What would you suggest to a novice manager?
August 12, 2010 11:22 AM   Subscribe

What have you learned about managing a staff that took you years to realize and wish you had known on day 1?

I am starting a new job where I will be managing an accounting staff of five women (I am male). I have no supervisory experience, although I have been around long enough to know what I like and don't like in a supervisor/manager.

What would you suggest to a new supervisor that I might not know?
What have you learned about managing a staff that took you years to realize and wish you had known on day 1?

You don't need to tell me not to micromanage.
posted by otters walk among us to Human Relations (40 answers total) 148 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have to be mean to get your point across.

You don't have to be nice to be liked by your staff.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:29 AM on August 12, 2010 [9 favorites]

Hold a meeting (or several one-on-ones) and say, point-blank and in clear terms, what everyone's role is and how they'll be measured. This is especially true if they already know you as a colleague, but not as a supervisor.

"Everyone here is an experienced professional, but I think it helps for everyone to get the lay of the land in clear terms.

"I'm your supervisor. (If this is a change from a current position, recognize that fact -- "This is different from where I was before.") This means I'm not going to be judged by previous criteria. Now, starting today, I'm going to be judged based on the performance level of the team.

"This team needs to reach metrics X, Y and Z, and here's why. If the team doesn't reach these metrics, these things -- 1, 2 and 3 -- will happen.

"You are in Role X. Your performance will be measured on factors X, Y, and Z, and that contributes to the team reaching its metrics in ways A, B and C."

If you have this frank conversation right at the beginning, your life will be 1000 times easier. You have to confront this, even though it sounds like you're becoming the alpha chimp -- because you are. If you wait weeks to do this, your life will be 1000 times worse.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:33 AM on August 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

You probably know this, but do not call your female staff 'dear' or 'honey'.
posted by zennish at 11:34 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Give the credit for successful outcomes to the staff member(s) and take the responsibility for unsuccessful outcomes. Be fair, fair and fair--do not make exceptions to policies/procedures for one unless you are absolutely prepared to make the same exception for others. Being liked is not nearly important as being respected. Never embarrass a staff member in front of others. Be a strong advocate for your staff (individually and collectively). Finally, do not ever hide behind your superiors when you are required to implement an unpopular policy/practice/decision--do not try and curry favor by saying "they" want you, made me etc. You are management and management gets paid more to make and implement difficult and unpopular decisions.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:36 AM on August 12, 2010 [29 favorites]

The main thing I wish I knew day one was how to delegate. It does a few very important things in my opinion. I've found that delegation makes your staff feel like you trust them to get projects done. It also gives you the ability to gauge their skill level and how they think and work through tasks. Also, and maybe the most important, is it frees up your time to manage. I can't tell you how much time I wasted in my first year of management trying to do everything myself.

The one thing I would caution in delegating is to make sure you aren't over tasking them. What you don't want is for your staff to feel like you are pawning all of your work off on them. I'd delegate the items that you think will be a challenge for them and take them out of their normal day-to-day. Good luck!
posted by ThomasBrobber at 11:40 AM on August 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

When your employees do a good job, tell them. A thank you, or "you did a nice job with that" can do wonders for morale.
posted by Zophi at 11:43 AM on August 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

I think many of the best practices in Verne Harnish's Rockefeller Habits would be pretty useful for leading (I think "lead" is a better word than "manage") a team.

- Regular, concise communication (RH prescribes daily meetings)
- Clear understanding of responsibilities, accountabilities, and targets
- Ability to do a reality check, and course-correct quickly
- Clear understanding of organizational core values, and organization goals

Like teaching, being an effective leader (or manager) means removing the focus away from the personal, and onto the task at hand, and keeping results (and therefore performance) measurable and quantifiable.

Personally, I think everything stems from your (as in your own personal) core values. You need to be able to work for an org that shares your own values. My personal core values are: quality, integrity, trust, communication, and accountability.

If you can get your team to discuss and decide on core values, then it's really useful. It also gives them some sense of autonomy, because it encourages them to evaluate how you, as a leader, adhere to the common shared values.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:49 AM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Don't lie.

Don't accept people gossiping about each other--with a group that small, maybe there is not as much backstabbing as with a larger group--but if someone tries to engage you in a discussion where really they're just trying to knock someone else down, thank them for the information and don't discuss it further with them.

Zennish above says don't call them "dear" or "honey"--but also, when you're talking about your team to others, don't use those kinds of terms either. I can't tell you how many times a day I hear the word "gals" and wonder what century I'm in.

I'm all for micromanaging, sort of--not in the bossy-here-let-me-do-your-job-for-you-way, but just the avid curiosity in what people are up to, how they're doing their projects, how well they're doing, what needs to be measured, what needs to be improved. Know this stuff in detail before problems creep up.

Get good at reading people's signals, when they're under strain. Know ahead of time if someone is reaching the breaking/resigning point. Make sure, if you're not the only person delegating work to them, that you know how much work is being done.

Provide clear explanations for why the projects you are giving them are important--nothing's worse than that feeling that you're just doing busywork.
posted by mittens at 11:54 AM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

When your employees do a good job, tell them. A thank you, or "you did a nice job with that" can do wonders for morale.

This, absolutely.

Also, what I have found in leading people is that I have never once regretted over-communicating. But I have very frequently regretted not communicating enough. It may seem embarrassing or easier to just "let it go," but don't. Talk about it up front, whatever it is.

Don't say things like this, ever: "I'm going to be judged based on the performance level of the team."

You will lose them instantly. They don't come to work every day with the goal of making you look good, nor should they. There should be few "I"s and many "We"s.

posted by drjimmy11 at 11:55 AM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh and here's a big one, for me anyway:

DO NOT EVER talk about people like they're not there. Ever. So fucking rude.

RIGHT: "Ryan, we're going to have you work on this. Cool?"
VERY VERY WRONG (when Ryan is present): "I'm going to have Ryan work on this."
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:56 AM on August 12, 2010

Supervise and manage are verbs. You must actively monitor what your reports are doing and communication is key. It isn't "I need you to put this away" its "I need you to put this away on the top shelf of the closet on the right, against the back wall".
posted by cestmoi15 at 12:04 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The thing that came hardest to me was how to handle the folks that weren't doing their jobs well.

To that end, it's essential you learn to be a good documenter. Keep accurate notes of everything - the good stuff and not so good. Include detailed descriptions/examples, dates, action taken, what you said to them about the event, response from the employee, evidence of improvement or continued issues. It is a huge help at performance review time or if you end up having to write up someone or terminate.

At my company if you are putting someone on the road to termination, HR asks for detailed timelines of every related interaction, what did you say, how did the employee respond, etc. It's painful at best and downright torturous if your records aren't complete and super detailed. Also, if you don't keep good notes, you aren't going to notice performance patterns until it becomes a problem negating your ability to nip things in the bud. When it comes to review time, nothing should ever be a surprise. It should all have been things discussed before.
posted by cecic at 12:08 PM on August 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

As a general aphorism, the most effective one I've seen is "focus on behaviour, not attitude".

Behaviour is something objective ("you're late") and susceptible to comparison with established norms ("You're supposed to be here by 9."). Whether or not a person is behaving appropriately is easily discussed, and is something that the employee can change if they decide to. And if you fire someone for their behaviour, it's not something they can really argue with if you've properly communicated standards to them and how they've failed to meet them.

Attitude is their internal state. It's not something you can objectively point to, it's a conclusion you make about them ("you don't care about the quality of your work"), and it's a personal attack on them that can't be demonstrated to be true. When you attack someone's attitude, they get defensive because they know that they know what their attitude is, but you don't.

Establish behavioural norms, not attitude norms. A cranky employee can be productive, and the freedom to be cranky can be a tremendous stress reliever.
posted by fatbird at 12:10 PM on August 12, 2010 [15 favorites]

Clear expectations. Let them know what you expect of them and what they can expect of you in return. Then stay out of their way until they screw up.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:14 PM on August 12, 2010

Best answer: Really good advice here. Just a few more tips:

1. Be respectful. They got there by being good at what they did or having very good potential if they are newer.

2. Use positive reinforcement. A lot. It will consistently get good results. Negative reinforcement is a complete crapshoot, so skip it.

3. Can you bring humor and enjoyment to the workplace? That really gets a great culture and attitude going.

4. Be patient and show understanding if someone gets sick, or their child/SO does, or their car breaks down, or they get emotional, or they otherwise demonstrate they are human.

5. People learn best from themselves. Good questions will often take a person to an answer, which they will remember. Instructions and lectures don't actually convey much information.

6. Be courteous.

7. If there are ongoing problems, sit down and provide a clear and documented set of expectations for improvement, with a time line and checkpoints. Follow through at the checkpoints. If you must terminate at the end, be kind about it but direct. It should be no surprise if you've been talking about this potential outcome at the checkpoints.

8. And I'll nth: tell your people you have their back, and not to hesitate to come to you for that. And follow through on that. And when they do well, make sure the word gets out in big bright lights.
posted by bearwife at 12:32 PM on August 12, 2010 [10 favorites]

Document any situation that you may need to rely on later, e.g., verbal warnings for termination process and positive feedback for annual reviews. Be very thorough with the negative situations, i.e., what you said/did, what they said/did, etc.

Be fair. If someone makes a mistake, cut them some slack and tell them that they need to do it the right way from now on.

Address problems when they arise - don't let them slide if you're conflict-averse.

Admit when you're wrong.

Give credit where it's due.

Be supportive and encourage them to excel.

Maintain a steady, positive attitude. No one will have to worry if you're going to come into work in a bad mood and have to tip-toe around you.

Above all, remember to not take things personally. In the beginning I thought a staff person's bad behaviour was a statement towards me personally. It took me a while to realize that it was my position that they were reacting to.
posted by KathyK at 12:35 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is a difference between leadership and supervision. Leadership is bringing out the best in your employees . Supervision is another name for babysitting.
posted by calumet43 at 12:35 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Manager Tools podcast is full of large amounts of wonderful advice. I appreciate most that they aim to make practical real world recommendations. They are not wishy-washy and yet they understand that not every work environment is good and they provide useful recommendations even when you can't follow the full recommendation.
posted by fief at 12:57 PM on August 12, 2010

Don't be restrictive when they show you they work well without restrictiveness. Encourage flexible hours, time off, quid pro quo, adaptability... give, and you will receive. If they're actually any good at all, that is. If they think you will be adaptable and help them when they need it, they'll give the extra yard for you when you need it.

Oh, and don't micromanage.:-)
posted by Decani at 1:00 PM on August 12, 2010

Best answer: Somebody mentioned it above, but it bears repeating - simply because whenever anybody ever asks for my advice after twenty years of managing people, i always say two things.

One of them is, "I take the blame; I give them the credit." This is effective both "up," to my own management, because it says, "I'm responsible AND I support my people," and "down" to my employees who get the recognition. Even in the heavily team-oriented environment I'm in now, I still call out special contributions - and it still works.

The second thing may not be applicable for you right away, since it sounds like you're inheriting staff, but any way it's: "Hire people smarter than you, then get the hell out of the way." No manager has ever risen very far by just hiring morons that make the manager look smart by comparison. Hire the best possible people, then run interference so they can do what you're paying them to do.

Oh, and good luck!
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 1:04 PM on August 12, 2010 [19 favorites]

Always remember that you are their manager and maintain an appropriate tone. I have worked with managers who forget this -- particularly those who have wicked, off color senses of humor. "Honey," "gal," "dear," etc are never acceptable from a superior, nor are jokes that even somewhat border on offensiveness. You're not their friend.
posted by telegraph at 1:07 PM on August 12, 2010

Came to say exactly what bearwife and OneMonkeysUncle said.
posted by liquado at 1:17 PM on August 12, 2010

I'm sure you've had crappy managers. Don't do what they did. I find I feel at my best when I treat my staff how I wish someone had treated me.

Listening is key! Both to what people say and what they don't say.

Lead by example. Don't ask anyone to do something you wouldn't want to do. Unless that's their job, of course.
posted by itsacover at 1:19 PM on August 12, 2010

Lot's of good suggestions here. Mine is pretty simple; don't be afraid to coach.

I always wanted to be thought of as the good-guy boss that everyone liked, but that meant that I wasn't adequately showing people on my team when they were doing something wrong. Coaching doesn't have to be punitive or disciplinary either, a lot of time it can be as simple as pointing out a behavior which is holding the employee back or preventing them from doing their job better.

Also, don't be afraid to have fun or admit that you are wrong.

And listen. Actually get to know the people reporting to you. It makes a huge difference in your interactions with them.
posted by quin at 1:43 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There is some wonderful advice here, as I expected from MetaFilter. Thank you!
posted by otters walk among us at 1:58 PM on August 12, 2010

Adding to the list:


When you need someone to do anything, give them a deadline. It helps them prioritize. If anyone needs you to do anything, give them a deadline of when they can expect movement on it, or at least a check in.

Alternative Plans:

So, you're trying to get a decision/thing from another department so your team can move ahead and you're not getting it. Already plan on delays and set up alternate plans - "We'll work on this section until we get an answer back." "I'll let them know if they don't get the document to us by Monday, we'll use this document instead. Period." etc.

Stop problems before they become problems:

One thing teams are good at is finding places where process is slow or poorly run. Listen. Think about it. Check in with the team and see if you can fix it. It really helps morale and how fast things can get done. It also helps you understand the process and prevent future problems later on as well.

Tough choices:

Sometimes team members come and ask you to make a decision. Don't be afraid to do this, and let them know when they can expect an answer ("by Friday") and do it. Most people would rather just cruise along and do their work, so if they're coming to you, they need you to look at factors they can't see, and let them know. If it requires input from others, consider that in your deadline (as above). Get on top of this, and they'll trust you to have their back.
posted by yeloson at 2:08 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Except that part of your job might be to fire someone. They might not be right for the job, they might not be good for the team, they might not be meeting expectations, even after your efforts to support them, etc.

I've often seem managers hesitate to fire, trying to give another, and another chance, even after they see no improvement, not realizing that over time, this is often to the detriment of the team or the goal. I think this is because new managers think the fault is with themselves - if they 'managed' better, they'd be able to fix the person's problem. Also, it's hard not of think of what might happen to the person if you let them go.

But in the end, if you don't do what needs to be done, other people on your team have to pick up the slack, and all your time will be spent managing on the person with the problem, rather than the managing the team and helping them focus on a common goal.

You'll be the only one who can fix it, because ultimately, you'll be the only one who can let the person go. Once you suspect you might have to, don't hesitate - find out from HR what you have to do, and do it. If you don't you will blow all of your political capital on a consistently underperforming staff member, and you'll lose the support of those who you supervise. So, be supportive of all of your staff, but if you have to fire someone, be decisive.
posted by anitanita at 2:23 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

When you have an employee in your office, NEVER take a non-emergency phone call or permit routine interruptions. If it's something you must take, say to the caller "I'm in a meeting and can't talk to you now. When can I call you back?"

The employee needs to feel that s/he is the center of your attention. Nothing destroys that as surely as interrupting someone in the middle of a sentence to talk to someone else.
posted by KRS at 2:26 PM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

While you should remain friendly, you are not their friend.

Praise in public, criticize in private.

Lead by example.

Treat everyone equally, even when you don't want to.

Document everything.

Be open to criticism, ESPECIALLY from those you manage.

I wish I knew all this on day 1 of managing people, and I learn more every day.
posted by santaliqueur at 2:35 PM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: All of these answers are helpful. Thank you!
posted by otters walk among us at 4:18 PM on August 12, 2010

Making sure you acknowledge your team's accomplishments (rather than taking credit yourself) is key.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:10 PM on August 12, 2010

You are not:
their friend or lover or father or brother or anything else.

You are:
their manager.

You should:
Document everything, set deadlines for everything, always ask "is there any reason that you can't meet these expectations?', be consistent, own your mistakes early, celebrate and share success.

good luck!
posted by MT at 5:15 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many good points here; I also keep this list of 12 things good bosses believe on my desk, and try to bear them in mind in day-to-day interactions.

I'd add that it's easy to get bogged down on managing activities, not results, and it's important to focus 100% on the latter.

On building teams, I always go back to this (perhaps apocryphal?) Warren Buffett quotation: "In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." Many skills can be taught, but integrity is vital and unteachable.
posted by mozhet at 6:39 PM on August 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

The two biggest things I learned are:

1. Most people just want very clear direction, and a set goal. Give them that. Even if the people above you can't commit to anything, at least give the people who work for you clear goals. And explain why - be honest. Many times I've had to tell my team "Upper management won't commit to anything, so here's what we're going to do. Let's figure out how to achieve it - it probably won't be what they want, and it'll get changed, but at least we have a goal for now."

And don't just tell them what to do, explain what the bigger goal is. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger.

2. You may have a natural hatred of conflict, and want to avoid it at all costs (I know I do). In most cases this can work well as you help everyone work together. But sometimes you absolutely have to put your foot down, piss someone off, and say "this is how it's going to be done." This actually pays off in the long run, as long as it's not your normal style of management.

Also - study up on how pack animals work. Humans are nothing more than slightly more evolved monkeys. Much of our behavior is still surprisingly similar to woodland creatures.
posted by krisak at 7:05 PM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm no longer a manager but the three important things I recall making a difference with my team:

#1- people are different...no, really, I mean it...people are more different than you realize...do not try to treat everyone as if they were the same...this does not take away from the excellent advice above about expectations and behavior, respect, communications, delegation, etc. What it does is put a spin on all those things, because to accomplish those management goals with different team members you may need to be creative. Think of the Myers-Briggs personality types, or the Howard Gardner Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Some people don't want to have a boring day, some people don't want a scary day...the necessities of the workplace means that not everybody gets what they want, but when you do have the freedom, try to work with the grain of a team member as opposed to against the grain.

#2- in any given workday there will probably be more to do than hours to do it in...you can be the time accountant making sure everybody understands that it all must get done before anybody leaves, or you can lead by example and put in some (not excessive) extra hours to take up the slack...people notice that kind of thing and actions speak louder than words.

#3- never apologize for your quality control procedures...the buck stops with you...if something is not done to a minimum level of quality then you will not approve/sign-off...this sends a clear expectation of results oriented work as opposed to going through the motions...it will also build credibility with your managers and other groups with which you interact.

Best wishes on your new position.
posted by forthright at 7:37 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Didn't see this mentioned yet: make sure that nobody on your team is irreplaceable. If Sally is the one who always does X, and nobody else knows how to do it, then what happens when Sally is sick/dead/etc? So have each person write procedures for all essential tasks they perform. It will help everyone in case of absence, and you will have a gage of everyone's self awareness. Train out skill/knowledge hoarding. Critical skills/knowledge belong to the company/team, and should be stored somewhere other than in people's heads.
posted by yesster at 4:35 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

A different take on "hire smart people and get the hell out of their way" is something I learned from my very first manager, in no uncertain terms: my position exists in order to deflect the amount of bullshit my manager has to deal with. This is true for me with my manager, but the same applies to those that I manage - they are there to deflect as much BS as possible from reaching me. The more they can get their job done without major issues arising - or being able to creatively deal with such issues without my input, the more I can focus on what it is I am there to do - manage them. Same goes for my boss. The less crap I distract her with, the better she can manage me. It follows pretty well in line with the "shit runs downhill" theory.

Teach your people to deflect on your behalf, and lead by example with your own boss.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Excellent advice. I would add make sure you have contact with every person every day - even if it's just "good morning." Hard one for me to learn, you're their manager - you can and should be friendly but you are never going to be their friend. Listen to what your staff is telling you - actively listen. Oh, ensure your staff understands that the reason we do thus and such this way is never "because that's the way we've always done it."

Good Luck
posted by KneeDeep at 11:33 AM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is true for me with my manager, but the same applies to those that I manage - they are there to deflect as much BS as possible from reaching me. The more they can get their job done without major issues arising - or being able to creatively deal with such issues without my input, the more I can focus on what it is I am there to do - manage them.

Hmm. That seems like a good approach to take personally--it probably makes you an excellent employee. But I would argue that the opposite is true in a manager-employee relationship: Your job as manager is to act as a buffer for your team, to shelter them from outside problems so that they can focus on the specific tasks they have to do. Presumably the people on your team have certain kinds of expertise in whatever it is they're doing. You as manager have the task of helping their specific expertise fit into the larger environment as effectively and smoothly as possible. The more you shield them from outside distractions, problems, and interference, the more they can focus on their jobs.
posted by aka burlap at 11:49 AM on August 13, 2010

Set the standard. Do not set the standard so high it's awful, but if you don't act the way you want them to act, they won't.

Do not assign any task you wouldn't be willing and able to do yourself.

If your employees have a roadblock they can't work around, help them clear it. In my case, that means when someone else in another department is slow, and that's hurting us, the manager's job is then to lean on that person so we can get our work done and go home.
posted by talldean at 5:17 AM on August 16, 2010

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