Top tips for becoming a great manager
I’ve been leading and managing teams of creative people for over 10 years, most recently at the online learning platform FutureLearn and previously at the BBC and TES. Over the years as people in my teams have started to become managers themselves, I’ve often been asked for tips on how to do it well. So, in this article, I’ll share some of the things that I’ve found that have worked for me over the years…
It’s very common for people at the top of their discipline to end up being promoted into management roles without any prior training or experience in management. I definitely learnt most of the things I know on the job, experimenting with lots of different approaches as I went. But in a nutshell, I think it really all comes down to trust.
Trust your people, and they will trust you. Trust is the gold dust! But trust needs to be earn’t and proven on both sides, so how do you do this? What can you do to help lay the foundations for building trust?
Create a safe space for your people to share their thoughts with you and listen to them really carefully. This could be as simple as a fortnightly one-to-one catchup.
We often think that we’re listening, but actually have a response already lined up, which means we’re not really listening at all, we’re simply waiting to respond.
When we listen we learn unexpected things, we notice people’s body language, we discover clues that help us understand who this person is. You have to get to know your people first before you can really start managing them.
Support and challenge:
Great managers strike the right balance between supporting their people and challenging them.
Believe in your people. Encourage and support them when the road ahead is foggy. Help them find multiple routes to addressing a difficult problem, but don’t solve the problem for them. Give them a break when you notice they’re at their limit, and let them know you’re there to help.
Empower your people. Challenge and push them when they’re going strong. Help them to go further than they ever thought they could. Push them to the point where they may feel a bit annoyed with you, but they don’t hate you, then you’ll know you’re helping them really grow, that’s your job.
People grow at different speeds, so pay attention to what they each need, be brave and carefully walk the tightrope of supporting and challenging them at the right time.
You are hired to get the absolute best work from your people, so putting energy into helping them grow will simply mean your team delivers more work at a higher quality for your organisation.
Let them know what you think, provide constructive feedback and never shy away from telling the truth. But do it kindly, there is absolutely no benefit to being aggressive or mean in order to prove a point.
Remember that receiving feedback is not always easy, so the way feedback is given can have a big impact on the person’s ability to adopt it.
Some people are more comfortable with receiving feedback via email, others prefer face to face, and some will respond better to a group discussion. Work out what works best for each person you manage and respond accordingly.
And don’t forget to ask for regular feedback in a way that works for you too. It’s your job to know how they feel about you and constantly be improving how you’re doing things so you can be more effective in your role as well.
Say thank you:
They made you successful, just like you’ve helped make them successful so let them know you appreciate their work, say thank you.
Let them know you are grateful for their sacrifices, for they will have made as many sacrifices as you on the journey, sometimes many more.
Celebrate with them and let them know how much you value their contribution.
Let them know you’re human too and that you make mistakes as well. Say sorry when you get it wrong. Tell them if you’re struggling with something, that doesn’t mean you burden them with your problems, but rather you keep them informed.
Managers often seem to assume that they must present themselves as being unbreakable, but nothing could be further from the truth if you really want to win someone’s trust.
It’s important your people feel comfortable enough with you to share their challenges when life takes an unexpected turn for the worse, like a serious illness, and it’s equally important they know you will rejoice in their successes, like when they are nominated for an award. But if you really want them to share their highlights and lowlights then you need to do it as well, this is how trust works.
Share what you know:
As a manager you will likely be privy to a new level of information that you’ll gather from discussions with other managers and leaders of the company. A bit of this information will probably need to be kept confidential sometimes, but it’s likely much of it can and should be shared. It’s your job to share what you know openly and promptly. When people are kept in the dark about important decisions or changes for too long they literally start imagining things. I’ve seen this happen a few times and ultimately it led to a lack of trust in management and leadership!
You will always win the trust of your people much faster if you share everything you can with them as soon as possible.
And if you can’t share something, just tell them and explain why. People need time to digest information and will feel far more involved if they’ve been kept up to date on the journey with you. If they haven’t, you’ll probably have to spend extra time and energy convincing your people that something is really important, right at the time when you really need your teams to be starting to take action to deliver the changes. Say it how it is, as soon as you can!
Lead with visibility:
When I first became a manager I used to think the goal was to become invisible, crediting my teams completely when the work was successful and taking all the stick when something didn’t work.
But I’ve learnt that I actually need to be able to clearly articulate and champion my contribution too, not just for my team, but also for the other parts of the organisation who look to me as the leader of the area.
A lack of visibility of a team or an individual, can lead to that area being seen as less valuable to the future of the organisation.
It’s important to make your team and your work stand out, let the world know what you’re up to. If you don’t like public speaking, write a blog post. If you don’t like writing, talk to people. There are loads of different ways to communicate about what you’re doing, the important thing is just to be visible.
Ironically sometimes new managers, especially those who move away from being hands-on, fear they are losing their creativity or their craft, and therefore the things they were trained to believe had made them unique and valuable. But the truth is that great managers have to be highly creative problem solvers, with the ability to bring together different ideas and move them harmoniously in the same direction. It is a different job, you will end up using different tools, but it’s equally as valuable as hands-on work.
I get really excited and invigorated when my teams do great work, and I’ve found that one of the most useful things I can do for them and the organisation, is try to connect that work together, reframe the narrative and share the story back with the company, and beyond.
It’s a bit like cooking, your team are focused on making amazing ingredients, and you’re focused on combining them into a delicious meal and inviting the right people to the table to discuss the meal.
Take care of yourself:
When you’re busy focusing on developing your people it can be easy to forget to develop yourself. But in fact when your team see you care about your path, they are likely to care more about theirs as well.
Sometimes it can be exhausting taking care of lots of people and dealing with all their different needs, especially if your personal life is full of other demands too. Over the years I’ve started to get better at noticing when I’m really truly maxed out, I like to call it ‘full up’.
Periodically I take a day out, you could call it a mental health day, I simply focus on doing things that help me de-stress like walking, writing, reading etc. with the goal that by the end of the day I will have pushed my own ‘reset’ button, and be ready to take on the world again the next day. It usually works wonders!
Our physical health is far more visible so when we get sick we have to stop, but it’s all too easy to ignore our mental health, which is just as important.
Within many companies there is still a fair amount of stigma around mental health, so this can be a tricky area to navigate depending upon the company culture. I believe it’s up to each individual to do what they need to do for them to be a healthy, productive member of the team. After all it’s far better for both the individual and the company to pause once or twice a year, than ignore the warning signs and have to take an extended period of time off.
There’s so much more I could write on this topic, but I’m also aware that I have so much more to learn still. Managing people is a constantly evolving experience, affected by the development of the manager, the environment and culture in which they’re working, and the people they are managing. But I think it will always come down to simply trusting oneself and trusting your people.
In our hierarchical workplaces, the fact that managers usually make more money than the people they manage, sometimes sadly makes people think they’re more important or better than someone else.
We should never forget that at the end of the day when we all leave the building, we are all just human beings doing the best we can with what we’ve got.
The most effective teams are built on appreciating the different strengths in each person and trusting each other to do the very best we possibly can.