What Great Managers Do

There is one quality that sets truly great managers apart from the rest: They discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it.

So says Marcus Buckingham in the fifth article in Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Managing People.

Three paragraphs in and I was immediately struck by the parallels with a book I read a year ago: First, Break All The Rules.  That’s good, because – as I found out when I picked it back up off the bookshelf – they’re by the same author.

I’m starting to see a trend here: successful HBR article then successful business book, or vice-versa.  Either way – if you want a good summary of a popular business book go look for the corresponding HBR article; It’s true for many of the articles in HBR’s “10 Must Reads” series.

The thesis of the article is that people are different, and you should play to their strengths, rather than spend too much effort on improving their areas of weakness.  

Mediocre managers assume (or hope) that their employees will all be motivated by the same things and driven by the same goals, that they will desire the same kinds of relationships and learn in roughly the same way.  They define the behaviors they expect from people and tell them to work on behaviors that don’t come naturally.  They praise those who can overcome their natural styles to conform to preset ideas. In short, they believe the manager’s job is to mold, or transform, each employee in the perfect version of the role.

Great managers don’t try to change a person’s style … They know that their employees will differ in how they think, how they build relationships, how altruistic they are, how patient they can be, how much of an expert they need to be, what drives them, what challenges them, and what their goals are.

There are a number of examples portrayed, for example Michelle Miller, the manager of a Walgreens, who recognized that her “goth rocker” employee Jeffrey was particularly good at restocking aisles with new merchandise (and enjoyed it), so instead of having the role shared among the aisle owners – as it typical – she had Jeffrey restock all the aisles. 

As it was with First Break All The Rules so it is with this article; I vacillate between thinking this thesis is banal and obvious, and then feel pained that I’m not really doing a good job individualizing for my team.

Marcus identifies three general areas of differentiation to capitalize upon:

  1. Strengths/Weaknesses – To understand your employee’s strengths and weaknesses, observe them during their work.  What tasks are they particularly good at?  What do they struggle with?  How do they react to the challenges of different types of work?  Ask them what they have particularly enjoyed working on in the recent past.
  2. Motivations / Triggers – The most powerful motivation is recognition – but people have different preferences regarding how they want to be recognized.  Some employees find it energizing to be called up and praised in front of the whole company, others would prefer an professional award that they could put on their professional biography, others would prefer a trip to disneyland with their family.  This type of differentiation requires a lot of personal attention by the manager.
  3. Learning Styles – Not every employee thrives by being thrown into the deep-end of the pool.  Some require some time to read, talk and analyze before taking action.  Others prefer to dive in and figure things out as they go along.  So consider individualizing training, task-prep and other forms of communication to the learning preferences of your employees.

This article has stuck in my head the past couple of weeks, and I have tried to observe my team to see where and how I might better cater to individuals.  As a software development manager there are a few ‘levers’ that I can pull to individualize:

  • The tasks that are assigned to team members.  Although we follow the scrum / agile methodology, where the team members take tasks from the backlog to work on, I could try pre-assigning some of the backlog tasks to play to individual strengths.
  • The way in which I interact with those urgent / critical tasks that inevitably turn up.  We take turns each week being the ‘support cowboy’ to handle issues that come in (usually via email), but different team members have different styles.  Some are more effective if I turn these issues into official tickets for them to process, others are comfortable balancing the email tasks with the sprint ticket system (in our case JIRA).
  • Praise and Recognition.  I think I can do better to individualize recognition of great work and milestones.  The current team has both introverts and extroverts and a one-size-fits-all way of recognizing may not be the most effective.

One challenge to both discovering and capitalizing on the uniqueness of each team member is the unfortunate frequency with which team members move to new projects and new managers.  I have just started (in Evernote) keeping explicit notes on my observations (and discussions) about strengths / weaknesses, interests, etc.  It would be good if there was some way for the organization to capture and retain this information so it was available to new managers – and also to encourage all managers to make these types of observations, and to try to individualize to them.

I’m curious to hear how other managers try to discover, record and adapt to the unique talents and personalities of their team members.  Any thoughts?

About brendansterne

Sr Director, Indeed.com Product Incubator
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