Ron Close is a Senior Leadership Advisor at Sagard Holdings and Portag3 Ventures.
Anyone who has worked long enough knows the difference between a good and bad manager. We know what it feels like to be part of a well-organized team (or not); being informed, trusted, and motivated (or not); having clear and consistent priorities that are synchronized with the larger team (or not). Managing human beings is complex and delicate and most of us are not born with an intuitive understanding of how to do it well. And for those of you managing within a start-up environment the challenges can be even tougher as your organizations grow, pivot, and change even more rapidly. Here is a primer for those of you beginning to manage others, and a refresher for those who are already in that saddle.
Would your employees say you are an “excellent” manager?
· Would they say you know of their career interests and actively help them progress?
· Would they say you share information openly and fully and welcome discussion?
· Do they know what you really think of their performance…good and bad
· Would they say you are readily available to help them succeed?
Are your employees learning how to manage effectively and be managed effectively by watching you lead your team?
Most managers (new and experienced) have never really been trained on the art and the science of management. People wing-it. People emulate observed behaviours in past managers (good and bad). Let’s take a look at each of the “science” and the “art” of management…
The Science of Management
The “science” of management can be studied and improved. Let’s start by examining the behaviours for which all employees are accountable:
All employees are accountable for:
· Doing their best;
· Supporting company values and goals;
· Working cooperatively with others;
· Carrying out assigned work; and
· Informing their manager of progress and challenges.
Doing these things is part of every employee’s job. You are on solid ground to expect your direct-reports to try hard, to get along with other employees, and to keep you informed. These are among the “rights” that you have as a boss to expect of your employees. If they let you down you have legitimate grounds for a conversation, for clarification, for coaching, and for “managing”.
But while all employees share these fundamental accountabilities, managers are accountable for additional things.
Managers are also accountable for:
· The work their direct-reports produce;
· The result or impact of their direct-reports’ behaviour;
· Building and sustaining a team capable of producing the required outputs;
· Continually improving the processes they oversee (functional and cross-functional); and
· Providing their direct-reports with effective managerial leadership, including:
– Holding regular team meetings to set the context for work (who, what, how and importantly, why)
– Planning and assigning work effectively
– Appraising team members’ personal effectiveness and carrying out merit reviews
– Selecting and onboarding team members (and de-selecting when necessary).
There is legitimate pressure for managers to be responsible not just for what their employees do, but for how they do it. And managers should always be seeking to improve the processes within their control (quality, timeliness, cost). When is the last time you deliberately mapped out the key processes of the functions you manage and then measured and improved their effectiveness? Is your operation “better” than it was a year ago? Can you prove it with metrics? That is your job.
It’s also your job to assign work to your employees effectively. That means providing more than just vague requests. It means clearly articulating tasks with specific and measurable deliverables (what, when, how, who). It also means sharing in advance what you expect to be the “hard part” of the task (so employees can be forewarned and careful). It means spending time to describe “success” and full “completion”. And it means being available to provide guidance along the way, and to remove barriers to success that are beyond the pay-grade of your employee.
Note that it’s also your job to deal with problems…problems with hand-offs to other teams in cross-functional processes; problems with conflicting priorities across functions; and problems with individuals on your team who are underperforming or damaging the psychology of your team. Managing isn’t something you “do on the side”. If it’s part of your title, it’s part of your responsibilities…part of your job.
For thoroughness, it’s also important to note that if you manage managers (i.e. have at least two reporting levels underneath you) you have even more accountabilities.
Two-Up-Managers are also accountable for:
· Ensuring their direct-reports exercise sound managerial leadership practices;
· Developing and assessing the talent pool two levels down and having succession plans;
· Ensuring fair and equitable treatment across the organization;
· Approving hires, de-hires and pay levels recommended by direct-reports; and
· Intervening when necessary to resolve cross-boundary relationship and process issues.
Having these skip-level accountabilities is essential to effective managerial oversite to ensure that people are not being mistreated in any way, two levels down. This is the reason that performance and pay reviews must be approved by your boss’s boss. This approach demands that managers get to know the employees on their teams two levels down. It is necessary not only for succession planning but also ensures all employees have an opportunity to appeal to a higher power if needed.
The “science” of management involves knowing your rights and responsibilities and understanding what is legitimately expected of you, and what you can legitimately expect of others, above and below you in the organization. If you deliberately study and reflect on each of these duties, and if you practice and seek honest feedback, your effectiveness as a manager will increase dramatically.
The Art of Management
The “art” of management can be practiced and improved. Emulate the styles of leaders whom you have personally found most effective. It’s about communication and connecting meaningfully with people…both one-on-one and in teams. That involves listening actively and it involves sharing context. Where are we going and why? What do you think the “hard parts” of the journey will be? What gives you confidence of success? The more you share, the more your team will understand and support your strategy.
People want to be an important part of something good. Good managers make their employees feel important, valued, and appreciated. This is a secret advantage of start-ups…it’s much easier in a small and rapidly-growing environment to make every employee feel valued. In start-ups there is always too much work to go around. These exciting environments are always scrambling to hire additional talent and expand the team’s capacity. So, every person actually is critical…and every person is truly missed when absent or underperforming. This isn’t always the case in larger corporations.
Good managers also create focus and momentum by cultivating a shared belief that the work done by the team is important. That belief creates an energy and commitment on the part of all team members to avoid letting each other down. Your people are more than willing to be inspired and motivated. Make direct eye contact. Lean in. And share with them why YOU are so excited by and committed to this worthwhile journey.
The strategic destination for most, if not all, businesses is to achieve sustainable differentiation from competitors in the eyes of your chosen market segments, while simultaneously exceeding the expectations of customers, employees, and shareholders. That means having leading levels of customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and profitability all at the same time. In a nutshell, that is the challenge of management. It’s never permanently achieved as your competitors constantly improve and your customers’ needs evolve. But having substantially better customer and employee retention rates will inevitably lead to higher margins. And higher margins provide the flexibility to innovate, motivate and reward, or pass those savings to customers in the form of lower prices. It is a virtuous spiral that we continuously seek.
The “art” of management also involves knowing the individual career aspirations of your people, and caring about the pace and progress towards that goal. Have you asked your people where they hope to be in two or three years? Have you then provided them with an honest assessment of that goal and the commitment to help them fill in any gaps? Have you levelled with people whom you believe have some fundamental show-stopper to achieving their career dreams, and helped them pivot to a more realistic path? When you are a manager, you are also a coach and mentor and guidance counsellor. Are you brave enough and committed enough to work hard at being good at this part of your job?
Once in a while, in the quiet of your own thoughts, run through a few questions about each person on your direct-report team.
Questions to ask yourself about each of your team members:
· How well is she doing right now?
· What are the two or three key frustrations she is currently facing and how can I help?
· How satisfied is she in the pace of her career progression?
· What stands in the way of promoting her, and how can I help her development
· What words does she need to hear, delivered with care, to improve her self-awareness?
· What experiences does she need to have to round out her readiness for advancement?
Ultimately, the “art” of management is about creating an enjoyable and rewarding experience for the people you manage. That effort is grounded in your passion for the vision of the organization and in your deep and active caring for the team that will take it there.
Good managers think about both the art and science of doing their jobs. They study, they try things and adjust, they seek feedback, they communicate well, they care about the development of each of their direct reports, and they always provide full context so people better understand the direction, the priorities, and the challenges and are better able to help.
 This model leans to some extent on the prior work on “Requisite Organizations” by Elliot Jaques and on the lived experience of the author.