Being a good manager: it’s more than just experience
Being a good manager doesn’t necessarily require a previous experience in management. I’ve met many managers throughout my personal and professional life, but very few good ones. I’m even alarmed by the considerably high number of managers with extensive management experience yet with very narrow management skills.
Selecting the right candidate for a job is far from being easy. Perhaps this is why most recruitment processes are lengthy and sophisticated. But while substantial efforts are invested to screen, pre-select, interview, and choose the “right” candidate, the process as it stands today remains deficient, and lacking an essential component: knowing who the candidate really is.
Four years ago, I’ve been given the opportunity to be a first-time manager without prior management experience. A lot of people believed in me and in my ability to do it successfully. They knew who I am, what I think, my way of seeing things and most importantly, they knew how I handle relationships. Throughout my journey, it is not experience that I needed, but a set of intrinsic skills that enabled me to deal with my team effectively. Management is about people. Not tasks. I needed things like empathy, vigilance, active listening, an ability to read others, and most importantly, self-awareness.
“Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” ― John C. Maxwell
You cannot be a good manager, if you don’t invest in knowing your team on a deeper level. And I mean really deeply. It’s about knowing what drives them, what scares them, the level of attention they need, how they deal with authority, their level of awareness and so on. This is where the commonly asked question “what’s your management style” becomes redundant. There is no one-size-fits-all management style. The style ought to be tailored to every person because every staff member has different needs. And in order to know exactly what these needs are, managers have to be empathetic. Being empathetic is having an inherent ability to put yourself in your team’s shoes and understand how they feel and how decisions impact them. I listened to my team very actively. But I also had to understand their silence. Silence has many sources such as anxiety, disappointment and fear, to name a few. You need to sense it, keep an eye on it, unpack it, and most importantly do something about it.
Good managers should be insightful enough to know who they’re dealing with. They should be naturally alert to their environment. They should be able to decipher the unspoken cues of their surroundings and sense the vibes emanating from people then adapt their behaviours accordingly. For example, I had to know when to be close and when to be distant; when to enforce discipline and when to thrive in chaos; when to provide support and when to take a step back. I had to balance things out continuously.
Genuine interest in others
I had to care for my team. The impact of managers’ behaviours and actions on their team’s general wellbeing, motivation, and productivity can be shattering. We have to realise that we’re all humans projecting our strengths and vulnerabilities into the workplace. Our inner selves are fragile nets that words can wear and tear abrasively. No matter how complicated and multifaceted our inner world can be, it is the duty of any manager to care for it, respect it and protect it. I haven’t learned this from my work experience, but from life itself.
“How people treat other people is a direct reflection of how they feel about themselves.” — Paulo Coelho.
Being a good manager requires constant self-reflection and evaluation. It’s a laborious and painstaking process but one that ought to be done every single day. It’s only by understanding one’s self that a person is able to understand others. I knew my strengths, yes, and I knew some of my weaknesses. But that wasn’t enough. I had to have the courage to be vulnerable without shame. Self-awareness opens you up to be self-confident. And when you’re confident and grounded, you can give much more to the team. I felt responsible for supporting my team to grow, largely because I myself knew how hard it can be to have your wings tied and your potentials unused. I also felt responsible for widening my team’s space, both their work as well as they personal development space because I myself knew how inhibiting small spaces can be to your passion and motivation. I was aware. That’s all. A lot of people suffer from the impacts of micro-management. They suffocate, feel caged, and disempowered. Who can blame them? Micro-management is a symptom of a low self-esteem. It cripples the manager and the team member. Managers have to be comfortable in their own skin. They have to be at ease with who they are. And it all starts with self-awareness.
So a word of advice, don’t just look for previous management experience. Hire managers with previous self-management experience. Hire managers who are willing and capable of identifying and building their team’s talents. This is not a box to tick in performance appraisals. Good managers have to genuinely care for their team. Hire managers who are comfortable with their weaknesses, have the courage to be vulnerable, and are not ashamed of admitting what they don’t know. You really don’t need years of experience to manage a team successfully. You just need to be a good listener, empathetic, highly observant, and most importantly you need to know yourself. You have to be able to read people, to understand what they say but most importantly what they don’t say. Hire managers who have been badly managed. They’re the ones who’ll know what not to do, and this is often more crucial than knowing what to do.
I wonder how many employers are missing on the right candidates just because the “CV” doesn’t match the “JD”. So instead of checking whether “AB” matches “CD”, let us read between the lines. Let us explore who the people really are and what they’re capable of. Let us look not so much into their management experience but their life experience. Their nature is the one that matters. These candidates will probably be the managers whom their team will look at four year later and say: “I am here because of you, so thank you”.