Help me be an awesome manager!
April 13, 2017 11:57 AM   Subscribe

Last last year I accepted my Dream JobTM. I've been here for about four months now and absolutely love it. This is my first time supervising people, and while I think I'm doing a good job, I'd love to do an amazing job at it.

Some pertinent info:

* We work for a non-profit, quasi-academic, research institution.
* I manage a small group of research assistants. I report to a team of professors.
* I'm a cis woman and all of our RAs are men.
* On average I am only 3 years older than our RAs. This gap will widen over time, as I (presumably) stay in my role but we recruit new RAs every 1-2 years. FWIW I worked full-time in a career-relevant job throughout college, so I have about 7 years of experience. This is a first job for all of our RAs.

Things I already do:

* Meet with them one-on-one every week. They tell me about their work that week and any new obstacles they've encountered or successes they've enjoyed. I also use this as an opportunity to assess their workload and stress levels and to see if they're feeling happy and appreciated at work.
* Treat them to lunch as a group every other week. This is a nice time for us to bond as a group, but it also gives me more insight into the dynamic between the four of them.
* Advocate for them with the professors as needed - make sure they have the right amount of work, that they're getting good assignments, etc.
* Encourage them to do things like attend seminars, work flexible schedules, fly to conferences, etc., when our organization allows it.

What else can I do to be an awesome manager?
posted by schroedingersgirl to Work & Money (18 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Genuinely listen.
posted by davejay at 12:19 PM on April 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kudos to you for, first, putting into place some good management practices, and second, for caring about becoming an even better manager. This is especially important since, as the RAs are new to the working world, your behavior has an outsized impact on their understanding of what managers do and how to do it well.

One other thing you could do: Ask them for feedback. Besides potentially alerting you to areas for expansion/improvement of which you might have been unaware, it also models good manager behavior, creates open lines of communication, and can help you develop stronger leadership skills for the future.

An easy way to seek feedback is to use "Continue Start Stop". In essence, you ask three questions:
-What am I doing now that, in order to help you be as effective and satisfied as possible, I should continue doing?
-What should I start doing in order to help you be as effective and satisfied as possible?
-What am I doing now that, in order to help you be as effective and satisfied as possible, I should stop doing?

You can play around with the wording if you like, as long as you keep the general format. It's usually a good idea to alert the RAs in advance that you will be asking these questions in your one-on-ones, rather than springing it on them. *Above all*, you should be as matter-of-fact and nondefensive as possible when discussing their answers with them.
posted by DrGail at 12:31 PM on April 13, 2017 [11 favorites]


Be friendly but don't be friends.

Make sure credit for work is given where credit is due.

Be a sh*t umbrella not a sh*t funnel.

Be consistent.

When managing entry level folks understand they will make more mistakes than seasoned employees. Help them use those mistakes as learning experiences and not let it stress them out to the point where they make more mistakes.

If you are managing student employees at an institution where they are also students you have to understand how to handle the weird dual role where they are both a customer and an employee.
posted by jmsta at 12:32 PM on April 13, 2017 [16 favorites]

Don't be so friendly that you can't offer real critiques. Offer critiques as soon as you notice the issue.

Don't do their work for them.

Read the posts and comments on
posted by kapers at 12:51 PM on April 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, and be blunt when you need to be. E.g., don't say stuff like "let's sit down and work together to figure out what you need from me in order to be comfortable with your time management going forward" if the issue is really "This is the third time I've had to talk to you about late results. If you miss another deadline you're off the project." Not every problem is a coachable moment, especially if the issue has been addressed previously in more collaborative ways.
posted by kapers at 1:13 PM on April 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Take responsibility in both directions:

Downward, don't blame your people to your bosses when they fuck something up. Because they didn't fuck up, you fucked up by letting them fuck up. Take the hit, prevent it from happening next time.
On the other hand, give them the credit when things go well. Even if you did it all yourself, they helped by taking or keeping things off your plate.

Upward, don't blame your bosses for stupid things. When your people push back on a stupid thing your boss is making you do, listen to their complaints, think about them, and say, "You raise good points, but we're going to do it this way." And leave it at that. Part of the burden of leadership is taking the blame from below, too.
posted by Etrigan at 1:18 PM on April 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: knownassociate - Yes, I read through the Ask from September; thanks! Given that my position is a little unique (mostly because I'm so close in age to my team, but also given the gender distribution) I wanted to ask my own question. :)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:44 PM on April 13, 2017

I would add Ask A Manager to your daily reading! She gives great advice, it's entertaining as well as informative, and it has one of the few comment sections on the internet that is really worth reading.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:17 PM on April 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm a little confused. In what sense are you their manager? Are you an expert in the area that the RAs are researching in and the profs are advising in? Do you "manage" their research and progress directly, or are you more of an administrator/facilities/organizer type? Or somehow both? Are these RAs also graduate students?

The reason I ask is I'd have different suggestions for different scenarios, and honestly what you describe seems fairly uncommon - not business, not academic, not even traditional non-profit due to the academic bent. Is it some sort of incubator situation?

Also I hate to say it but the gender divide will probably eventually give you at least some minor shitty problem if it persists, especially if you are not a subject expert in the academic field. Do have your icy put-him-in-his-place response ready in case anybody makes some crude sexist joke or insinuation.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:00 PM on April 13, 2017

Best answer: On the lines of advocating for them, my biggest complaint of previous managers would be that our department would have a meeting like, "The higher ups want us to make 30 widgets in 10 days and we can't do it!" And our whole department would agree, the boss would go to tell the higher ups that it couldn't be done, yet somehow after that meeting the boss would come back and say "Well, we have to make 30 widgets in 10 days!"

And we would scramble, and widgets would get messed up, and mistakes would be made, and clients would receive widgets late and incorrect, and our department would be blamed.

I desperately wish my boss would stand their ground and say something along the lines of "You hired me to make this department successful. We cannot completely 30 widgets in 10 days. We can complete 5 of them if you'd like, otherwise they'd have to wait until the next time we turn out widgets." Rather than just succumbing to the pressure. I understand that puts their job on the line, but at the same time the boss's job is to protect the department as well. It then would trickle down to me and others lower in the pool where OUR jobs then became on the line because of the mistakes that kept coming from above.

So the best chance of success is that everyone is working within their capacity and not stretching too far - as that just creates more problems.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:13 PM on April 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Being in charge, you set the tone of your whole team - lead by example. For example, take short-cuts and your team will start taking short-cuts. Be rude and your staff will start being rude.

Your actions should always follow your words. Don't become one of those annoying managers that says one thing but does another. Follow-up on all plans discussed. Let your team know you mean business when you discuss something.

Reward openness - having team members whom confide in you will mean problems or mistakes are more likely to be spotted early.

Know your subject matter - during review sessions you should be able to ask your team in-depth questions about their work. They will respect you more for it.

Empower your team to use their own initiative and they will reward you with great work.

And finally surprise your team, take them all to lunch some random Tuesday.

Oh and be sure to read "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. A really superb book on not being a jerk manager.
posted by jacobean at 4:07 PM on April 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

A few things that I've found have really helped in my first few years as a manager:

- As much as possible keep your focus on the work. This doesn't mean "be a slave driver," or don't care about your staff as people, but it does mean that when you're not sure what to do, stop yourself and think what needs to be done to move the work forward and/or make it better. This also helps keep the focus off things like making sure your staff likes/respects you (worrying about that is probably the biggest pitfall for new managers).

- Invest time in finding out what your staff members' personal goals are, and find ways to help them move towards those goals. If they are all in the same job, it's easy to assume they all have the same goals, but that's not always the case. Similarly, identify what motivates them. For instance, I have one staff member who is really motivated by curiosity and challenge. She loves figuring out the root of a problem, and she loves mastering a new challenge. I have another staff member who is motivated by excellence - she really wants everything she works on to be top quality. They are both high performers, but their performance is motivated by different things, so I don't always give them the same projects, or the same kind of feedback.

- Nip problematic behavior in the bud. Whenever I have had behavioral problems in someone I managed (it's only happened a few times), I have always been able to look back and see where it started, and I've kicked myself that I haven't said something earlier. When you do give feedback, either positive or negative, always frame it in terms of specific behavior and outcomes rather than personality traits or generalities (ie, "I noticed you said [x snarky thing] in the team meeting yesterday] and it really derailed things. If you have feedback, I'd prefer you deliver it in a more constructive way" rather than "you need to be less snarky in meetings.")

- Never promise something you don't know if you can deliver.

- Managing to Change the World is an amazing book for new managers - it's a true manual and has rock-solid advice. It's put out by the Management Center which does great trainings- if your entity has a professional development budget for you, I would definitely consider it.
posted by lunasol at 7:45 PM on April 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

Ask A Manager is great, and so is her book! I've also found "Good Boss, Bad Boss" useful (although a little too hokey at times). An exec I looked up to at a previous company recommended "First Break All The Rules" which is basically the premise that employees leave companies b/c of their direct managers, and what are the characteristics of those great managers. I haven't read it yet, but it is on my nightstand.
posted by ellerhodes at 10:17 PM on April 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If your people come to you with things they want to change, processes that don't make sense, issues with workload or whatever and you need to go up some kind of chain of command with their requests/issues, tell them what happened, good or bad.

There is nothing more disheartening than bringing things up, being told they will be passed on, then your feedback/concerns disappearing into a black hole of indifference. It's fine if you go away, ask about something, then come back and say, 'We can't do that, for X, Y, Z reasons.' It sucks if you just never mention it again, or keep promising to do something and never do.

And as with the above - if you think your managers are dodging something or dumping something on you, stand your ground and fight for your team. I'm not saying you should be a visible martyr for every single piece of crap that rains down on you, but the managers I have really respected in my life have been the ones who have defended the team, told us honestly and clearly what is going on and have not turned workplace relationships into us vs them pissing matches.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:01 AM on April 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've had a similar position with a similarly narrow age gap (some were even my age or slightly older than me!) Trust that you are in your position, and they are not, for important reasons. You are all in your 20s (I'm guessing) and at that age, 3 years extra experience is YUUUGE. Also the way you describe your conduct sounds mature enough to reinforce your position despite the age gap. You could probably be way more aloof (but approachable if they need you), and if your team gets shifty, bring snacks into the office and all is forgiven. Do not go on social outings with them or they may get flirty/coarse around you, which is unacceptable.

And thank you for being a female supervisor!! Way more men need them, and you're getting them young before they're too ruined by entrenched academic patriarchal BS :)
posted by Drosera at 5:43 AM on April 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you guys! Lots of good advice here, which I'm really excited to implement.

SaltySalticid - I don't want to provide too much detail here for anonymity's sake. I'll just say that I have relevant subject matter expertise and, additionally, research administration expertise. The RAs are not grad students. Our organization is not at all unique in the social sciences. It is not an incubator.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:30 AM on April 14, 2017

Best answer: In a similar gender and age dynamic in academia, frankly I found I was walking a line where I had to work to be seen as a Manager-- not a college student or a mom. I hope it's not that way for you.

If you are seen as one of them, that will be cool and great until the day you have to tell them to do something they don't want to do, and they blow you off; or the day they act inappropriately with you and you realize this wouldn't fly with someone they respected more. It will suck for you and it will rob them of the training a lot of young men need to act like respectful professional adults.

If you are seen as the mom (or cool auntie/older sis, a mistake I made early in my career), you might start doing too much emotional labor for them, picking up their slack, accepting bullshit excuses, etc.. This will drain you and won't prepare them professionally either.

As a female boss of slightly younger men I found I did have to really challenge my tendency to please and take care of them. I say this because what you are already doing sounds like excellent management and I am reading a desire to please on top of that. It doesn't sound like you are at risk of some of these bad-boss behaviors mentioned by others; it sounds to me like if you add any more advocacy and care-taking, you are at risk of "ruinous empathy" as Kim Scott of Radical Candor defines it.

An awesome boss will NOT be seen as awesome, or even be liked all the time, and that was (and is) hard for me.
posted by kapers at 8:48 AM on April 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

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