The Real Job of a Manager: Part Three – Managing Your People for Growth

The Real Job of a Manager: Part Three - Managing Your People for Growth

This is part three of a three-part series entitled “The Real Job of a Manager and Why it’s Easy to be Bad at It”. Part 1 focuses on The Fundamentals of Management, part 2 focuses on Managing the Work and part 3 focuses on Managing the People.

We’ve covered how to Manage the Work with Focus in the previous part of this series. Today is all about managing the people who work for you.

I know people management can be really tough. Every person is different, and no two teams have the same dynamics. Culture—the way we make decisions and work—is made up of more than just your leadership. A large part of it is the personalities of each member of your team. Your style of management will determine if you unlock the best of those personalities, or allow the worst to seep out.

Before I dive into how to more effectively manage people, it’s important to remember your goal again as a manager. At the end of the day, it’s to produce results. Being great at managing your people is about enabling them to produce those results. So, no matter how much they love you, if you’re not managing them in a way that focuses on the four fundamentals, you’re failing at the job (harsh but true).

Your Two Main Objectives as a People Manager

As a manager myself, I feel at times like a tightrope walker. I’m sure you’ve seen them, holding a long thin pole, trying to balance on a thin rope while walking several hundred feet in the air. One wrong move and you’ll tumble down to the ground.

On one side of the pole are the objectives of company you work for. On the other side, the objectives of the people you manage. The secret of great management is making sure that both sides are always balanced and that you yourself are on good footing.

Objective #1: Performance Towards the Company’s Objectives

I want you to imagine walking on that tightrope yourself. Look to your left. What you’re seeing is the company you work for and it’s goals. Keeping that side balanced will require you to focus on the performance of the people under you. Their performance is based on your company’s objectives. If you can keep them cranking out consistent value, then you’re balancing that side perfectly.

6 Tips to Help You Manage People for Performance

For Objective #1, I’ve broken down six tips that I’ve seen to be critical for achieving performance in your team. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it should be enough to get you focused in the right direction.

Tip #1: You’re Managing Individuals, Not Just a Team

The day-to-day of managing sometimes makes it easy to forget our teams are made up of individuals. We spend a lot of our time trying to optimize the team, but risk neglecting to tap into the specialties of each person. I’ve found that individualizing your relationship with each team member can really unlock performance toward’s your company’s goals. [4]

This might be corny but I like to think of each of my team members as super heroes. Each one has a unique superpower that’s just waiting to be unlocked. One might be exceptionally good at knocking out code on a tight deadline. Another might be excellent at dealing with stakeholders or corporate red-tape. By treating each of them individually, I can learn more about what their specialities are. Don’t underestimate how powerful this can be. Not only will you get things done better and faster, you’ll also position each of them for more growth in their careers.

Tip #2: Align Everyone With Company Goals

Think about the last time you were really motivated about the work you were doing. Chances are it was because you understood the impact of it, and it mattered. Just like for you, the people on your team need this understanding to really unlock their hidden potential.

Studies have shown that when people understand how their work relates to the company’s goals, their performance increases. The challenge that you’ll face as a manager is making that connection. [7]

Do you know if the people reporting to you know your company’s goals? You’ll be surprised how many people either don’t know them or forget about them. It’s good to review the official goals every quarter to keep them on everyone’s minds.

Tip #3: Providing a Feeling of Ownership

If you’ve ever rented an apartment or stayed at a hotel, you know what a lack of ownership does to you. Dropping grape juice on the carpet? No big deal. Dog has an accident? Not a problem. Kids draw all over the walls? It happens. But when you own your own home, everything changes. You notice every muddy shoe inching towards your new carpet, every marker without a cap on. Ownership changes all of us, and it’s important for your engineers too.

Managing your engineers means empowering them to not just write good code (which is a basic requirement), but to really own the product and features they’re developing for. If possible, involve them in planning, launch, and follow-up refinements. This will give them a feeling that they’re responsible for what your customers actually experience. This can be a game changer when it comes to unlocking their performance and future potential.

An important note is that ownership doesn’t mean decisions need to be made by committee. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to have an equal say either. Sometimes, just providing the space for feedback and keeping your direct reports informed on decisions as early as possible is enough. Simply stated, avoid being a micromanager, but don’t compromise by being indecisive.

Tip #4: Keeping Individual & Team Morale High

Team morale is tricky and can change due to internal issues or just as easily, because of changes within the company. We recently dealt with a change in the way we work, switching to an open floor plan and flexible seating. It wasn’t initially received well and had the potential to really hurt team morale. Low morale leads to low performance.[8] In our case, how each manager dealt with the situation, and kept their team motivated, was a testament to their people management skills.

Keep an eye out for people within the team that are more vulnerable when morale is low. Also, keep an eye out for those that tend to demoralize others when they’re just not feeling it. Sometimes, it’s just one individual that can bring the entire team down, so working on them will net you gains across the board. Remember what we said before, your team is made up of individuals, and those individuals affect each other in so many ways.

Tip #5: Dealing with Conflict Swiftly & Properly

I’m sure you’ve seen how conflict that was left unresolved derailed performance on your team. Conflict is the worst, but if handled properly, can actually improve your team’s cohesion. It’s like having a fight with your spouse and then really making up afterward. Chances are your relationship becomes stronger.

Conflict can be internal or external, both are a big problem. I was once on a team that worked great, but we had to work with another team that just didn’t seem to be aligned with what we were trying to do. They consistently questioned our decisions, stalled on getting their part done, and just seemed as if they thought they were doing us a favor. There was a conflict that was brewing. If it wasn’t handled properly, it would lead to problems with not just one project, but reputations and goodwill across two major teams.

As a manager you need to be like a bloodhound, seeking out potential for conflict and identifying the root cause right away. It can be like playing whack-a-mole, but an unchecked brewing conflict is so much harder to put out. Unhealthy conflict is a distraction and at the end of the day, even if you feel like you’re on the right side, will cause your team’s performance to suffer.

Tip #6: Maintaining a Healthy Culture

The last, and most important tip for managing your people for performance is the culture that you’re cultivating. Culture is how your team makes decisions and the way they work. Culture isn’t a tagline or a mission statement. It’s really how your team gets things done. You have influence over this culture, but every member of your team contributes to it as well.

The goal of a healthy culture is to breed openness, integrity, and respect for everyone. [3] You as a manager can help facilitate this by the way you act and the way you give feedback to your team. A good example of where to start is how you manager your meetings. If you enforce that everyone gets a chance to give their opinions without criticism, then you’ve now set a standard that’ll impact the culture in a positive way going forward.

Another example I’ve seen is dealing with a culture of passive aggressiveness. You as a manager can influence this by forcing dissent to be direct, instead of through backchannels. Bringing it out in the open via 1:1s or team retrospectives is a great way to fix this cultural issue. [2]

What about the case where you’re joining an existing team? It’s important to remember that every team is different, and unless there are toxic elements in the current culture, your job is not to make the culture fit what you want. Instead, it should fit what helps your engineers perform the best for the company you work for. Adapting to the culture might mean being OK with remote working, or adjusting frequency and the style of meetings.

Whatever you do, just remember that what you tolerate and exhibit will have a big impact on your team’s culture.

Objective #2: Growth Towards Their Career Ambitions

You’re back on the tightrope again. After thinking about what you saw on the left side of the pole, you’re more confident that you can balance that load. Slowly you turn your head to the right to see what’s over there. Hanging on are each of your direct reports, themselves balancing something in their own hands. You squint, look closer, and realize it’s their career ambitions and goals. This is much more personal and you realize that your job is going to be to focus on their growth.

10 Tips for Growing the Careers of your Direct Reports

We just focused on managing your people for performance towards your company’s goals. This is just one half of managing them though. The other is about growing them. Without growth, a team that was once effective will slowly fade away. That’s the risk for managers who avoid or ignore this part of the job.

Good managers attract candidates, drive performance, engagement and retention, and play a key role in maximizing employees’ contribution to the firm. [6]

I like the above quote because one of the most important measurements of a successful manager is how the people under them grow. Pumping out great work is wonderful, but by its nature, short-term. Eventually what you worked on will be replaced and forgotten. Developing people is long-lasting. As those people continue to grow, you’ll be viewed as a source of long-term value creation.

The following tips are all about growth of your direct reports towards their own career goals. Remember, this is part of your job of managing people, so if you haven’t been focusing on it, now is the time. Even if you’re managing the work well, without this part your growth—and value—as a manager will stall.

Tip #1: Swiftness with Critical Feedback

Giving critical feedback is probably one of the hardest challenges for new managers. The reason I’m starting with this tip is because it’s something that many managers don’t get right until much later in their careers. I know for myself, I struggle with giving feedback that is critical or that might come off as negative. What I’ve learned, however, is it’s the best way to develop a person quickly, but must be done correctly to get that result.

I’d recommend spending some time reading on this topic, but overall, the idea is to be critical of the work and not the person. Being timely and direct are two of the most important components to getting a successful response. Also, remember the reason for the feedback, and convey it to the person too. When your direct report knows your intentions, even if they initially bristle at the feedback, in the end they’ll respect you more for it.

A pro-tip, something we recently did, is to get feedback training for your entire team. There are tons of companies that will do it, and plenty of online resources you can use. Learning to receive feedback is really important, don’t assume that everyone knows how to do it properly.

You’re free to make mistakes—so long as you learn fast and you don’t make the same ones twice. – Lutz Ziob [1]

The above quote sums up the purpose of giving critical feedback. You want mistakes to happen once, get addressed, and for everyone to move on. You have great employees, but if they don’t know something is wrong, they can’t correct it.

Tip #2: Stamp out Toxic Behavior

One of the most dangerous situations you can be in as a manager is having high-performers who exhibit toxic behavior. When you need someone’s skills, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to this, but it’ll come back to haunt you—and them.

Toxic behavior can be as extreme as sexual harassment (which should be a zero tolerance thing for you), or as small as being overly negative about your company’s strategic plan. The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter how good someone is at their job. You as a manager have a responsibility to make sure everyone on your team is contributing to both the work and a positive social environment.

Most people who I’ve seen who exhibit toxic behavior don’t even realize what they’re doing. You owe it to these people to let them know before it starts eroding their career potential and growth. I personally know it’s a hard conversation to have sometimes, but the harder the conversation, the more important it is to have.

Tip #3: Provide Praise and Positive Encouragement

The last two tips were about fixing problems, but what about encouraging good behavior? In a training session I had on this topic, the instructor said something that really resonated with me:

If you see something you like, you have to explicitly praise the action if you want to see it happen again.

Providing praise is a really important part of growing someone because it helps encourage consistency around their best work. Plus, we all rely on encouragement to let us know we’re doing things the right way. How many times have you been unsure about your performance, or how your boss viewed your contributions? That unknown, or the ambiguity, does nothing to help you get better. Your direct reports feel the same way. [4]

I’ll warn to be careful with positive feedback, though. It can easily send the wrong message if you’re not clear with what you’re praising. Vague feedback, like “You’re doing great!” isn’t valuable for someone’s career growth. Instead, make sure to focus on the specifics like: “It’s great you’ve consistently completed your tickets on time.”

The rule of thumb here is that praise should come because of specific behavior. The purpose of your praise should be to make sure that behavior keeps happening. Making your direct report happy is a bonus that comes with praise and shouldn’t be your objective.

Tip #4: Help Define Goals & Aspirations

We’ve covered a few tips now on giving feedback, but now comes the real meat of developing someone for their career ambitions. Think of the previous tips as pre-requisites for what’s coming next.

Chance are you didn’t become a manager without having some sort of career plan. You’ve probably thought about where you want to be in 2, 5, or 10 years. What about your direct reports? Do you know what they want to achieve or where they see themselves? If you don’t, then don’t worry, but just know that’s something you need to start working on right away.

Believe it or not, but many people struggle with defining their own goals or even their career aspirations. One major job you have is to help your engineers figure this out. This is going to be an investment in time, but it’s well worth it. You’ll not only better connect with your direct reports, but you’ll also understand what really motivates them.

I’ve done this exercise with my team and it works well to understand the types of responsibilities and influence they’re looking to have. Do they want to one day become a manager? Do they always want to stay an engineer? Even if they don’t have the answers, it’ll get them thinking, and over time, they can formulate a plan.

If you’re really having a hard time with a direct report giving vague answers, I recommend flipping the questions upside down. Do a scenario with them where they never get promoted, never get a raise, and keep doing the same work for the next 5 years. Are they happy with that? If not, you’ve opened the door to figuring out what they would be happy with. That’s a good start.

Tip #5 : Begin a Career Development Plan

Goals are great, but in order to achieve them, a clear career development plan is critical. The plan creates accountability by making sure you’re giving them opportunities for growth. For them, the plan makes it clear what they’ll be measured on for evaluating improvement. With a career development plan, you’ve taken something that’s very subjective and added a level of objectivity. You’ll have clear proof of success, or even failure to meet expectations.

Keep the plan simple. It should have goals that track directly with major areas that you believe they should improve upon. I recommend vetting the plan with your own manager to make sure it’s realistic too. I like to have things that can be checked off. So instead of vague goals such as “network with more people”, change it to a goal of “have coffee with 5 new people this quarter.”

Career development plans should ideally be set at the start of the year and reviewed every quarter. They’re living documents, so each quarter you should go through the achievements and adjust where necessary. At the end of the year, you’ll use this plan to give an evaluation on how well they performed and how much they grew. What I love about having everything documented, is that it’s all the evidence you need for justifying any promotions or raises, saving you a lot of time.

Tip #6 : Don’t Over Promise What You Can’t Deliver For Sure

I’ve learned this tip the hard way, and I know many managers who’ve done the same. If you can’t for sure give something to your direct report, then don’t promise it. You can destroy a relationship, demoralize your employee, and even lose a great person.

This relates to what we talked about in your career development plan, because you want to avoid promising an outcome that you can’t deliver. Instead, you should give them assurances that you’ll go to bat for them, or do everything in your power to nominate them for a promotion or raise. Promise your commitment, but not a specific end result.

I’ll share with you a personal example that taught me this important lesson. I put a direct report up for promotion and committed to having it done by the end of the year if they performed well. He did his part, and I did mine by starting the process. Where I messed up was promising it would happen for sure and by the end of the year. I didn’t control the timing or approval.

In my example, the year ended and the promotion was still not approved. I went from making my direct report really excited and motivated, to causing him to be demoralized and feel negatively towards the company. If I had avoided making promises around timing that I couldn’t control, the situation would have remained position. He eventually did get the promoted, but I had to work hard to repair the damage done.

The bottom line is, if you have any doubt that you can make something happen then be careful how you communicate to your direct report. It’s always better to under promise and over deliver, even if it means a small period of time where they’re waiting for a final answer.

Tip #7: Make Big Bets on High Potential

Some of the best managers I’ve seen are the ones who can spot potential and bet hard on it. In your career, you’ll manage the spectrum from junior to principle level engineers. High potential can come from people anywhere along that spectrum. It’s your job to identify it and then invest extra time in cultivating it into actual growth and performance.

Some signs that you have someone with high potential is the eagerness they show in the work they do and initiatives they’re involved with. Almost all of us went through a point in our career when we needed our boss, or new employer, to take a risk by hiring or promoting us. Don’t forget how important that was and how much it paid off.

Just like you, there are engineers around you with the same potential, so make those same bets people made on you. Big bets shouldn’t leave your direct report with more than they can handle, though. [4] Instead, tailor the opportunities you give them to their current level, and every so often send them something extra challenging to help accelerate their experience and growth.

Tip #8: Utilizing Capacity & Providing a Challenge

Let’s assume you have a team of amazing senior level engineers. What’s the worst thing to do to them? These are people who are driven, have a track record of performance, and have the maturity to deal with challenging situation. When you give them a challenge, they revel in it and look forward to finding the best possible solution.

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review entitled The 3 Simple Rules of Managing Top Talent, the author goes into detail about this topic stating:

The biggest enemy for top-end talent is blocked opportunity, especially on the way up. If they are motivated to become top talent, they want to take on big challenges — and the sooner, the better. If they are blocked and made to wait for opportunity to be available, they will simply go somewhere else.

This should resonate with you as a top-achiever yourself. Challenge and opportunity is what you seek, and your engineers are no different. Senior engineers don’t want to spend all their time checking Facebook or watching YouTube. They’re professionals, and it’s your job as their manager to make sure you’re fully utilizing their capacity and providing them with work that will help them grow in their expertise.

You might stop me here and say sometimes work just has to get done, regardless of the challenge. Even senior engineers have to do grunt work sometimes. Also, there are times when work is slow and your team might be waiting for direction from above. That’s all true, but that’s where you have to get creative as a manager.

During these cycles, I’ve seen managers look to challenge the growth of their engineers in non-technical areas. Learning to mentor, communicate engineering recommendations, give presentations, or network with senior leadership are all areas that can provide a challenge, fill gaps in capacity, and help them achieve their career goals. [1]

What’s important here is to think outside the box sometimes and to keep an eye on your senior engineers. Don’t take for granted that they don’t need hand holding for their day-to-day job. They need your attention just like anyone else on your team.

Tip #9: Don’t Neglect Your 1:1s

I’m sure you already know what 1-on-1s are, but as a refresher, they’re simply regular meetings between you and a single direct report. I personally prefer doing them weekly for 30 minutes, but it depends on how many people you manage. 1:1’s should be time for your direct report to talk to you about whatever is on their mind, and for you to provide information to them on company news, their performance, or just about anything else.

Below are a few tips for effective 1:1s that I’ve seen to be useful. You can also check out The 10 Commandments of 1:1s for a fun but solid take on how to make them more effective.

Tips for Effective 1:1s

  • Don’t skip 1:1s, always reschedule if necessary
  • Create a basic agenda or format to keep it useful
  • Keep it casual and open
  • Don’t talk about progress of work
  • Give them plenty of time to speak
  • Don’t accept the phrase “everything’s fine”
  • Ask directly about personal and team morale
  • Reserve time for career conversations

What I’d say is overall you should understand the reason why you’re having these regular meetings. 1:1s shouldn’t be done just to check off a box of what you’re supposed to do as a manager. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review entitled How to Manage a Needy Employee, the author goes over some great goals for your regular 1:1s that I’ve captured below.

Goals for Effective 1:1s

  • Connecting and making sure your direct report isn’t feeling neglected.
  • Praising their accomplishments and reviewing their growth areas.
  • Offering Support for them individually, both personal and professional.
  • Setting New Goals and guiding them towards career and performance growth.

Tip #10: Make Room For Them – It’s Not About You

The last tip that I have is one that develops with your own experience and confidence. Many new managers will struggle with this—I did at one time—but it’s critical if you want to be successful on your quest to being an amazing manager. It’s really embracing the idea that it’s not about you anymore, but about them.

Humor me for a minute, but when I think of a bad team, for some reason I’m reminded of what I learned in middle school about the rainforest. There’s the canopy level, the large trees that compete for the sunlight. At the bottom, you find small shrubs and little sapling struggling to grow in just the sliver of sunlight that makes its way down. So many saplings don’t make it, not because they don’t have potential, but because they never get a chance to sit in the sunlight and grow.

Okay, so now I’m going a little to crazy with plant metaphors, but ideally how a team should be is like a vegetable garden. Each plant has its space to grow. You space things out so there’s no competition for resources. Now it’s up to the merit of each plant to produce fruits. In this situation, the majority will. The ones that don’t, and it happens, did so not because the fault of the manager or team, but because of their own.

What I’m trying to say from all this is to leave room for your engineers to grow and spread their wings. Don’t try to be the expert on everything. Give them the chance to take on more responsibility and ownership over time. If you’re a manager that likes to hold on too tightly, you risk stunting the growth of the people around you.

Why is this so bad? For one, your team will eventually lose respect for you. Secondly, because you didn’t grow the people around you, you stunt your own career prospects. This tip is so important because as you grow in your role of a manager, you’ll develop a track record for getting things done. That’s what your job is. What makes you exceptional, however, is the talent that starts to spring up around you. [6]

The best managers that I know create a network of amazing engineers (and managers) around them. When people look to these managers, they see a talent factory, something far more valuable than just getting work done.

Our Real Job, Why So Many Managers Fall Short

I’ve had a great time writing out this series and I know that there’s no way to cover everything in just three short blog posts. What I hope you take away is not every word I’ve written, but the overall big themes here.

If I could get one things from managers (or potential managers) like you, it would be to start thinking about two things: how to focus properly on the work your company needs your team to get done, and how to develop the individuals that make up your team.

When I think back at some of my best managers, I realize that at the time I didn’t necessary always like them. The reason why was because they were focused on making sure I always pushed myself, giving me critical feedback when sometimes I didn’t want it. They questioned my decisions, not because they didn’t trust me, but because they wanted to make sure I was hitting the company’s objectives and goals.

This is hard for me to say, because I like making sure people are happy, but your job as a manager isn’t to be “nice”. It isn’t even to be friends with your direct reports. Happiness and friendship are earned by you doing your job correctly. If you lead your team well, you’ll gain their respect, and they’ll feel good about the work they do and the team they’re on.

I still feel like a tightrope walker, but over time it’s gotten a lot easier to balance all the sides of management. If you’re struggling with some of these things, just keep practicing, learning, and getting feedback. If you’ve read this far, I’m pretty confident that you’re well on your way to becoming an amazing manager (if you’re not one already)!


Some of the many references I used for this post:
[1] Managing Yourself: Bringing Out the Best in Your People
[2] What to do First When Managing Former Peers
[3] Strigl, Denny F., and Frank Swiatek. Managers, can you hear me now? : hard-hitting lessons on how to get real results. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.
[4] The 3 Simple Rules of Managing Top Talent
[5] How to Manage a Needy Employee
[6] If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material
[7] State of the American Workplace Report 2017
[8] Correlation of Morale, Productivity and Profit in Organizations


Credit: Feature image by Freepik

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