We all of us love feedback - both directional and positive, and as a manager, I seek the directional regularly with my team. "What one thing could I improve to make your life easier?", "What one thing would you change about my leadership style?" etc. etc. As a manager though, we are often a role in isolation when it comes to praise - the sign of us doing a good job is often silence.

I was inspired to write this article after a message arrived in our #thanks channel at work (an informal way of giving ongoing recognition to folks who have made a difference to your day). I don't share this in anything other than a feed to this article.

Thanks @TerryBrown for being the best manager I've ever had. I'm not sure what else to say - but I'm always looking forward to our 1-to-1. 

As I saw it, my immediate reaction was tears. It blew me away, and I'm often far too emotional (I can cry at adverts on the TV!), and it moved me incredibly.

I started to wonder what it was to be a manager? It's a role that a lot of people find themselves in, often not planned, but what does it mean to me to be a manager?

I'm not a manager, I'm a leader...

I used to really struggle with words like "Boss" or "Manager". Words have meaning, and my feeling was that I didn't relate to the stereotype of either of those words - pictures of taylorist bosses, dictators, command and control, sitting behind a desk issuing dictats, all flooded the mind when I found myself earlier in my "People Manager" role. I was very much a "Leader" not a "Manager".

It took a while to break free of that, and a lot of learning from many great managers - Ryan my boss was key in this, but inspiration has arrived from wider afield too - Lara Hogan, Camille Fournier, Meri Williams, and many others. I have read a lot over the years and taken inspiration from that, and I've attended some great conferences (LeadDev chief among them).

The thing I hadn't fully realised in those early days is that we are all leaders. People management doesn't make me a leader any more than it makes me an effective manager. It is our actions that define us as leaders, not any assigned title. Leaders are followed and listened to, irrespective of their job title or position in the organisation. Hierarchies and job titles may well be needed in an organisation, but it's important not to conflate leadership with management.

What is management?

There are many great examples that break down what management is - some better examples than I will give were written by some of those names above. You will see a lot of my thoughts on this align to the Servant Leadership model and are focussed on inverting the traditional org pyramid - I'm not the most valuable member of the org, the team are - they add the value, they deliver the products, they build the software. Google puts these things far better than I in their Project Oxygen study so feel free to ignore my points and read theirs. To my mind, and to probably over simplify it, some key things come to mind (in no particular order).

  • Support - this is in all things, personal and professional. There is nothing more important than the lives of our teams. How are their home lives? How are they feeling at work? How is their mental health? These things are way more important than the status of their projects - look after the people and the people will look after the work.
  • Feedback - it's important after issuing a statement like the previous bullet to highlight this isn't about being soft. Feedback is super important - if you find that you're only giving positive feedback, but you're masking any negative thoughts about the individual, you're doing yourself, your team member, and the organisation a disservice. Feedback is critical to the employee and you are one of the primary conduits of that.
  • Growth - a pivotal role in people management is growing leaders. Helping people be their best selves, helping people flourish, and helping them continually improve. That's not to say you are turning everyone into people managers, but instead, helping people grow into better, more rounded individuals.
  • Coaching (and mentoring) - we all of us hire clever people (often far brighter than we ourselves are!). More often than not, they will have the answers to their problems within themselves. Coaching is a significant part of our role, and a really effective tool in everyones toolkit. Helping people discover, question, clarify, and move to action themselves cannot be underestimated in empowering people. You will, naturally, also mentor and you shouldn't shy away from it, but coaching as a primary skill in discussion really will help that team member arrive at the best outcomes.
  • Communication and Transparency - in people management, you get a seat at a different table, you see a different view of the world, and you get wider contexts and bigger pictures. It's not your job to protect your team from that, but when you have context they don't, or a vision of the world that they haven't been lucky enough to be part of, sharing is key. How you communicate, and how you share are behaviours that your teams will model.
  • Adovcating and Championing - you aren't the success, you aren't the value creator. A big part of your role is to multiply and advocate for your team when they do great things. The position of manager gives you that bigger 'seat', and that is an incredibly powerful tool. Has one of them just done a bit of work that makes a difference? Share it publicly, give them credit, amplify your team. As a manager, it's sometimes "thankless" in that, your job is to help people see the successes of your teams. Those successes are, of course, hopefully partly to do with the environment you created for the teams, the support you've given them, but ultimately, the team are then delivering the value. This story is, unfortunately, not about you any more :)
  • Create the environment - I cover this further down too, your role is to create the best environment for people to be their true and authentic selves, and thrive. If folks aren't able to do that, it's your role to ensure you listen to understand what that looks like, and make it happen.
  • Navigates complexity - your teams will likely be navigating complexity in the products or services they are building. They don't need to navigate complexity outside of that - your role here will help significantly. Are there a problem with silos and hand-offs? Is there friction outside of the team? You can add value here and help the team navigate that sort of complexity.

This list isn't exhaustive, but when I think about people management, these are some of the key things that come to mind - expect the list to change on a daily basis, your job is never the same for any length of time as the needs of people change and evolve and you must do so with them.

What skills does a manager need?

Before we dig into the primary skills, there are some great secondary skills that are important to call out - our technical knowledge of the field the team is working in, being humble, our ability to communicate effectively - these are just a few, there are many.

The primary skills that all people managers should be continually aiming to improve are Empathy, Compassion and Emotional Intelligence. In dealing with humans, there are no more effective skills in navigating those interactions and these should be considered non-negotiable in terms of career growth for anyone coming into people management.

But this approach will never work in my organisation because... things

I've spoken to a number of people managers and leaders over the years who highlight that the approach I'd take to leadership won't work in their organisation. Either the organisation is so blindly focussed on the results, that putting the people first isn't something that would fly, or there are no pathways for growth within the org, so they can't effectively help people with that. These are difficult to navigate, and it comes down to personal integrity.

What do you value as a manager? What sort of manager do you want to be? How would you like teams and organisations to view you and the work you do? These things aren't always compatible with organisational policies, and you have questions to ask yourself.

  • Are you being vulnerable and courageous? - it wouldn't be a post from me without referencing Brené Brown. You will see from the points below, this isn't easy and it isn't guaranteed. You will fail. You will have to climb into the lions den. You will do so on the utter certainty that you will fail. And yet sometimes you won't. Our roles as people managers aren't about comfort - they are about being comfortably uncomfortable in bringing about change and improvement.
  • Are you doing the right thing? - look at the decision you want to make. Even though it may not align with policy or practice within your organisation, is it right for the customer? for the organisation? for the team? Are you clear on what the outcomes are that you hope for?
  • Are you being the change you want to see? - I've not met one people manager who wanted to wholly keep the status quo because everything was perfect. Are you making change? Are you orchestrating improvement? Are you modelling behaviours that you want people to follow?
  • Are you clear when things aren't working? - in being a change agent, you have to know what's working and what isn't - how will you know? What measures will you put in place to understand success? How will you address it with the team? It's not your job to have all the answers - far from it. It's your job to co-ordinate, to enable, and to foster those environments where the team can arrive at those great answers and great outcomes.

You can't fix some things with good managment

It'd be remiss to not call out that some things you can't fix. A word of caution if you're in an organisation where any of the behaviours below are in play and you can't change them. Daniel Pink refers to these in Drive as Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose:

  • People are overworked - if your teams are constantly fire fighting, or always at 100%, you are, categorically, not working effectively. There is much evidence on this now that 100% utilisation is bad for staff, bad for outcomes, and delivers less value for customers (queing theory and theory of constraints give good indicators here). Ignoring that though, you are not giving people space to improve with deliberate practice (kaizen). People not able to spend time getting better at their craft are eventually going to become less useful to the organisation.
  • People are underpaid - "The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table" - if people are underpaid, you will never get the best out of them, and it doesn't matter how effective you are as a manager, you will certainly not be able to motivate them to the degree you would otherwise have been able to do.
  • People do not have purposeful work - people want to work on things with meaning. Simon Sinek talks about it in Start with Why. Meaningful work motivates us, it aligns us, it gets us behind a cause and we feel like we're making a difference. Googles Project Aristotle is often cited for it's findings around Psychological Safety, though we shouldn't discount the 4th and 5th findings - that of meaingful and impactful work.

If you find yourself in an organisation leading a team where these things are missing and you can't influence them, even after you demonstrate what better could look like, you are likely to struggle to really achieve the best outcomes with a team and deliver the best support as you will constantly be constrained by things that matter.

Your behaviour is your culture

You are a multiplier in your role. What you do, how you behave, how you interact - these are far more important that the words above. It is our behaviours that create culture, not our promises or slogans. We can be effective multipliers for our teams even without touching a line of code or a production line. We can create goals and empower the team to align and decide the how and the what. We are a mirror of the behaviours we will get.

Concluding Thoughts

People management is not for everyone. In my field (software engineering), the reason most people get into that field is their desire to problem solve and build solutions around that. I still miss writing code on a day to day basis. If you crave that, and don't crave the elements above, consider if it's the right role for you. Most organisations now recognise that individual contributors (ICs) are more valuable than managers, and there are career paths that allow them to be paid as much or more than the manager that supports them - and this is absolutely right and proper.

If however you are interested in helping people be their best, and focussing on people management as a career, hopefully some of the above will have been useful to you.