By April Hirsch / Published August 2019
Be observant. Take nothing for granted. Establish expectations. Model. Learn.
Therein are five short sentences that sum up much about managing people well.
Let’s also tack on one more sentence: Benefit. Good management improves employee retention, keeps connections to customers positive, and bolsters the bottom line.
“I found that being a good listener is one of those important aspects to being a good manager of people,” says Doug Rucker, owner of Clean and Green Solutions, Porter, TX. “Setting expectations is also very important.”
New managers might be looking for guidance. There are plenty of tools available.
“I would highly recommend the One Minute Manager series of books,” says Rucker. “Over 30 years ago, this timeless series was written, and now there is an updated version, The New One Minute Manager—can’t recommend it highly enough.”
Lessons about management come from all directions. Be open to them.
Rucker explains he always tries to look at his business from a customer’s perspective. “A man named Roger Kehm taught me this years ago when one of the letters on our marquee sign was burned out…no telling how long it was out because I never looked at the sign. I knew right where the store was. But he explained that we sometimes get too comfortable with our surroundings, and we forget about what the customer is seeing. I’ve never forgotten that.”
A lesson can be more direct. “Another man, Dave Miller, used to drill into me to take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves,” says Rucker. “What he meant was that if I make the little things seem like big things, my staff will know exactly what I expect of them—and the big things will always be handled.”
As a general philosophy of management, Rucker adheres to a compact one. “Treat people with respect, and be fair but firm,” he says. “And again, listen to your people. They are the eyes and ears of your business, so encourage them to express their thoughts and opinions.”
R. Calvin Rasmussen, CEO of Royce Industries L.C. with corporate headquarters in West Jordan, UT, explains that he received some excellent advice about being a manager from his father, Royce Rasmussen. The elder Rasmussen told him to “always be learning” and “stop and take time to know your people,” with a strong emphasis on the word “stop.”
Shared daily pleasantries between a manager and an employee elevate spirits, but they differ from a real conversation. Take the time for both.
“Be continually willing to listen, learn, adjust, and improve,” says Rasmussen. “Doing so will help managers better serve their coworkers, ownership, and customers.”
Rasmussen explains that he has always been committed to improving management skills. “As a young and learning manager, I devoured anything written or recommended by Jeffrey Gitomer,” he says. Author, professional speaker, and business trainer, Gitomer writes and lectures internationally on sales, customer loyalty, and personal development.
“Over the past 7 to 10 years, I have attended numerous management seminars and training courses,” says Rasmussen. “And I continue to develop relationships with other managers who I feel can positively influence me.”
Listening closely can mean hearing non-positive comments. Yet the experience of doing so is ultimately fortifying.
“Recently I commissioned a 360-degree evaluation on myself and other key managers at our company,” says Rasmussen. “Although some of the findings have been hard to stomach, I truly believe the overall experience will be positive and even further develop me and those working closely with me to be much better in all aspects of management.”
The volumes of advice on how to manage include plenty of discussion on the notion of flat structure, which is the bliss-inspired concept that no hierarchy exists in a workplace. Everyone is accountable and everyone does what is expected in a consistent, self-motivated way. It’s all good all the time.
Back to reality, now: Flat structure is an illusion. And role confusion can ensue if the illusion takes hold. Being respectful of one another in all encounters does not mean that one individual does not have more responsibility than another.
Role clarity is important. For one, it particularly helps new employees understand that a manager is not always immediately available to answer questions because the manager must complete a large number of tasks (e.g., payroll, inventory audit checks, OSHA documentation) that the employee does not.
There’s another complication that can arise if roles are blurred, and it’s a tricky one. “Should there be a line between being a manager and being a friend?” says Ken Sunden, operations manager at High PSI Ltd. in Glendale Heights, IL. “Unfortunately, it seems there needs to be that line between managers and employees, so there is no confusion as to who is in charge—and to prevent a friendship causing a conflict in the workplace.”
It’s natural for workplace friendships to form, says Sunden. But an employee must be able to separate the friend from the manager if the situation requires it.
Sunden stresses, though, that good managers find a balance. He says he once left a job because an employer literally said “my way or the highway”—no discussion, no listening on the part of that employer to whom Sunden wanted to offer suggestions on how to improve processes.
“Successful businesses have teams of people working together,” says Sunden. “Multiple points of view offer a wider perspective on situations than one person…Not to mention, giving individuals a chance for their own input makes them feel better about themselves and their jobs…And with that good feeling comes a more positive attitude and better performance.”
Sunden recommends the book called Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans. “It contains 26 strategies for getting good people to stay. It’s a down-to-earth type of read that touches everything from learning how to know what you employees actually want, to how to mentor and give your employees goals and opportunities, to the employees’ end reward from you as well as to you.”
Modeling the action, comportment, and industriousness expected is good advice. It’s all part of leading by example.
Yet there are intricacies to being an example that managers learn with time. One of them is that not every employee picks up on the modeling without a little reminder.
Sunden says he was “always told to ‘lead by example’” and that it’s a “very true statement” with a few limitations. “What my mentors didn’t tell me was how many times you have to point out your example,” he explains. “Simply being an example sometimes ends with you, the manager, where you’re the only one doing what you’re being an example of.”
Every manager can probably think of a time when modeling was mistaken for “I’ll do it for you,” whether it is organizing a van or a service center shelf. It’s a phenomenon not uncommon in interaction with new employees. Sometimes a manager simply must be explicit, as in “this is the way I’d like it done”—all in kind tones.
In the whole, leading by example works fine, says Sunden. “People do tend to emulate the people they are around the most, especially people they look up to. If you’re setting a good example, chances are your employees are emulating that example, performing the job the way you want it done.”
“It’s all about the balance,” says Sunden of managing employees well. He explains that a manager wants employees to be happy and have a positive attitude. “It is important that everybody on your team interact on a positive note with your customers.”
Autonomy is something employees welcome. “They should be able to think on their own and learn how to make the right decisions for your business without a manager at their side,” says Sunden. “On the other hand, your employees also need a sense of structure. They need direction so they know what their job is, how to do it, and what is expected of them.”
The basics matter. Yes, employees should “feel like an integral part of your business,” says Sunden. “In addition, employees need to know it’s necessary to be on time for work and get the job done in a prompt and courteous manner.”
There must be boundaries. If an employee misconstrues flexibility on the part of a manager for implicit permission to do whatever whenever, there will be a huge problem. If the employee sees the manager as too rigid, checking and rechecking on an employee’s activities, the employee may ultimately respond by leaving.
The dictionary definition of management includes “art” as one of the descriptors of directing people. It’s an acknowledgement of the endless variables—groups of human beings are involved, after all—which a manager must assess. The variables keep changing, even as the goals of the manager remain the same: Achieve outcomes that are good for the business and do so by encouraging all employees to realize the joy in working—and learning—to their full potential.