Help me be a great boss!
August 24, 2010 7:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to be a good manager? I just became a manager for the first time, and I have no idea what I'm doing. The position I supervise is an entry-level web position and needs a lot of direction.

The thing is, I'm swamped myself. I've learned how to do things myself, and I'm having trouble delegating, coming up with a consistent flow of tasks, checking in (without checking in too much), etc. (I think I'm doing a good job of giving praise - I'm not being an ass or anything)

What advice do you have? Any recommended reading?
posted by adverb to Work & Money (19 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Have something you don't want to do? Give it to the kid.

Describe how you want it done, explain that you'll happily answer any questions they have. Draw them pictures. Make sure they write unit tests.

If they can't get it done, give them something else to do that you don't want to do.
posted by Netzapper at 7:16 PM on August 24, 2010

This post from earlier this month may be of use.
posted by hot soup girl at 7:24 PM on August 24, 2010

I became a manager for the first time in April at a company that deals with digital stuff (no need to get too detailed). The person I manage is brand new to the industry and while he's smart, he had zero experience.

While he's learning quickly and is able to pull most of his own weight now, I find myself in your situation.

Do any of these ring a bell?

- I want to help him more but I don't have time to guide him as closely as I'd like

- I should delegate more and more important tasks, but it would be more efficient to just do it myself

- I find myself having to check his work so closely that I feel like I'm spending the same amount of time if I was just doing it myself

If so, welcome to management! I'm JUST starting to get to the point where I feel comfortable delegating (hard for a Type A like me). It gets easier, trust me.

Process is important, but communication more so. If you think you aren't confident in your management abilities, just imagine how they feel with their responsibilities. Making sure they truly understand that it is better to ask you what they perceive to be a dumb question than hold it in and screw something up or waste time is really critical. Learning to ask for help at appropriate times is a LEARNED SKILL.

If you haven't already, schedule weekly 1-on-1 meetings with them to touch-base on priorities, answer questions, chat, etc. It improves your relationship and is a good time to get things out in the open. Make sure they know that these meetings are their opportunity to take advantage of your undivided attention which is otherwise in short supply and they should prepare an agenda in advance.

Also, at my company, we've started having meetings between lower level people and higher level people. Ie., my direct report meets with my boss once a month to touch-base. This is often a great way to get feedback that they might be nervous about sharing with you directly and can also really make you shine in your boss's eyes if you are doing a good job managing. It can also help your boss by giving them good examples of things to work on so they can help you develop your management skills.

And the last thing I'll leave you with is a note about coddling. I bust my butt till the work is done and I expect those I work with to do the same. Work hard/play hard, yada yada. What is funny though is how I have difficulty dumping work on my underling that would keep him late and at the same time keep enough on my plate that I work late every night and oftentimes weekends.

It is easy to want to protect them from the massive workload, but sooner or later they need to be exposed to it, and it is trial by fire. This is a good opportunity for them to prove they are dependable and self-starting.

Now if they end up working ridiculous hours every day, that is obviously a resource or process problem that needs to be addressed by you, but hard work won't kill them--its how you got to where you are isn't it?

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to discuss further...always fun to chat w/ fellow new managers.
posted by Elminster24 at 7:42 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding the link that hot soup girl posted - lots of great advice there.

In terms of being swamped / delegation - you need to provide enough work for your assistant to do. It might sound mean, but do give them things that you don't want to do - it's not mean, it's sensible delegation. But also give them responsibility for longer term pieces of work (complete with a clear scope, regular checkin points, and being available to support them when they need guidance).

Very clear direction as to exactly what is required, and how you want it presented, will save a lot of rework - and the less rework required, the better your assistant will feel. Nothing worse than them getting the wrong end of the stick and slaving over something and then finding that it's a long way from what you were expecting. Regular (weekly) scheduled checkins are better than constantly asking them how the work on X is going - regular checkins are supportive, random checkins are micromanaging.

Have a serious think about what needs to be done to your standards, and what is "good , enough". And give them the work where "good enough" is actually okay. This is difficult, if you're used to doing things yourself, but your assistant needs to have an opportunity to learn - s/he doesn't have your experience, so can't be expected to meet your standards on everything.

Basic rule - give them the credit (publicly) for good pieces of work, and take the flak yourself for any screwups. If your staff feel supported, they will perform better. It also makes you look like a good manager (yes, even if there are screwups - your seniors will respect the fact that you're taking responsibility even though they will probably know that it wasn't you).

Entry level staff are wonderful to manage - yes, you need to provide more direction, and need to check in more often, but they tend to be eager to learn, and with the right support and encouragement, they can develop their skills really quickly and be a real asset to your team.

Enjoy! Once you've got over the initial "but I don't have time to tell them what to do!" or "but I can do it better in half the time!", you'll reap the benefits of having the freedom to focus on work that better suits your grade, and of having a staff member who is developing into someone who could take over your job when you're promoted!
posted by finding.perdita at 8:05 PM on August 24, 2010

nthing hot_soup_girl's suggestion of the metafilter thread from earlier this month.

Also, in your particular situation with relative newb's I would suggest you stress the importance of them keeping very good notes, including:
- what they've learned and references back to where they learned it so they can find it again and/or share with others on the team
- a list of any questions/obstacles they encountered so they don't have to stammer when you ask how they're doing...some supervisors like a daily/weekly status report but they should at least have organized notes.

Also, in addition to praising accomplishments also praise careful observation and thought. You want to encourage both a results oriented attitude and an appreciation of the bigger picture.

My 2 cents.
posted by forthright at 8:12 PM on August 24, 2010

a little off topic, but as someone who's had her share of people who were handed management positions with no management experience and apparently no desire to take responsibility for being managers and no formal training from the company, I have to say how refreshing it is to hear about someone who is actually interested in trying to do a good job as a manager.

Big problem in America, promoting people to management positions without proper training. Most people are not born managers, much of it has to be learned (and no, not just 'learn as you do it.') - just wish companies would invest in creating good managers.

o.k. off the soap box. Good for you and good luck.
posted by nnk at 8:18 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The biggest things I've learned from both being a manager and having managers (of course =pp) would be:

Maintain communication every day. Even if it is just a 30-second conversation, keep them in the loop. Don't try to be their friend, but be respectful, let them know when they do well, etc.

Sandwich criticisms between compliments: "I liked A, gonna need to work on B a bit (give suggestions!) and it looks like C was taken care of nicely.

Both of these things are vital to ensure that they don't feel you only ever talk to them when they screw up. If they respect you, they will take to heart when criticized and try to correct the mistake. If you only ever seem to notice they exist when you have a problem with ABC, they'll resent you.

Finally, you can only know when/when to delegate if you know their skills and limitations. This can only be felt out with time and a little bit of trust.

Best of luck!
posted by irishcoffee at 9:29 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why some of the posts have been about managing an assistant or giving unwanted work to "the kid". From my understanding, this is an entry level position, not an assistant or unpaid intern.

I don't have management experience, but I have been in entry level jobs before, so I can tell you what I would appreciate. It'd be nice to set clear expectations from the beginning, and have specific projects or aspects of work (however small) that they can have some sort of ownership of and will show you regular progress. I personally find I work much better when the boss tells me what is expected, and how important my piece of the puzzle is to the overall work of the company or group. The rest of the stuff from the link hot soup girl gave is also pretty great.
posted by lacedcoffee at 9:38 PM on August 24, 2010

I'm not a manager but I enjoy reading Ask a Manager from time to time and always find it worthwhile.
posted by ropeladder at 9:53 PM on August 24, 2010

I recently took on the management of five people (and will soon get a sixth). Every manager has weekly meetings with their supervisees. They last anywhere from 30 minutes to an 1.5 hours. It's time to just check-in, troubleshoot and brainstorm. This is probably the most important time I spend with my supervisees. I get to hear from them what they think they're doing well with, what they're struggling with, things don't fall through the cracks and I can redirect if something is headed in the wrong direction.

Set aside time weekly to meet with your new supervisee. It's time for you two to build trust and a good working relationship. Us the time to both affirm good work and provide constructive criticism.
posted by brookeb at 10:09 PM on August 24, 2010

Never raise your voice. Always ask nicely the first time -- people are much more likely to comply with a polite request than a terse order.
Don't blame -- problem-solve. "How can we keep this from happening again?" Listen to their suggestions
Never be unwilling to do the work your employees do. When they're overwhelmed, dive in and help get it done.
Be the first to come, and the last to leave.
Show leadership by leading, and they will follow.
Sitting in a chair and barking orders is not leadership.
Always know more than them about your work. Stay educated.
Avoid too much friendliness -- it will poison the relationship if you do need to reprimand. Congenial conversation,yes. Intimate details, no.
Keep reprimands constructive-- "here's what I'd like you to do instead."
Listen, and reward innovation -- recognize those who excel - do not take their credit.
Watch out for slackers -- not because they're costing the company money (well, that too) but because they will hurt morale amongst the committed workers. Keeping slackers on staff will harm everyone's productivity.
Do your goddamndest to be cheerful, especially first thing in the morning. Set the tone for the day.
Issue progrss updates, especially when there's good news. Let them see the light at the end of the tunnel, and be wary of constant crunch-mode. Part of the year? Sure. All of the year? You're killing 'em.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:53 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't underestimate their ideas about how to establish processes and get things running smoothly. If you think of the two of you as being on a team, it might be easier to collaborate and (most importantly, I think) instill a sense of ownership and pride in the work you share.

Come up with a plan, with milestones, for phasing out your hands on direction. I'll go out on a limb and assume the person you manage isn't a total loser and just needs direction because they are new. (If the former is true, brush up on your corrective action and firing skills.) Phases I can think of: 1) training. 2) assigned work, with full review. 3) assigned work, with on-demand help. 4) self-directed work, with status reports and accountability, decreasing amounts of on-demand help. This is not an immediate outcome. To get someone up to speed with technologies, tools, environment, politics, etc, I give the average person a year, with phase 4 happening sometime around month 5-6. But if you have a plan to increase their ownership of their work and decrease your direct involvement, you are setting them (and you) up for success.

Meet regularly. Ten minutes a day should keep you up to speed on big picture issues and projects. Make sure you also have regular check-ins (monthly, at a minimum) to find out how they are doing, how they perceive their own progress, whether they need help, whether you could be doing something differently to support them more. Keep this separate from the daily tasks and more about developing them into their role.

Your comment about thinking you do a good job at praise--um, I hate to be obvious, but just ask. Ask openly, and write down their answer in front of them. And follow through. I manage a lot of people. One of the first things I ask when I get someone new is what motivates them, and how I can best give them positive and not-so-positive feedback. It varies. If you listen to them and then keep that in mind when recognition/feedback is needed, you are doing a good job.

Stay in touch with how happy they are with their work, and where they see themselves going from here. If they are interested in growth, is there a role in your company that either exists or that you can help create that will be a logical next step? Freaking help them get there. Motivated people will do 95% of that work for you. The best day that you can have as a manager--I promise--is seeing someone you have mentored promoted to a position they have been working toward.

I hope you have a good manager yourself. Bring up questions and updates to them. Ask for their advice.

In my opinion, a good manager is always wondering how to be a better manager. So--this is a good start! Keep it up!
posted by bloggerwench at 11:39 PM on August 24, 2010

Ask questions of your "people", i.e., "Wow, I hear what you're saying - what do you think is the best strategy here?"

Or, just read this - it's better than anything I could offer:

“To lead people, walk beside them... As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate... When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'”

-- Lao Tzu
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:42 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Establish criteria for evaluation and critical review.
HIDE them.
Give vague and unusable feedback so as to confuse and mis-direct.
Do all you can to ascribe your failings or errors to subordinates.
When giving written or verbal reviews employ as many jargon phrases, aphorisms popular in the current business books and meaningless phrases. Use the word synergy a lot.
Use your subordinates' ideas and initiatives as your own without giving them credit.


if you actually want to SUCCEED as a manager and have productive successful subordinates - do as bloggerwench suggests. Everything she said is exactly correct.
Nothing I've said here is correct at all.
posted by BrooksCooper at 11:47 PM on August 24, 2010

Start with the One Minute Manager. Every manager should read this.
posted by caddis at 4:09 AM on August 25, 2010

First, kudos to you for realizing that managing others is not just something that you can successfully fall into. My guess is that you were probably good at the job you are now managing. You should be aware, first of all, that managing requires a (probably totally) different skillset than actually doing the work. To do this new job well, as you seem to realize, you will have to develop these other skills.

Seconding One Minute Manager. Also please, please look at First, Break All the Rules: the best managers I've ever worked under both swore by this book and indeed used its "12 questions" to gauge their own performance.

Also, if your job description or the description of the job you supervise contains the word "service", you should have a look at my old boss's book, Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service. It's a great, short discussion of what service is, how to give it to your staff, and how to enable and inspire your staff to give it to your customers.

Good luck!
posted by gauche at 5:55 AM on August 25, 2010

Thank you goes a long way to make people feel appreciated.

It is never quicker to do it yourself, time spent on coaching is well spent.

Try to remember what helped you when you were their level.

Take full responsibility for problems but if people fail to deliver repeatedly get them off your team.

Be sure to communicate with your boss and manage their expectations - you're now the person in the middle.

Consider asking people in your organisation who you be good managers for advice, they've been where you are and will have good advice, which will help you develop your own style in time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:02 PM on August 25, 2010

And it is not your team's fault that you're having a shitty day - go for a walk or whatever if you need to but your attitude and mood will be a major factor in how good their day is.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:06 PM on August 25, 2010

My best managers

--Didn't nitpick or watch us closely, but only stepped in when necessary.
--Had good judgment (ie. they picked their political battles, could think of good approaches to problem solving, etc.).
--Genuinely seemed to like their other direct reports.
--Provided feedback and mentoring (very important).
--Tried to understand what each person wanted out of their job, and to the degree possible, tried to offer it; for example, one employee might want family friendly flexibility, another wants to be challenged, and a third wants recognition. Try to take this into account when offering people assignments.
--Aren't afraid to say no or push back when unreasonable demands are placed on the department.

It might be helpful to read books on this topic, talk to friends about their best/worst managers, and most importantly, observe others in a similar role to learn how an effective leader communicates.
posted by mintchip at 1:17 PM on August 26, 2010

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