Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Oct 26, 2009

Ask a Manager: What makes a Good Manager?

Guest Lecturer, Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence 

Dear Manager,
What makes someone a good manager? How do you know if you would be good at it-what qualities should you have? How do you know if you're doing a good job? How did you know you wanted to manage people?

The most important thing I look for in a manager is the ability to see past the end of one’s own nose. It is about understanding others, being comfortable supporting others, and letting others take the credit for their own great work. I cringe when I see a manager who seems to think it is all about himself. To me, it’s just the opposite. You support and motivate your team so they can do great work and in the end, you are responsible for something great. You get recognized enough for that.

Put another way, I look for generosity. That is not to say that there is no room for a healthy sprinkling of ego. As great employees become great managers, I have seen that confidence as an individual contributor turn to pride and confidence in the entire team. The key here is that the manager should know his own ego and understand how to balance it with the needs of the team. He needs to have the perception skills and emotional intelligence to understand the varying styles and needs of the members of the team and make it all work. If I feel that an individual contributor is too caught up in himself, I generally will not expect him to be the kind of manager I want on my team.

You know that a manager is doing a good job when you see smiling employees. Ok that sounds really corny, but it’s true. I check in with my front-line folks to see how my managers are doing for them, and I know right away which managers are making it happen and which ones are not. Of course, when I am asking them from up in the tower, employees don’t openly bash their managers when they don’t like them. I still get my answers though. A positive response to the question, “how’s it going with your manager?” is clear and immediate. A negative response involves at least some measure of arm-crossing and squirming. These are the folks who tell me that their manager is “Good-yeah-good-mmhmm” in an uncharacteristic falsetto. That’s when I know I’ve got a problem.

The employees who are happy with their managers let you know right away. They have a special glow to them. What? Can’t anyone else see that? Oh well, just me. The important thing to factor in however is that the success of a manager has to be measured as a combination of the stability of his employees and the quality of work product. Happy employees don’t count for much if the business is all shot to hell. Effectiveness of the team is of course paramount, but I find that if you have a strong leader who supports the team properly while remaining focused on the work, the quality will take care of itself.

I think I knew I wanted to manage people from a very young age. I was always a responsibility junkie, I liked to help people, and I liked being the center of attention. I had a paper route when I was 12, and over time I grew it as a business and hired two of my neighbors to work for me for a salary of $20 each per week. A few years later, working in a supermarket after school and on weekends, I took a great deal of pride in having earned the privilege of “holding keys”.

I think what really locked it in for me came later on in some of my early professional jobs as a manager, when I would see the results of my coaching in real, tangible improvement in my employees. I was actually able to give people some insight into themselves and help them to see things a different way that helped them to grow. That was pretty cool. To this day, that is still what makes me love it. I don’t really care what the work product is, as long as I have a chance to build a team and develop the strengths of the individuals on it.

Ask a Manager: Have a workplace dilemma? Want to understand what goes on in the mind of a manager? Post your questions in the comments.

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