The Paradoxes of a Manager – and how to balance them

Few people are good managers. In fact, I’ve met so few that sometimes I congratulate myself for the job I’m in – that of helping managers be better people managers.

The good people managers, however, are mostly not built (sadly, though I’d love to say HR had a role to play in it). They’re built through hard work along the years, the willingness to not accept their weaknesses, but to constantly improve themselves. They are paradoxes – they know themselves deeply and use their strengths, but when they hit their head, they’re open to start anew and change.

This brought me to think about people manager paradoxes.

1. Know what your people do – but keep out of it.

It’s almost unbelievable how many managers have no clue what their direct reports’ jobs are. Or worse, they assume they know.
One simple way to do a check-up is to have a 1:1 with one of your team members, and ask him about his most difficult project. Ask why it’s so challenging, what he’s confronting and what would help. Ask how the rest of his tasks are doing with such an important project at hand. And last but not least, ask how you can help, and if you commit to something, really do it.

The other extreme are managers who start their week with a meeting with their entire team, and everyone takes turns in describing their agenda for the week. Then they ask questions and go into details, like it wasn’t them who assigned those tasks a few days ago. For god’s sake, just let your people do the work themselves.

2. Be close to your team – but not a friend.

I remember the first time I took my (small) team out to tea. It was only us girls, sipping something fruity and sweet and chatting. Or how we’d spend the end of our meetings talking about the latest movie we’d seen. I also remember how my own manager barely knew when I was getting married.

Some people like to draw the line between work and personal life. But really, we spend most of our lives at work – how is it that hard to show who we really are? What’s there to be afraid of?

It’s not advisable to be a close friend either – it’s easy to start being subjective because of the (too many) things you know about your reports. But how do you know where to draw the line? Well…I could say, it’s a paradox.

3. Be authentic, not political – yet know what strings to pull and when.

I hear many colleagues complaining about the amount of office politics you have to navigate. The higher you climb, the hazier it gets. Then you end up using the same confusion mechanisms on your people, and they stop trusting you. You have to know when to cut to the chase and be honest, when to admit that things aren’t going ok, that you don’t know what to do, or that you’ve made a mistake. They’ll appreciate it even more.

Leave the well thought phrases, catchy openings and polite compliments for the higher level meeting rooms. Sometimes it’s better to make a blunder, but at least be considered honest.

4. Pick only the best to get promoted – but know how to keep everyone else super motivated

How do they do it? Some managers are able to fire people, and these thank them at the end. It’s not about manipulation – it’s about being so honest and open, that there’s nothing the other one can do, but appreciate it. Some years ago, I was offered a higher position by one of these managers. It was a manager’s job, without a raise in level, without formal authority, without even an immediate pay raise. Basically, I was supposed to do a more complex job, but keeping a low level. And yet this guy presented it in such a way that I thought heavens opened and picked me – ME! – to be this lucky chosen one to do the job. I was thrilled, and ended up doing a great job (which got me a promotion in the end. But still.)

5. Your job is really done when you can sit at home and nobody will notice.

The same manager, when asked how come he left every day on the dot, when the clock struck 5, answered: “In my first year here, I did not sleep at night. I worked 12-14 hours a day. Then things started to arrange themselves and I started to work out, get some time for myself. Now I leave at 5. When I’ll be able to stay at home and watch cartoons, my job here will be done.”

What you leave behind, as a manager, is not your projects, or your business results. It’s your team, how well they know their jobs, how they perform, and the difference they make in the organization.

Then…

why do you spend so much time on business, when, paradoxically, it’s your people that get you the results?

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