By Diane M. Calabrese / Published September 2020
Ever experience the sense of being pulled in several directions at once? That’s the experience managers have on many days. A manager must hold a group together, give it direction, keep things moving, and do it all without being too rigid.
If it sounds a bit like holding the reins on a team of horses, that’s a nice bit of symmetry. The word manage comes from the Italian word, maneggiare, that originally applied to training horses.
No one is comparing people and horses. Yet there is something to be said for keeping a group together. And consensus—in the true sense of the word—doesn’t do it. At some point, someone must make a decision. (It could be after chaos erupts.)
The 16th century utopian vision of Thomas More has been smashed time and time again. Whether we look to the residents of a 19th century community like New Harmony or a 21st-century live-off-the-grid collective, reality sets in when residents realize that one person’s “consensus” can look a lot like coercion (and be quite authoritarian).
Managers live in the real world. They know that each person in a group brings different skills, attributes, and perspectives. And they endeavor to get them to work as a group when necessary while allowing them autonomy when possible.
The last thing a manager—or a business—can have is everyone heading in a different direction, changing direction, or some simply stopping. (It doesn’t work with a team of horses either.)
Employees have a keen sense of what they want. Most are quite realistic in their understanding of how flexible a manager can be. A few are not. Consequently, in addition to all the other tasks a manager handles, there is always the issue of fostering appreciation of what it means to be part of a team.
Managers do it all in the context of a demanding regulatory environment. They must be certain employees receive and adhere to standards set by OSHA, EPA, and EEOC, just to name a few.
The first characteristic of a good manager must by necessity be an ability to deal with myriad tasks: A good manager must be able to balance and prioritize.
Micromanagement is something employees dislike. (See the companion article on page 44, “What Makes a Good Employee?”) Successful managers do not micromanage.
“People perform best when they can be themselves and not corporate robots all following the same canned directives,” says Gregg Brodsky, senior western sales manager with Alkota Cleaning Systems Inc. in Alcester, SD. He notes trying to micromanage with corporate policies and mandated procedures does not mesh well with being a good manager.
Each person is unique. Some do well as managers. Others do not. Yet there are ways to self-assess and determine whether one has sufficient interest and ability to be a good manager.
“Identifying and honing one’s individual skills while building true personal confidence and not false foundations set for failure” is the place to start the path to success as a good manager, says Brodsky. It is also the place for employees to start to find their path.
“Daily reinforcement through every form of communication” is important to employees, explains Brodsky. And a good manager provides it.
The self-assessment by employees and the assessment and feedback by their managers leads in course to more autonomy. “It all drives the ultimate goal of creating their individual approach to completing the task at hand without management intervention,” explains Brodsky.
The number of responsibilities a manager has can be daunting. Still, the role is rewarding. For example, when employees take on the maximum level of autonomy possible, a manager knows that he or she is doing a good job.
That does not mean there are no difficult parts of managing a team of employees. There are.
Two concepts must become part of the work philosophy among employees. “First, team members need to recognize the fact that they are working with you, not for you,” says Brodsky. “Second, all employees must accept total responsibility without excuses.”
A good outcome depends on everyone, and everyone begins with the individual. “If one fails the team, the team fails,” says Brodsky. A good manager must be able to identify and help employees sharpen their individual skills.
The manager must be able to utilize the best attributes of employees, explains Brodsky. And sometimes employees must be terminated, which is not easy or pleasant.
“Letting an employee go because the employee does not share in the common objective [of maintaining and demonstrating] the level of enthusiasm and positive attitude required of the complete team to achieve the ultimate goal of creating loyal customers” is sometimes necessary says Brodsky. “Procrastinating on these decisions can simply be morale breakers for all, creating an infectious environment if not addressed in a timely fashion.”
Bill Sommers, president of Pressure Systems Industries in Phoenix, AZ, has a strong piece of advice for business owners who think they might give a no-manager business a try: Managers are needed.
A business owner should never believe that he or she can run a business with many employees without the help of management. “Your quest to operate a successful business cannot be completed until management is secured,” he says.
“Our company has employed managers at various locations over the years,” explains Sommers. “The ones who stood the test of time were the people who treated the business as if it belonged to them.
“In reality, they made sure that the business opened on time and ran its course through the day, and then quietly they turned the key to go home,” continues Sommers. That does not mean the exemplary managers had a problem-free day.
“The human frailties were always a concern in company operations,” says Sommers. “But that is the reason why owners utilized deportment-aspect rules and made them part of the company’s employee handbook, along with personal mentoring.”
Sommers reflects on the voluminous advice about how to manage well, be a good manager, etc. And he pulls us back to a more succinct look at the lay of management-land.
“Anyone or anybody can find plenty of sage advice when searching for the ten best managerial characteristics you want on your company roster,” says Sommers. “The lowdown and bottom line of your requirement and prerequisite would be to employ a manager who understands trench warfare and how to succeed in diversity and adversity.”
Sommers also reminds us about the skillful juggling of tasks that good managers accomplish. “Nothing is common about commonsense,” he says. “A manager needs to have the ability to focus on both sides of a problem and then do their managing for the result which performs best for the company and its employees. When a person can accomplish that, that person is a keeper.”
Moreover, says Sommers, the best managers have a way of living up as fully as possible to the golden rule, as well as several other codes of conduct. In doing so, good managers lead by example.
It is true that perhaps the least-neglected subject in the world is how to manage. Recommendations can be had in any format.
For an excellent streamlined reminder of the basics of being a good manager, see a document from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The OPM puts emphasis on how good managers do what comes naturally to them.
In other words, good managers bring with them to leadership roles the skills that they had developed and acquired while being employees. Extracting from the OPM document, we list five things that good managers do.
One, they plan. Planning includes establishing expectations. It’s important to know whether the work dedicated to executing the plan is being completed.
Two, they monitor. The best managers have, like mothers of old, “eyes in the back of their head” (as well as the front). They have a way of knowing what’s going on even when they are not doing a quantitative or formal review. They are en-gaged and take in information from as many directions as it comes.
Three, they develop. That is, they encourage learning among and offer training to employees. The learning and training may be formal or informal, including mentoring.
Four, they rate. A good manager lets each employee know how well the employee is performing the work.
Five, they reward. It’s astonishing in 2020 how many in society have forgotten the words “please” and “thank you” and how much the words enhance polite conversation. For good managers, the words are an integral part of the day. When a job is done well, a good manager does not hesitate to speak the words “thank you.” Such day-to-day courtesies count as significant rewards in the workplace. And they quietly reinforce outcomes the manager would like to see on a routine basis.
Not everyone can be a good manager. That’s not a bad thing because not everyone wants to be a manager. A good manager is first and foremost in a role he or she wants to fill.