What do you want in a manager?

Recently, my friend Jennifer asked people what they valued in a manager. As a fairly green manager myself, I took great interest in the answers. Of course, I’ve had my own personal philosophy of management much longer than I’ve been a manager. This philosophy boils down to this: a manager’s job is to give their team the resources they need to succeed while keeping away things that will harm their success.

My best managers did just that. They made sure I had enough guidance and clarity for what I was supposed to be working on. They kept me informed on the political context of the larger organization. They did their best to provide equipment and training. They gave me freedom to try my own methods. They helped me grow. They took heat for me when customers or upper management was upset (but let just enough through to motivate me).

My worst managers were basically email routing services. They provided no leadership in times of change. They were content to let the group get by on its own (when the group clearly needed an adult). They did not embrace radical suggestions from the team.

It’s telling that many of the replies that Jennifer collected were focused on the “how will my manager help me succeed?” aspect. I don’t believe the explanation is that people are greedy. In tech (which I assume is the context most if not all of the replies), I’ve found people to be generally pretty smart. They don’t need a manager to tell them how to do their jobs, they need a manager to help them grow. It is not unreasonable to ask for a mutually-beneficial manager.

After all, as a team’s skills and business-savvy increases, it becomes more valuable to the organization. The VP of Stuff may think he wants an update directly from the DBA every five minutes when the database is slow, but what he really wants is for the database to be fixed as soon as possible. A manager who can provide those five minute updates while letting the people doing the work do the work is a benefit to everyone.

My response focused on the word “no”. As my manager, can I tell you “no”? Can you tell your boss “no”? If the answer to both of those is not “yes”, we have problems.

I don’t like giving “no” as an answer. In fact, I’m prone to overcomitting myself because I like saying “yes”. But sometimes the answer has to be “no”. Something is technically unfeasible. Or it’s a violation of policy or law. Or its just a really bad idea.

The ability to trust that when you get an answer is key to being a good manager. If you can’t trust someone — who should know how to do their job better than you do in most cases — when they tell you something is a bad idea, why are they still on your team? I had a manager once who would give the team projects that were effectively the same work over and over again that we’d never use because he couldn’t tell his boss that it was a bad use of our time.

So much of management for the last century-plus has been focused on how to make employees do what the organization needs them to do. Given that much of the body of knowledge came from manufacturing, that makes sense (but even then, it’s probably not ideal). For tech workers (and other industries I’m less familiar with), the goal should be to figure out how to take what the employees want to do and fit that into the organization’s needs. And really, that’s the essence of most of Jennifer’s answers.

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