Just like your best and worst teachers at school, you never forget your most inspiring manager – or the one who filled you with dread. The impact that both extremes can have on your work-life is enormous, with great managers helping you to develop your skills, grow in confidence and achieve amazing things, while bad ones leave you feeling demotivated and stressed out.
Bad management is a huge problem in the UK, with eight in ten employees saying they’ve experienced it at some point in their career, and 75% of the reasons people quit being put down to their managers.
Yet, despite the huge impact that these past experiences have on us, how often do we use them to inform our own management approach? Good management doesn’t happen by accident. It’s all about practising the right behaviours, on a consistent basis.
Of course, perfecting these behaviours and getting the right balance isn’t easy – why they call them ‘soft skills’ I can’t work out. But understanding what great management looks like is the first step to building the right elements into how you work…
Put your team first: As soon as you become a manager, your primary focus has to be on your team. Most managers still have plenty of their own work to do – particularly in a startup. But if you let your team take a backseat, that’s when standards will drop, performance and productivity will spiral, resentment and distrust will increase, and you’ll only end up with more to do – and more stress – in the long-run. Remember that the more time you can focus on the team and their performance, the less you will have to do overall.
Focus on development: One of the biggest things that your team needs from you is opportunities to develop, so you should always be looking for ways that you can help them to grow. That means understanding their career goals and the areas that they need to work on, then setting stretching objectives and responsibilities that are focused on those areas. Regular one-to-ones are a huge part of that, so you know where the gaps are and what each individual wants and needs to work on.
Communicate purpose: Don’t just communicate what needs doing, but also why (in fact, mainly why), explaining how each activity, and each team member’s contribution, is aligned to the business strategy. Understanding how their work will help the company to reach its overall vision is massively motivational for employees, while also bringing the whole team together behind a shared goal.
Clarity around expectations: Always be super clear what is expected from your team, in terms of the outcomes you want to see from each role, or from a particular project. You don’t need to be really prescriptive in how individuals reach those desired outcomes – that is up to them – but you do need to be clear what the endgame is, along with any timescales and behaviours that you expect.
Communicate clearly: When communicating with members of your team, remember ‘misinterpretation is a phenomenon of communication’, so too much is always better than too little. People absorb information in different ways, so find out what works best for each team member. And if you’re unsure whether one of your team has understood something, ask them to feedback what you’ve asked them, to be sure you’re on the same page.
Individual contracting: Clarity (it really is all about clarity) around expectations works both ways, so it’s also important to agree what your team needs and expects from you as a manager in order to perform at their best, and also that they understand how you work. There is a current trend for ‘Manager Read-Me’ documents, effectively a user guide on how their team should interact with you, including what your communication style is, what you care about and any quirks you have. Some of these may come across slightly egotistical but being clear about you (the ability to self-reflect is a fundamental skill that will enable you to be a great manager) and having your team know you (and vice-versa by the way) is a massive step to being a high performing team. Of course, people can change – but having a document like this is a great starting point to get to know how people like to work and what is important to them. Those of you who know Bruce Tuckman will know that he coined the Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing model which is the path (not usually linear) that most teams take. Individual contracting and getting to know how you all work can really help you move through Forming and Storming at SUPER high speed!
A coach approach: Unlike mentoring, which is all about providing advice based on your experience, coaching is about asking the right questions of your team, so they can work out the answers and solutions themselves. Aim to have regular ‘coaching conversations’ with your team, both within the course of the working day, and in more formal settings such as one-to-ones. There are many coaching frameworks but the GROW model is a really easy and impactful one to help your team to solve for problems or ‘get unstuck’:
Goal – what are you trying to achieve?
Reality – what is happening right now?
Options – what could you do?
Will – what actions will you take to move forward?
Fast feedback: Address performance issues proactively by feeding back as soon as possible if something isn’t right – ideally within 24 hours – but respond, don’t react. Don’t wait for your weekly catch up or, god forbid, an annual review. When you’re in a fast-moving startup environment, employees need to be able to learn and respond in real-time to optimise performance and maximise their ability to reach their targets. Not only that, but the language is one of blamelessness. Things like understanding what could have gone better, asking things like the ‘5 whys for a blameless post-mortem’, really enhance feedback, remove blame, and allow people to keep on trying in a ‘safe’ environment. On the flipside, don’t hesitate to recognise and praise positive behaviours and hard work – this is priceless for making people feel valued and appreciated.
Listen and engage: When people complain about bad managers, they often say it’s because they didn’t feel listened to or respected. You need to get to know your team members, what makes them tick and engage with their concerns and worries, so that you can help them to find solutions. Similarly, if they have ideas about how things could be done better within the team or company, hear what they have to say and if possible, let them drive forward any changes. 1:1s are CRITICAL. Don’t skip them. It is their time with you – they should want it and need it and so should you!
Psychological Safety: Great managers know that great teams need psychological safety to perform at their best. Psychological safety is nuanced but at its core is about:
Anyone can ask questions without looking stupid.
Anyone can ask for feedback without looking incompetent.
Anyone can be respectfully critical without appearing negative.
Anyone can suggest innovative ideas without being perceived as disruptive.
This has to take place not only at the 1:1 level, but team and business level too! As a manager and leader, it is your role to make that happen! Lead by example – be happy to own up to mistakes, share learnings from failures, ask questions, and so on. If you want your team to behave in an open and trusting way, you will need to lead the way!
As a manager, you’re judged on your behaviour, not on your intentions. As such, you need to be constantly switched on to how your actions will be perceived, both when you’re amongst your team, and behind closed doors. What might seem like a small issue to you can easily be misconstrued by those around you, eroding support, trust and motivation.
Doing all of the above, consistently, takes work, and you won’t get there overnight. But keep plugging away at it, and your team and your business will reap the rewards.