I did not know what to expect when I became a manager. It was something I was working towards since I started working in co-op in university. I would longingly mouse over my boss in Outlook to see the title “Manager”. Out of curiosity, I would then look at his boss to see “Director” and then go up the chain, eventually reaching CEO or President of the Company.

When I became a manager, things seem to happen all at once. You have team members you are responsible for. People come to you for coaching. You enter a new world of politics as you become the go-between for executives and staff. The only experiences I could draw from were from my previous managers, and luckily, I had some great managers I could learn from.

Now that I’m a manager (and have been for several years), I can see what worked well and what doesn’t. Great managers have traits that good or okay managers don’t.

Open-minded and willing to be challenged

It was the first time I ever worked with a Partner from BC. A bit of context, I was working for a professional services firm, and at these firms, the Partner is the boss on the project – what they say usually goes. I was working on a health project for a government health organization and the team was sitting in the office reviewing slides we were preparing for an executive presentation. Things were going well – the Partner liked what he saw. And then we came to a slide where the Partner disagreed with our approach. He explained his thinking, what he thought the slide should show instead, and then said something I had never heard another Partner say: “That’s what I think, but I’m open to being challenged”.

That one sentence, to me, was fascinating. The Partner was not interested in being right. He was interested in getting to the right answer. We ended up going with what the Partner said, but not after a healthy and safe discussion about why the project team wanted the slide another way.

Leaders (and managers) are open-minded. Some of the best managers know that just because something was done a certain way years ago (often when they were the employee and someone else was a manager) does not mean it always has to be the case. And those same managers also recognize they have a certain distance away from the work done, so often are not as in-tune with what works and what doesn’t work as their employees are.

Empathetic and can provide feedback in the right way

I have been on both the giving and receiving end of feedback. Those open and honest conversations are tough either way. But I think the better managers know exactly what it’s like to provide feedback to an employee and know how to position the feedback so that it’s positive and constructive, not negative and demoralizing.

It helps to have great employees in your team. They are open and always seeking feedback to improve themselves. In those cases, it’s easier to provide feedback. Except you might be wondering, what happens when they don’t see the mistakes they’re making?

One of my managers provided me with an interesting framework, which comprises several questions. Imagine you have an employee who completed a report for you.

  • How did you think the report writing went for you?
  • What do you think you did well?
  • What do you think you did not so well? Would you do anything differently next time? What?
  • How can I help you next time?

In a lot of cases, your employee will recognize when things didn’t go so well and what to improve on. There’s no need as a manager to chime in with your suggestions and constructive criticism. And then in other cases, maybe the employee doesn’t recognize what didn’t go so well. In those cases, you can narrow down your questions.

“In the environmental scan, do you feel like the work was comprehensive?”

“How did you feel about the length of the Executive Summary?”

“If the CEO read this report, what do you think she would have said about the formatting and readability of the report?”

Some other notes on providing feedback:

  • Make it a regular thing
  • Be positive
  • Praise accomplishments

Great managers provide feedback that make it feel like they want you to succeed and grow, not put you down and make you fearful and cautious.

Respected

There’s a difference between being respected and being liked. And where you have a choice between the two, being respected is better.

It’s great to be friendly and joke around with your team and coworkers. But when it comes down to it, there are times where you need to have open, candid conversations about touchy subjects: job performance, boundaries, work expectations, and more. I know if I want my employees to like me, it introduces awkwardness and discomfort in the manager-employee relationship. For example, imagine you are friends with an employee at work you are the boss of, and then one day, the company lets them go.

Am I friends with people at work? I could call a few people my friends, but they’re not my employees, nor are they my bosses.

As in this Spectacular at Work article, there’s a sweet spot between being liked and being respected.

“Your credibility soars when people see you doing the right thing handling issues promptly and with confidence, and most of all, with integrity. The secret in the sauce is that when you are respected as a leader, you’ll often be liked as a byproduct.”

Jodi Wellman – https://www.spectacularatwork.com/idea/2019/being-liked-vs-being-respected-as-a-leader

Clear vision for what needs to be done

In Day 51, Donald Miller’s Business Made Simple video (sign-up for free!) talks about one of the many key skills of management: the ability to establish clear priorities.

Great managers know what needs to be done, they measure progress, and they provide feedback to employees when progress isn’t being made on the business priorities.

When I was an employee, I often asked a lot of questions of my manager. “Why are we doing it this way?” “When do you need this by?” “What are you expecting after I complete this?” “I can’t find this information, what do I do?” Every single time I asked a question, I got an answer that helped me. Naturally, when I became a manager, I thought great managers always had the answer. But I can honestly say I tell employees “I don’t know” about 50% of the time. Employees are getting smarter and asking harder questions.

The one key skill managers and leaders have is a clear vision for what needs to be done – that helps them answer the majority of the questions that come up from their employees.

Recognizes everybody’s strengths and doesn’t focus on improving other people’s weaknesses

In Gallup’s State of the American Workforce report, Gallup found that employees that know what their strengths are become 7.8% more productive. Teams that focus on strengths every day have 12.5% greater productivity.

When I was working at a professional services firm, one coworker was laid off. After they were laid off, we worried for our jobs. My former coworker was a hard worker, and he was skilled at developing slides, but apparently, he was not very good at writing. One senior manager told me “why are we focusing on his weaknesses, let’s just get him to develop slides every day”. Another senior manager told me “we need well-rounded individuals that can do all kind of project work”.

A decade later, I myself lean towards the first senior manager. Ultimately, do you want to be part of an organization that tries to mould every employee and manager into a single ‘ideal’ worker? Or do you want to be part of an organization where everybody focuses on the strengths they have to be more productive and efficient?

Takeaways and action items for you

You’re likely reading this article because you’re interested in what great managers do, but also tactically, what you can do to become a better manager. To summarize, great managers are:

  • Open-minded – Instead of saying “this is the way”, ask “what do you think of …” Phrasing a suggestion as a question, when not done too often, can be a great way of leaving something open to being challenged, but also subtly changing the direction of a report or presentation or any other deliverable your team works on.
  • Empathetic – I ask a lot of questions. Some are smart. A lot are dumb. But there’s a certain humility with asking questions. It signals you don’t know it all. And it’s not as strong of a ‘statement’ as just stating something outright.
  • Respected – Often, when your team respects you, they also like you. Don’t worry about making the popular decision. Worry about doing the right thing.
  • Clear vision – What exactly is the ‘so what?’ of all this work? When you can figure that out, you can lead more effectively. And if you don’t know, ask your boss/leader.
  • Focus on strengths – The first step in focusing on strengths is finding out what your team’s strengths are. Through team meetings or one-on-ones, ask each individual what they are particularly good at. It could be a specific skill like writing. It could be talking to people. And then, as a manager, note the strengths down. Then, the next time you need to delegate work, find the person on your team with that strength.