How to be a great manager

We’ve all had our share of great managers and not-so-great managers. Some managers bring the best out of their team. They can make you feel productive and like a valuable employee.They know how to take you from one level and make you even better. They are truly great managers.

Then there are the not-so-great managers. The types of managers that no one wants to work for. They are some combination of selfish, rude, and oblivious to how they make their team feel. The team isn’t productive and everyone hates Monday mornings that much more because it’s a week with a bad boss.

But what about when you become the boss? You’re now the manager. How do you make sure you’re the great manager? Whether you’re a first time manager or an experience one, it’s tough to know how to get the most out of your team, but it’s absolutely possible.

Your team comes first

At one point in your career you were a great individual contributor. Your boss and her boss both thought of you as a great employee and someone who the company can develop to be a leader.

One mistake not-so-great managers make is continuing to act as an individual contributor. As a manager, you are now evaluated based on how well your team does. Even if you are still tasked with making individual contributions while managing, you must keep your team’s development as the first priority before your individual contributions.

You are first a coach and second a player on the team. You are now in charge of developing talent, delegating the department’s priorities efficiently, and making sure your team has a work environment that will make them productive.

A large part of putting your team first and giving them that productive work environment is accepting the blame for problems and handing out the praise to your direct reports for the successes.

One thing that drives employees crazy is when their manager takes credit for their work or when the manager passes on blame down the corporate ladder. As a manager, you will need to own up to the team’s failures and share the success with your team.

If your boss asked why a certain project didn’t work out, you should take the responsibility for it yourself even if it was one of your direct reports who messed up. You should let your boss know that you didn’t help out that employee enough and the project has slipped up, but you will get it back on track.

Likewise, when a project goes great, let your boss know that the success for that project goes to your employee. And also let your employee know that your boss was told what a great job she did, perhaps by sending an email to your boss:

To: [Boss’s email]

CC: [Employee’s email]

Hi [boss’s name],

I wanted to let you know that the XYZ project wrapped up earlier this week. All signs point to success so far. [Employee’s name] did a great job on this project and deserves the credit!


[Your name]

Your boss will know that the accomplishments were led by you, but it also motivates your team to know their great work is recognized by upper management.

Treat everyone as an individual

Your team is a group of individual people, each with their own goals, fears, beliefs, and personality. As such, treat each of your direct reports as an individual person.

Give employees as much freedom as they need to work efficiently. Some people prefer to work solo and others prefer to work in pairs. Some work better with their manager checking in often and others work great with fewer discussions during the day. Find how each person works bests and give them a work situation where they can thrive.

Understand your individual team member’s emotions. Know when they feel overwhelmed. Know when they feel lost. Know when they are unhappy. All of this revolves around emotional intelligence and better leaders tend to have more emotional intelligence than other leaders.

When an employee feels overwhelmed, help him manage his workflow. Take an item or two off his priority list until he feels ready to take it on. When another employee feels unhappy about something at work, ask her what’s bothering her. If one of your team members needs support dealing with someone else in a different part of the company, stand up for her. If you need to go a level up for that support, ask your boss to support that team member too.

I remember once when I was having trouble getting a lower level employee at a vendor our company worked with to get a project done on time. It was a simple project that had been going on for three weeks. I told my boss about my frustrations and he picked up the phone that moment and call an executive at the other company. He voiced his displeasure with the situation…The job was done two hours later. But more importantly, he stuck up for me and my team. You can bet I had his back in the future too.

Do what you need to do to keep your team members feeling positive about their work.

Ask for help

Like most things in life, getting the help of more experienced people will make you better. Find a mentor ask for advice in the areas you want to improve. Management is a skill that you can improve over time and it’s especially improve to get help during the first year when you transition from an individual contributor to a manager.

Your boss is probably the best person to ask for help. She knows the situation you are in and likely has more management experience than you. She was probably in a similar situation to you just a few years ago. I wrote about getting your boss’s help before: How to ask your boss for help without looking stupid.

If you know other experienced managers, perhaps bosses at previous jobs, you can also get their help. If you are dealing with a particularly tricky situation within your company, it can be better to talk to someone outside the company so you can be more honest about the problems you face with political situations inside the company.

And the most overlooked place to get help is from your direct reports. Everyone can learn from other people whether they are older than you, younger, your boss, or your employee. Your direct reports can tell you what you are doing best as a manager and where you need improvement.

During your regular one-on-one check ins with your reports, go through the normal agenda: projects, priorities, and your employee’s feedback. Then turn the tables and tell your employee about what you are working on. Perhaps it’s meetings with your boss, the different projects other people on the team are working on, and then ask for feedback about how you are doing as a manager. You can say something like this:

Since these one-on-one check ins are for both of us to learn, I was hoping you can give me some feedback. What is one area that you think I’m doing well as your manager? [Start with a positive point to open the conversation. It’s easier to give a compliment than criticism. Listen carefully.]

Thanks so much for that feedback. I’m glad I can help you and the team like that. What do you think I can improve on to make the team better? [Ask an open ended question. A yes or no question will get you a yes or no answer. Also focus on how you can help the entire team. This takes some pressure off your employee to give you more honest feedback.]

Here you are letting your employee know that you care about keeping her in the loop on other projects on the team and that you respect her opinion. You also get to know exactly what challenges your team is having with each other and yourself.

As always, take any negative criticism as well as you can. It likely isn’t personal. It might just be your direct reports wanting to vent about something beyond their control, but also use the feedback to improve the work environment for your employees.

In the end, being a manager is about making your team productive and engaged so they can help the company. Doing that will make you a great manager.

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