able to rise to the challenge, and where everyone is striving to get on their team.

That’s it for today… next up, the rest of the list!
As always, leave me a comment, tell me what you think. What made your best managers, the best, or the worst, the worst?

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Beth said...

I never had any great managers, but my husband is one. He is willing to work twice as hard as any employee and pitch in wherever it is needed. I noticed his employees always respect him because he has always been the type of guy to get his hands dirty. He quit managing due to the hours and became a diesel mechanic and now is managing once again, but he's managing mechanics while still being one. The best of both worlds, I guess.

Bill said...

Beth - I've been chastised for being exactly that type of manager. Most upper management types can't fathom actually 'doing' the job, and see it as a sign of poor management when you do.

From the 'team' perspective however, even if you don't jump in and actually get your hands dirty, knowing enough to ask the right questions, or make a decent suggestion, generally garners a ton of respect.

One of my biggest downfalls as a manger, was not letting my teams 'do the work'... the problem for me is that I like the work! It's a fine line, but one I think is better for being crossed from time to time, than not.

Lorna said...

I think the best description of a good manager came in a class I was taking...the best manager says to the employees "Do anything you see me do." I tried to be that manager. It isn't easy but it really makes you think of the consequences before you act. And that can't be bad....

Bill said...

Lorna - It sure beats the "Do as I say... Not as I do" type of management!! I think any manager willing to act as the example, hoes up at least a couple of notches.. from the get go!

Tamar Granor said...

Joel Spolsky wrote some interesting stuff on management styles recently on his blog:

Bill said...

Tamar - Thanks for the info... and for stopping in! I'm honored to have someone who's books I own drop by! Not too mention another 'die-hard' VFP enthusiast!!

Firehawk said...


Sort of mixed this one and the previous post together, commenting on the previous comment line. Oops. Anyway, liked 'em both.

Jay said...

But you have to admit, the screaming, finger-pointing kind of bosses make for far better blog fodder.

Jada's Gigi said...

I had a fabulous manager when I worked for CSX, the railroad. The entire staff I was with was very good, but she was superb....I always new what she expected, she didn't lord over me at all but treated me as a responsible adult, she gave me a tremendous amount or respect and lee way and we got loads of praise, encouragement and rewards from her. I never saw anyone who could handle a large group of employees the way she did and get the productivity she could get.
I judge evey manager I've worked with since by her standard...most don't even come close.

Bill said...

Firehawk - No problem bro... I'm just glad you enjoyed them both!

Jay - Yep.. they sure are... however, do we really *need* to get that at work? I think there's plenty of fodder just about everywhere! :)

Cheryl - You worked at CSXT? Small world.. I have a cousin who is working there now!

Also, I'm pretty involved with the rail industry... I might have even talked with your old boss. I've actually been very impressed with many of the Rail industry managers I've met.

Today's Rail carriers are definitely not the 'Old' rail companies we think about.

I'm glad you've had a manager who let you see how it can be done!

Comfort Addict said...


Great insights! I'll add one from my experiences on both ends of management, too: trust your team to play their roles.

Too many managers (former superstars, actual or perceived) want to do everything themselves or delegate it to other perceived superstars. If this happens, some people just sit around while others work their butts off. This is not good on several levels (burnout, no learning, distorted perspectives, etc.).

Catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) said it best to pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) in Bull Durham. "Relax, all right? Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls - it's more democratic."

Bill said...

CA - First... great to see ya!!

"trust your team to play their roles

I need to definitely add that one to the list!! It's a critical part of the management role... if you can't trust a team member... you need to get them off the team, and find someone you can trust!!