How to be a Killer Manager (and how I know I have the best one)

I get a strong impression that most managers don’t really understand how to be good at it. This set of soft skills slips past many as they try to motivate, encourage, propel and strengthen their reports.

I’ve been telling people for months about how my manager is (in my humble opinion) the best ever, and since everyone has followed up with a desperate “How so? Tell me why. Share his secrets with me!” I’ve decided to write a bit about what he does so well, and how you can manage this way too.

It boils down to 4 core attributes:

  1. Selflessness
  2. Vulnerability
  3. Faith
  4. Rapport

1. Selflessness

“Oh, that’s Anna Marie’s work” — a common refrain from my manager when someone sends a misplaced compliment his way.

At every turn, he is quick to point out all the valuable work of others involved. When he poses ideas, he’ll credit whomever first suggested it. When someone praises him for surfacing an issue, he’s quick to point out if that praise belongs to someone more junior.

No matter the phase or the level, I’m consistently impressed by how infrequently he expects (or even accepts!) any credit for work where he’s helped.

Some managers are stingy, taking credit wherever they can. Not so here. I know he will advocate for me — even when I’m not there — it’s in his blood to lift others up.

2. Vulnerability

“Heh, you should’ve seen this one time I f*cked up royally a few years back. Drama!” — nothing more approachable than someone who isn’t perfect.

People joke at Yammer about how there’s not really any dirt to spill on my manager, as he’ll happily share about past mistakes.

Because he’s so open and frank about his own errors, I feel like the pressure is off—I don’t have to get everything right!

Whew! What a relief… Cause let me tell you, I don’t get everything right. Not even close! But because I feel safe bringing up mistakes (or even potential mistakes) I can get his perspective, get his advice, and generally shorten my feedback loop from failure to learning.


3. Faith: His belief in my ability

“You’ll figure it out”—every one of our 1:1 conversations ever.

Having faith in your reports comes through in a lot of subtle ways. Not spoon feeding them solutions is a good place to start.

My manager has never given me “the answer” to a problem I’ve brought him, but always dives right into his framework for whatever I’m dealing with at the time: “Yeah, that’s a thing. Here’s how I deal with similar situations {A, B, C and D}.” And always… “You’ll figure it out.”

My father has a favorite saying: “There’s no greater compliment than great expectations.

As a child, that phrase frustrated me to no end — likely because he would say it when he expected more than I thought was reasonable.

As an adult, however, this has informed a great deal of my philosophy on human interaction. Turns out, this is a real thing.

HT to Julia for alerting me to this!

Believing in your reports is one of the biggest levers you have to affect their performance.

Conversely, not believing in them is the fastest way to hamstring their abilities. Called the “Golem affect” this lack of trust is utterly devastating. Take it from someone who had a past manger say “I think you’re faking the learning that you’re doing. It’s not reasonable to learn new things as quickly as you seem like you do. It can’t be honest.”


Hard to recover a relationship from expectations that low.

4. Rapport

“Tell everyone about your father’s 16 Volvos!” — Random lunchtime conversations.

Our PM team sits together for lunch most days and shares a slew of lively conversations.

Sometimes we noodle through things without the help of Google—how does Daylight Savings time actually work (and do we still need it), do satellites fall back to earth (they do!) and why, what’s a the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.

We joke about phobias (I can’t sit with my back to a door). We laugh about our upbringing (incredibly bland food or hoarder parents). We make wisecracks about the insider jargon (we sure did a lot of “solutioning” in this week’s “retro share-out”). And generally enjoy the camaraderie of the team.

These moments add up significantly.

Somewhere over my manager joking about how little bits of debris magically migrate from my overflowing & chaotic desk to his neighboring pristine one, we’ve built up rapport.

That rapport is the basis of all our interactions and allows me to bring my full self to my work.

I can’t point to when exactly that rapport became, but I can point to when it began:

My very first day at Yammer around 5:00 I told him I was gonna “grab a drink.” I meant I had a networking commitment and was going to leave a little early, but he mistakenly thought I meant right there at the office and said:

“Oh, grab me one too!”

It was the most natural thing in the world for him… sipping a beer with a new PM, walking around and chatting about work at Yammer.

We ambled around the office as he pointed out various whiteboards with strategy decisions and little bits of Yammer lore on the walls. I was late to my event, but that didn’t really cross my mind. I was too busy thinking:

Yep, this one’s gonna be good….

This post of Medium 💚 is dedicated to Neil McCarthy, Manager extraordinaire.

Got other core attributes you’ve seen in great managers? What are they? How have you seen them play out?