Definition of a Great Manager - Part Two

April 15, 2009

This is the second part of a two-part post, where I've elected to put my thoughts out on the table on those qualities that I feel are important in being an effective manager.

My disclaimer: I'm not claiming perfection on these fronts, but this is what I strive for. And if a manager has all of these qualities and executes well on them all of the time, I’d categorize that person as great in my book!

Ability to Switch Gears
This is one that I often cite as the BIG DIFFERENCE to those considering a move from a programming role into management. Often times, those who aren’t in management seem to think that managers have some type of attention-deficit disorder, because they only spend what seems like minutes on any one issue.

I have found that my time is very fragmented. Between one-on-ones, quarterly and annual reviews, managing the budget, budget forecasts, requests for equipment and tools, time off requests, planning for new projects, meetings to review projects (and in the software business, these are always facing some challenge), customer calls, etc., etc., I have a highly fragmented day!

As a manager, you need to be able to jump from one topic to another in the blink of an eye. This is quite a mental gear-shift, and it is also why I caution any new manager that comes from a development background to make sure that they do not volunteer to code to “help” teams that they are now managing. You need that quiet concentration time to be an effective programmer, and this becomes almost impossible once you are into the management role full-time.

Organization Skills
Since I have a large number of things going on at all times, I find that keeping organized is necessary and highly beneficial to my productivity. I have a TON of e-mail folders to group relevant communications where I can easily locate them later, all arranged in a hierarchy. For example, I have a Customers folder that has a sub-folder for each customer that we deal with.

I also organize my documents in a similar hierarchical manner. Project proposals, resumes, RFI responses, internal planning folders -- you name it, I've categorized it and placed each document in their rightful place. What I try to keep to a minimum is actual paper.

Sure, I still print things out, but I find that filing and organizing paper is more time-consuming and rarely pays any benefit. I print for convenience – and sometimes for proof-reading while I’m waiting for a meeting to start (but not during the meeting, that would be rude). If I attempted to print and file everything, I would need a HUGE filing cabinet! And generally, when I need something, I need it in electronic form to forward to somebody via e-mail anyway...

I also need to keep track of my staff, the projects and work that they are engaged in, both from a performance review standpoint and from a resource-allocation standpoint. If someone runs into a roadblock, I find that it is usually me that is part of the unblocking – such as knowing that someone else might have the knowledge and spare cycles to assist.

Finally, I have deadlines for getting key things done. If it is a big priority, I block off time on my calendar to do the work. If I didn't do this, the likelyhood that someone would schedule a meeting is high, and would prevent me from completing that high-priority item. I track other tasks as tasks that can be addressed as I have time, provided the high-priority work is addressed.

Communication Skills
As a manager, I have found myself speaking and writing a lot. My wife loves to dish out a little good-natured ribbing to me, reminding me how I used to spend large amounts of my time with lines of code on my screen, and now it’s in e-mail, composing documents, or preparing presentations. I also spend a lot of time in every day engaged in dialog, helping teams work through issues, on the phone with customers, talking with my peers about budgets or setting direction, you name it.

No matter what form communication takes, it does take time and practice to be clear. I've found that when it doubt, spell it out explicitly! Don't bank on someone "reading between the lines," or implicitly understanding the urgency of completing a task by a given date. If you have a need and expectation to have something done in a certain time frame, make sure that your message is plain and clear.

Clarity takes some extra time, but it's worth it in the long run. I've kicked myself every time that I've short-changed the clarity in my own messages, because something didn't get completed to the level it needed to be, or by the date required.

Another skill that I have found will come into play during your routine communications: Negotiation. Business people negotiate routinely, and as a developer transitioning into management, I readily admit this was one area that I was weak in. Early on, I even failed to recognize that I was even in a negotiation in some cases! I allowed myself to commit my team to schedules that I should have negotiated, and the results were painful. Live and learn...

I find that I'm always involved in some type of negotiation, whether it is for time-off requests, raises, project schedules, resource allocations, vendor contracts/rates, or career direction in some cases... Bottom line: As a manager, you name it, you’ll be negotiating about it!

Ability to Delegate
First-time managers tend to have a problem with this, but my advice here is simple: Get over it, and quick! I was hesitant to delegate when I first became a manger, but I became over-loaded in a short period of time.
And then I asked others to do things...

And it wasn't a problem! They expected it, and more often than not, welcomed taking on tasks at my request.

Fortunately, I learned that one early on. Over the years I’ve found that effective delegation provides me with the time to do those things that I should be doing in the first place. These days, I'm still finding that because of my longevity with the company, my challenge is not to get drawn into as many things as I do, as it is causing me some problems with getting high-priority tasks completed.

Strong Desire to See Others Succeed
A great manager is more interested in developing those that report to him or her than anything else. In order to accomplish this, I maintain regular contact through bi-weekly one-on-ones along with walking and talking during the course of the day. I try to understand what people are doing today, where they want their careers to go, and what I can do to help.

Yes, there are times when there is little that I can do, but being armed with this information is extremely useful. I might not be able to do everything for those that report to me, but even little things can help improve job satisfaction and set a positive tone.

When it comes to guiding the success of others and the organization, I have one golden rule: If a task is important enough to start, it should be important enough to complete.

I keep a handle on our organizational priorities and the relative priorities of tasks that are assigned to my staff at all times. It can be very frustrating for people to be continually pulled off one task to work on some new, "hot" issue before the finishing the task that they are on. If you do this often, entire quarters (or even an entire year) will slip by where you will find that you were very busy, but your actual accomplishments were very low. I make it an exception to pull someone off of a task to work on something else.

Since we've adopted Agile (Scrum) development, we negotiate the priorities on our product backlog as a stakeholder exercise. This forces a routine assessment of priorities, but if you are allowing teams to operate in the true spirit of Scrum, those teams work the priorities that they've started to completion. I have heard of some companies implementing Agile/Scrum in different ways, including not having a product owner or a product backlog, but that is a different story...

Of course, the end of each year brings the subject of the annual performance review to the fore. Interestingly enough, this can bring feelings of dread by both managers and employees. The reality is that this will only be agonizing if you don’t spend the time throughout the year truly managing. My personal style is to put significant time and effort into performance management, and the annual performance reviews I've given over the years have not been surprises. Sure, I've had some give-and-take negotiation, and I'm always willing to engage in that dialog.

After all, performance management in the software world is largely subjective. Another reality is that in most organizations, as a manager you are walking a line between high-level corporate objectives and the individual expectations of your staff.

I've had occasion to go to bat for someone because I missed, drawing too hard a line on an individual and given them a lower rating than they feel that they earned. However, because that person convinced me that I was off the mark, I've reversed my decision. I've had this happen a couple of times, and I always enter performance appraisals with the notion that if someone disagrees, I am open to discussion on the topic.

When it comes to the actual appraisal, I've always included an entire year's worth of accomplishments in every employee's assessment. I strive to be as thorough and detailed as possible, which keeps everyone generally satisfied and in agreement with the end result. In fact, I've had times where people have told me that they had forgotten some things that they had done throughout the course of the year, but were grateful that I didn't forget.

A positive result of continually staying on top of the performance management process is that I've never experienced that feeling of dread going into any performance review. I've also never done someone the disservice that I have experienced myself in years past, where the only notable accomplishments on my review were the things I worked on in December.

In fact, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some performance reviews that I’ve given over the years! There is nothing is better than seeing someone really succeed at their job and you being the person recognizing and rewarding them for it, praising them with a list of accomplishments, and feeling great yourself because you helped them get there, even if it was only to align them with the opportunity that fit their skills and interests.