What do weddings, travel, and managers have in common? Talk to any adult about these topics and you are sure to hear a horror story. At weddings, it’s the drunken guest, bad weather, or untimely faux pas. During travel, it’s the lost baggage, disruptive passenger, or transit foul-up. With managers, it’s the frigging incompetent, clueless, arrogant, insensitive, conniving, beady-eyed, spineless, self-serving jerk who used to be your boss. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Skipping the extreme cases, most wedding and travel horror stories can be retold with a smile and shared laughter. The same can’t be said for manager horror stories. Sure, everyone will have a good laugh at the stupidity or absurdity of an old boss’s actions, but when you look into the eyes of the employee who suffered, there is always simmering contempt. That employee has not forgiven or forgotten what that former manager did.
The gift that keeps on giving
Why do people so easily let go of wedding and travel mishaps, yet clench tightly to manager malfeasance? It’s because at the end of weddings, the couples kiss. At the end of a long trip, you finally return home. Bad managers stay. There’s no happy ending. Bad managers are there every day, day after day, making one bad move after another.
Even when you finally escape a bad manager’s grip, his legacy hangs on with lost time, lost opportunities, and lost results. His comments and actions haunt you. His past callousness compromises your current perceived and real sense of worth. You become distrustful of managers in general. It can take a decade to repair the trouble caused in a year—and that’s just for one person.
The damage done to the company is even greater. Rotten managers generate lost productivity, waste and rework, poor quality, blown commitments, and disgruntled employees who quit and complain or stay and sabotage. Rotten managers also generate potential lawsuits, but that’s a whole other subject.
Good enough for me
“Hey, give managers a break,” some might whine. “Being a good manager is hard.” No, no it isn’t. Being a great manager is hard. Being a good manager is easy. A good manager only has to focus on two things—two very simple things that anyone can do:
- Ensure her employees are able to work.
- Care about her employees.
That’s it. No magic, no motivational videos, no 24-hour days are necessary. A good manager just needs to ensure his employees can work, and he must care about them.
Easy does it
Ask even the most pubescent managers how to ensure that their employees are able to work and they’ll say, “Remove roadblocks.” It’s obvious, isn’t it? But ask, “What kind of roadblocks?” and they’ll say, “Tracking down dependencies,” “Hounding PMs for specs,” or “Demanding decent repro steps from testers.” So misguided.
Why is a frontal assault on cross-group barricades misguided?
- When managers try to be heroes, they only manage being idiots. They track down dependencies, resulting in rushed, lousy drops, instead of collaborating on BVTs and API designs and having realistic plans and contingencies in the first place. They hound PMs for specs instead of collaborating on all aspects of the design. They demand decent repro steps from testers instead of providing instrumentation that allows for easy debugging of failures from any source. In other words, misguided managers make themselves part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
- Cross-group barriers are hard and time consuming to break. Managers need to give their teams workarounds before undertaking valiant quests.
- Misguided managers allow cross-group roadblocks to distract their attention from more immediate, basic concerns.
Of course, cross-group issues are important to resolve. But there are usually straightforward ways to help with or work around the issues, and more basic problems to address first.
Eric Aside I’d say that one of the top mistakes new managers make is focusing on removing complex roadblocks rather than the simple ones I describe next. The other top mistakes new managers make are continuing to think of themselves as individuals instead of team representatives and not delegating properly. (See Time enough.)
I want to work
So what basic necessities should managers provide to ensure their employees can work? As I said, that’s easy. Engineers don’t need much, they just need
- A desk with a phone
- Power (light, heat, electricity)
- A computer with a keyboard and display (some don’t even need a mouse)
- Network access and privileges
- A healthy environment (safe, relatively quiet, with breathable air)
- Work to accomplish
Who could mess this up? Maybe finding work for people could be complicated, but usually that’s not a problem. However, there are plenty of managers who allow employees to go for days without a computer—managers who don’t have an office ready for a new team member.
What happened the last time your network went out or the noise got too loud? Did your manager drop everything and do whatever it took to fix the issue? If not, she failed utterly in her role as a manager. Nothing is more basic than ensuring your employees can work.
What about providing a safe environment? Is there any hostility on your team? What is your manager doing about it? This is why antiharassment training is necessary. It’s because there is nothing more critical, more essential than ensuring everyone is given an opportunity to work in a safe environment.
I’m not an object
The second simple thing a good manager must do is care about his employees. This doesn’t mean warm hugs or greeting cards. You don’t even need to like them. You just need to care about your employees, seeing them for what they truly are: fellow human beings.
Again, who could mess this up? How hard can it be? Yet managers commonly think of their employees as resources instead of people. They label their employees as the “good ones” and the “bad ones.” They turn their employees into objects instead of seeing them as human beings.
Ever have a manager play favorites? It hurts, doesn’t it—even if you are one of the favorites? That’s because you’re always one false step away from being shunned. A manager who plays favorites is a manager who has stopped seeing her employees as people and started treating them as collectibles.
Taking the time to know and appreciate your employees as real people isn’t complicated, but it is a commitment. You need to set aside your own preferences and prejudices and let others know you so you can know them. I realize this is mushy stuff, but good managers respect their employees as real people, they don’t treat them as abstract headcount.
By the way, you don’t need to say or do anything to show you care. In fact, no amount of words or deeds can convince people you care about them if you really don’t. People simply can tell. You can yell at them, praise them, criticize them, and even disappoint them—employees will see through it all and still respect you if you respect them.
Remember, all you need to do to be a good manager is ensure your people can work and treat them as human beings.
Eric Aside It’s a necessary and sufficient condition—meaning if you ensure your people can work and you care about them, you are a good manager (really one of the better managers). If you don’t ensure they can work or you don’t care about them, you are a bad manager regardless of your other herculean efforts.
Good to great
The world and our company would be a better place if all managers were at least good managers. However, Microsoft is a competitive place, so you’re probably wondering what makes a great manager.
Many books, journals, and graduate schools have been dedicated to defining great managers. To me it comes down to three aspects:
- Be a good manager Don’t start by being great; start by being good. The moment you forget the basics is the moment you lose the respect and effectiveness of your employees.
- Have integrity This means align your words and actions with your beliefs. If you believe in a strong work ethic while maintaining a clear work-life balance, demonstrate it. If you believe quality comes first, make it first. You set the bar. You define the team.
- Provide clear goals, priorities, and limits Clearly communicating your goals, priorities, and limits up, down, and across your organization is essential for highly effective teams and individuals. Goals can take the form of expectations, commitments, or vision statements. Regardless, they show where to go. Priorities show how to get there. Limits provide the safe boundaries within which to travel. Without goals, it’s easy to go nowhere. Without priorities, it’s easy to get lost. Without limits, it’s easy to stumble.
Being a great manager is difficult. You must stand up to the pressure to compromise your beliefs. You must clearly and strongly communicate a consistent message about your vision, what’s important, and what’s not acceptable. You must do all this while not losing sight of the humanity of your people and the small, but important, things they need to be productive.
That’s all there is to being a good, or even great, manager. It all comes down to service. You are no longer the one doing the work. Instead, you subjugate yourself to the service of your team members so that they can be successful. Management, when done well, is about selflessness. There is no higher calling.
Eric Aside Feel free to share this column with managers you love or loathe. Nothing I’ve written in the more than five years since encapsulates everything about being a good and great manager more completely and succinctly.