The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.
—Ray Kroc, Grinding It Out
When I first started managing employees (in the early 90s), my two top responsibilities were identifying potential roadblocks that would affect the schedule and providing financial oversight so we met budgetary restrictions. My project management skills were put to the test as I focused on ensuring that my employees had the tools and instructions they needed to complete their jobs. My job description was pretty clear and narrowly defined.
- Psychologist. To be a good manager, you must understand the wants and desires of your employees, then use motivational techniques that address them. You also need to be intuitive enough to recognize if something isn’t right wrong or if an employee needs more support with specific projects.
- Forensic accountant. Most managers have budgetary responsibilities, but most companies don’t provide financial training and just assume that their managers have that knowledge when they assume their roles. Regardless of whether you have training in this area, you’ll certainly be held accountable if you or your employees mishandle money. Therefore, you need to understand the financial aspects of your department and organization.
- College football coach. Employees constantly need to hear “You’re doing a good job” and “Keep up the good work.” Inspiration isn’t intrinsic or self-sustaining, so it’s up to you to provide a steady stream of encouragement to help employees feel motivated to do their jobs. If you don’t, you’ll constantly be recruiting replacements for the unengaged workers who leave.
- Mob enforcer. Cajoling and nudging can get you only so far. At some point, you may have to lay down the law to get the job done. That won’t be pretty, but sometimes it’s what you have to do.
- Politician. In addition to leading your employees, you also have to manage up—and that requires a completely different skill set. If you want to get ahead and be promoted, you need to figure out how to keep those above you in the loop without overwhelming them and provide the support they need to get their projects completed on time and within budget.
- Air traffic controller. At any moment during a typical day, in addition to being responsible for ensuring that your direct reports get their work done on time, you’re probably also juggling 10 or 12 tasks of your own. An air traffic controller at Chicago’s O’Hare airport could take scheduling lessons from today’s manager!
You have to fill all of these roles and also deal with a full plate of deliverables (both your own and your department’s).
So why do it? Why push so hard to be a great manager?
The answer is simple: because watching an employee blossom and surpass even his or her own expectations can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of your career.
Focusing on You
Unfortunately, many companies offer little (if any) support to people making the transition to manager or to current managers who need to learn new ways to motivate and engage today’s workforce. Many organizations expect managers either to have those skills already or to figure them out on their own. Even someone who has been an outstanding manager for many years still has plenty to learn (especially in the context of today’s rapidly changing workplace), and maintaining that same level of excellence will require the ability—and willingness—to adjust.
So as you focus on developing your employees’ professional development plans, don’t forget to focus on your own goals! In fact, make a commitment to yourself right now to spend time focusing on what you need to keep your skills current with the new workforce expectations. Don’t wait for (or even expect) your boss to figure it out. Instead, jump in and make yourself a priority in your schedule. Here are just a few ways you can to continue to grow and learn your management skills:
- Commit to outside training at least twice a year. Find offsite, “in person” training that takes you away from your day-to-day setting and responsibilities. (Do this in addition to any online training programs you use.) This should be the kind of training in which you put your phone in silent mode, you give your undivided and uninterrupted attention, and you can be completely engaged and focused on learning (and on figuring out how to apply that learning when you return to the office).
- Learn to be an effective communicator. Managing up, down, and sideways requires superior communication skills—and your future success will depend on them. Rather than try to predict what people want, ask them about their goals and dreams. By listening to what they say and being as transparent as you can in your communications, you’ll be able to discuss workplace conflicts and come up with solutions that motivate all your employees. If you focus on building only one skill for yourself, make it this one.
- Hire smart people. Many managers fail at this very important task—and pay a huge cost for doing so. Instead of focusing on larger strategic issues, managers who don’t hire smart people spend too much time holding the hands of bad employees. Don’t just hire smart people—hire people who are smarter than you. (Jack Welch famously said, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ve got real problems.”) Learn not to be intimidated by people who are smarter than you, because hiring them only makes you look more brilliant! And smart people not only bring with them great ideas but also can take on more responsibilities that would otherwise fall to you.
- Learn how your company makes and loses money. If you’re not learning, you’re stagnating. So keep pushing yourself to learn new skills, both inside your company and in your industry at large. For example, learn about how your product is made (and priced) as well as how much it sells for (and the corresponding profit). Don’t stop there, though: also learn about what it takes to sell to your customers and what customer support (both short-term and long-term) is needed. Just as you would encourage your employees to speak with other department heads in order to learn about the whole organization, do the same yourself. Discuss how you can assist other department heads, figure out how you can add value, then make their projects priorities for you. By volunteering to help, you’re expanding your exposure to other company executives (which can help with a possible promotion down the line) while also learning something new.
- Build a reputation as someone who gets stuff done. Be a creative problem solver and build your reputation as someone who adds value across the organization, not just in your department. If you’re bogged down in details, take a project management class to help you get organized and focus on the “big picture” items (not just the minor tasks that can eat up your entire day). In corporate America people are either part of the problem or part of the solution. If you focus on the latter, the company leadership will recognize that promoting you is imperative to the organization’s growth and success.
- Make developing talent a priority. Ensuring that your employees continue to improve their skills motivates them and also benefits you in the long run by helping with your succession planning. When you move up and assume greater responsibilities (or take on an entirely different role), you need a successor—someone to step into your current job. So make it a priority to develop talent and create a formal succession plan, seeking guidance from the HR department and well-respected leaders you know and doing plenty of your own research. If you establish a reputation for developing talent in your wake, the brightest and best will want to come work for you. Then when the time comes for you to move up, you can focus on your new responsibilities, knowing that your old department will be in good hands.
It’s up to you to decide what kind of leader you want to be for your employees. Focus on how to improve your skills so your employees want to emulate you when they become managers themselves. The power to do so rests exclusively with you—so make today the day you start!