Ten Rules for Better Management

June 8, 2010

Managers are more important to an employee’s decision to remain with a company than any other factor. The book, First, Break all the Rules, takes the position that “…if your relationship with your manager is fractured, then no amount of in-chair massaging or company-sponsored dog-walking will persuade you to stay and perform. It is better to work for a great manager in an old-fashioned company than a terrible manager in a company offering an enlightened, employee-focused culture.“

Since being a good manager is this important, here's my personal list of rules for better management.
  1. Know your staff, and align their strengths and preferences with the needs of the organization. This means getting to know each person as an individual, seeking to understand their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and career aspirations. If you can leverage peoples’ strengths and assign them to projects that are in line with their stated preferences, they will be motivated to perform, and more likely to be successful in the process. This will also result in less directing and cajoling on your part – a real win/win.

  2. Understand what good performance looks like. As a manager, you don’t have to be the best performer, but you do need to know what stand-out performance looks like in order to judge it accurately. To do this, look to your best performers; you cannot understand what excellence looks like by studying failure.

  3. Provide clarity and context relative to expectations. Make sure that you have you clearly communicated your performance expectations in terms of what needs to be done and how to go about it. This should be in the form of a regular, two-way dialog and not a "it's my way or the highway" mandate. As a part of this dialog, make sure that the expected results are understood in context of the organizational goals and values.

  4. Stretch people, but do so carefully. To get high standards of performance you need to set tough, yet attainable goals.

  5. Pay attention. I’ve seen articles and books dating back decades that discuss the fact that people don’t get the time and attention from their bosses that they feel they need. Some managers deliberately distance themselves from their staff, not wanting to be "too familiar" or too close because they feel it will undermine their authority. This doesn't work, as you cannot build personal influence and strong relationships by distancing yourself.

    Another part of paying attention to people is finding ways to provide praise and recognition for things that people are doing right on a regular basis. People need to know that you are paying attention to what they do, and that they can count on frequently hearing from you. Finally, giving praise and recognition are not only great motivators, but it makes any corrective conversation that needs to be conducted a whole lot easier.

  6. Provide opportunities to learn and grow. Knowledge workers need to expand their horizons to be of continuing value; putting knowledge in the knowledge bank allows you to make those continual withdrawals, paying dividends in the process.

  7. Identify and remove impediments. People sometimes need a little assistance and guidance to make them more productive. A few key questions to ask that can surface typical bottlenecks:

    • Does your staff have the proper materials and equipment required to do their work?
    • Are there things that you as a manager or another part of the “system” are doing to impede progress?
    • Is too much being demanded of too few?

  8. Take the long view. Yes, we all have urgent tasks that creep into our day, but keep the longer-term objectives in mind when dealing with those day-to-day pressures. Continual firefighting and unchecked multi-tasking keeps people very active and busy, but it diverts you and your organization from achieving meaningful results. Ultimately, this lack of meaningful accomplishment will be a significant de-motivator.

  9. Provide confidence and optimism. This is particularly important when the pressure is on. People and teams that don’t allow themselves to get rattled under pressure can make all the difference in terms of successful delivery and failure. Under times of stress, managers can shore up everyone by projecting confidence.

  10. Assess employees on specifics, not on generalities. Give people something concrete to work with. “Rudeness” is general, whereas specifying the improper behavior of interrupting a co-worker when she was making a suggestion is specific. “Not a team player” is general, where pointing out that not volunteering on several occasions to take on extra work is specific. Having a “good attitude” is general, whereas smiling at people and never complaining during crunch time is specific.
Did I miss anything that you view as important?

7 comments

I think you pretty much nailed it. I see manager as an enabler. To me the main purpose of a manager is to empower people. I like to compare a manager to oil that keeps an engine running smoothly. It if works just fine, you don't notice it. If it fails, things start to get choppy. :)

I suppose it depends a bit on the culture but I guess the importance of a manager is amplified in an introverted environment. Some cultures tend to emphasize the meaning of authority. It is natural for people to do just as told. Especially in this case it's up to the manager to bring the best out of people.

When it comes to managing the interesting question for me is how big the distance between the manager and the employees ought to be? Is it possible/feasible to cope with minimal/zero management (self-organizing teams a la lean?)?

I think there is some evidence, mainly amongst open source projects, that show it is indeed possible to achieve great things with minimal interference.

There still has to be some amount of leadership to keep it all together, though. I suppose that's crucial aspect related to management as well. I think the main point about leadership is showing the way, pointing the compass. Management is about going to that set direction.

June 8, 2010 at 6:27 AM
Dave Moran said...

Juho,

Thanks for your comments!

Yes, managers should establish and communicate direction, in a way that encourages the development of other leaders (in various ways, both technical and non-technical) to help the organization meets it goals. And I agree that good management should almost be invisible, provided things are running smoothly.

In response to your question about distance between the manager and employee, I don’t believe that there should be distance – even in an empowered (I’ve recently taken to using autonomous over empowered) environments. Managers typically have a perspective that spans the organization along with experience and practice in decision-making, communication, planning, meeting management, and the like. Managers can bring something to the table, even when they are managing employees who have greater (and more up-to-date) technical skills than the manager.

The dialog about how people – individuals and teams – are approaching their work keeps a manager connected and involved. For example, a manager may have awareness of other resources that could help a particular project. Just taking an active interest in what people are doing is important. Employees are generally excited about explaining to you about what they are working on – and this can keep you informed about them, the challenges that they’ve overcome, areas that they need help with. This helps to motivate them and helps to keep you up-do-date (somewhat) with technology as a by-product. As a manager, you can’t have your hands in the code all day long, but you can learn from your employees who do. Just don’t tie up their time by asking for tutorials! You will likely have to invest some time of your own in keeping technologically current.

June 8, 2010 at 8:08 PM

I fully agree with every point you made. One of the issues I often find with other software development managers is that they have progressed from developers themselves without enough business and management skills. The consequences can be really negative to the organisation and even to development managers because it damages the reputation of the profession in general. What are your thoughts about this?

Good post once again.

June 10, 2010 at 6:39 AM
Dave Moran said...

Alex,

Thanks! Like you, I've heard all too often that many software development managers "progress" from developers to managers without any business/management skills development. And once in the position, it becomes a trial-by-fire, learn-as-you go proposition. This can cause serious harm to an organization, ranging from major productivity losses to drastic turnover, and all points in between.

There should be preparation that leads to promotion. I personally studied management and business formally and informally for years before becoming a manager. I obtained degrees in both computer sciences and business administration, including a masters degree in business. Over the years I've read extensively about both programming and business, seeking to apply what I could at any opportunity. I view myself as a manager who was side-tracked as a programmer for some time.

Just like programming, there should be a defined progression from development-oriented work towards management, with requisite formal training and self-education to prepare an individual for what is essentially a new career. And like programming, active mentoring by an experienced manager would pay dividends.

June 10, 2010 at 9:31 AM

Dave,

good ones. one more thing that may get added to this is managers trying to make themselves redundant. Try to create an environments such that the group self-helps, self-decides and self-manages, and managers can then become leaders in focusing on the long rather than the short.

thoughts?

June 11, 2010 at 4:01 AM
Dave Moran said...

Prasanna,

Yes, autonomous, self-directed teams are ideal, and I’m a believer in creating this type of environment. Managers have experience in planning, decision-making, communication skills, negotiation skills, etc. that can be of benefit to individuals and teams, and managers should coach individuals and teams in these areas so that they reach that ultimate, self-managed, self-directed state. This will move those day-to-day operational activities to the teams, speeding up work and allowing managers to focus more on the long term. (It takes time to reach that state, and a change in team personnel can cause teams to take a step back, so this is something of a journey and not a detination.)

June 11, 2010 at 6:18 AM

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