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February 10, 2022

Stop Managing & Start Leading

written by

Rob Gaedtke

President & CEO

I’ve learned that managing people doesn’t just mean… well, managing people. In fact, the best managers I have seen don’t really “manage” anything. Now, some may argue semantics here, but I think there is a sound argument in ditching the word manage altogether. Guide, support, challenge, lead… all of these words hold more relevance in a modern workplace than manage does. You’re in control of somebody’s future, their salary, their growth. That can’t be managed, that can only be nourished and supported. And doing that requires much more than a set of rules or “if they do this, then you do this” guidelines. It requires a clear understanding of your employee’s hopes, dreams, goals (personal and professional), hell, even their kids’ names.

It’s a hard job, and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but in my experience, I know these eight responsibilities matter.

Teach and grow your employee in any area they need growth in

Let's start simple with something that took me a long time to understand. A primary role for a manager is teaching and growing their employees. But here’s the rub — most of the time, your people don’t need growth in the actual work product, they need help with the softer skills. They need help managing their emotions in client situations, they need help collaborating with a teammate they don’t get along with. They need help unplugging after 6pm. It took me a long time to understand that these types of skills are mine to help with. You might be the best developer in the world, but if you can’t effectively teach someone how to work in a team or to treat their teammates with kindness, you should probably stick to doing the work for now and maybe ask your boss to help you with that skill.

Make sure they know they can come to you with any issue… any issue at all

When a direct report shares an issue they are having or a problem they think should be fixed, not only are they testing to see if you actually listen, but also if you have their back or not. And this isn’t just work-related. A direct report should feel confident in sharing a personal issue that is affecting their work. And, to an appropriate extent, you should still offer support. Now the bad news — it only takes not listening once to have them never trust you again. People talk to a good boss, but they go around a bad boss. So make sure your team knows they can come to you with anything, knowing that you’ll help fix it, or connect you to the right person or resource who can.

Pro tip: You can check right now… just ask if they have any issues, if they say they don’t, then I hate to break it to you, but they are most likely going over your head or around your back to someone else.

Provide instant feedback

No surprises. Don’t wait for a review, for a second offense or for a better time. Feedback is a gift and you owe it to your direct reports to provide it instantly. This includes positive and negative feedback. Give them this information with humility. Encourage and lead them. Don’t “direct” them. You lay the groundwork, they walk the path. Of course, if there’s a small, easy fix, fix it fast — but most of your feedback should be high-level reflections and questions that give them big-picture things to focus on. The rest will fall into place.

Pro tip: Feedback can be shown. In fact, you should be leading by example in everything you do. If you give feedback to not send slack messages after 6 pm, then you shouldn’t do it, if you tout a work-life balance, you better live up to that by example!

Give timely and thoughtful reviews

This isn’t the minutia or the nitpicky stuff. Reviews should be a narrative, a story of how they are doing. Your goal is to gather feedback from others, digest it and find the common thread. I like to pick three to five areas of focus, that's all. But going back to the earlier point, you should be giving feedback often or in other words, you should know, at any given moment, where they are struggling and where they are succeeding. A typical review for me takes about 8 hours of work and 3-5 pages of narrative. If yours are less, you might want to consider digging a little deeper.

Know where they want to be in 5 years

If you don’t know where they want to be, you can’t help them get there. It’s that simple. And it is wicked important. If your employee wants to be in a different position, help them get it. If they want to leave, give them a recommendation. And if you are so lucky as to have them want your job, help them get it. Trust me, if someone takes your job, you will benefit too.

Watch their work and always give advice to make it better

Managers should review the work being produced by their employees, nearly all of the work if they’re new or more junior to the position. In these review sessions, ask more questions than you provide answers. Ask why they did what they did and then offer more questions to help them realize a different way to look at it. Think about the age-old saying, give a person a fish and they eat for a meal, teach a person to fish and they eat for a lifetime. In our world… teach an employee to do their job on their own and you both eat for a lifetime.

Give pay increases and bonuses

Sometimes people need to hear they are kicking ass with more than just words... and nothing says "you are kicking ass" like a fresh cut bonus check. When your people do a good job, reward them. And make sure you are doing this at least once a year. You can say, “You’re doing great,” as much as you want, but an actual reward for the work makes all the difference in your employees’ abilities and desire to continue to produce this high-quality, reward-worthy work. As long as they are doing well, offer praise, offer benefits, offer money.

Know that in the end, you might have to fire them

Now, for the heavy. You’ve gotta do the hard job. Part of being a manager is knowing when it is time to cut someone loose. It is the worst, and anyone who finds this part easy is lying. However, if you take all of the above elements seriously, regardless of the struggle, you will be able to sleep at night. If you provide instant feedback, if you have weekly meetings and you are honest and clear, an employee getting fired will not (and should not) come as a surprise to them. This gives you the opportunity to call out if they’re actually a good fit for the position and in the company. There is a saying “let them fly away.” Many times, if you have done the above and they remain stagnant, they simply are in the wrong position or at the wrong place… so let them fly free.

When it comes down to brass tacks, being a manager of an employee is a huge task and should be taken very seriously. You control your direct reports’ salary, growth and overall professional success. Take it seriously and put your full effort into each employee. Go talk to any leader, they’ll tell you about their first boss, their favorite boss, their least favorite boss and all the skills and lessons that made them the leader they are today. You have an impact on your employees. Take that responsibility seriously.

Want to talk management? Qualms, questions or whatever, shoot me an email. I’m an open book.

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