The 7 Golden Rules for Managing Great People
Chalk me up as one of those people who is obsessed with clear communication, fascinated with the different ways people articulate their concerns to one another, and in particular the way great managers get great results from great people.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely managing people yourself or being managed by others. Or both.
I’ve been on both sides. Currently, I’m CEO of UpdateZen. In the past, I’ve reported to a CEO and other senior executives. And in my role as product manager for UpdateZen, I’ve also done extensive customer outreach to executives, managers and team members of all stripes. And what I’ve found is that at the nexus of great management lie 7 simple truths — or golden rules — about how to effectively and optimally manage great people. Let’s dig in.
Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised. Or maybe you wouldn’t. In any event, great management starts here. If someone reports to you, you’ve either hired them or you’ve inherited them. Either way, you are now responsible for both their work productivity and their contribution to your company’s culture.
For the sake of this essay, let’s forget about the fact that you should treat all people respectfully simply because it’s the right thing to do. Instead, let’s focus on why it’s simply good business to treat your people with respect at all times.
In short, when you treat people with respect, they end up liking you more. Fancy that. And if they like you, they’ll want to help you achieve your goals. And if they want to help you achieve your goals, they’ll work harder for you, they’ll work smarter for you, they’ll be more productive, and not unimportantly, they’ll be far less likely to jump ship when the going gets tough… and the going will get tough. It’s just a question of when. And when you’re building a team or company, you simply can’t afford to lose great people. Treat them with respect and you’re one step closer to keeping them on your team long-term.
What? That’s right… encourage your team members to vocally disagree with you whenever they genuinely disagree with you on something of import.
I always try to hire people who think for themselves, who push the envelope, who come up with creative ideas that I never would have thought of. I do this knowing full well that people of this type also have a higher likelihood of becoming, shall we say, troublemakers. But it’s a risk worth taking.
While toxic troublemakers can’t be tolerated (and I discuss this at length in Golden Rule #6, below), there is a particular strain of trouble-making that is not only healthy, but very much required if you are managing a team or company that is trying to grow bigger and better.
In all “knowledge” businesses, you need people executing creatively at the highest level. And to do great things, you and your people need to consistently think outside the box. This needs to become part of your company’s DNA. You need people who feel very comfortable disagreeing with you, trying new things, tossing out new ideas, and being okay with the fact that several of their ideas may turn out to be outright awful, and in fact many of those ideas — even if implemented well — will ultimately fail. But some of those ideas will succeed, and succeed wildly. And in order to cultivate an environment where your team members’ best ideas surface, you need to make sure everyone on your team knows that you’ve got their back when their not-so-great ideas fail, and fail wildly.
As a manager, you’ll surely have some great ideas yourself. But if you’ve surrounded yourself with “A” players, then you know that your people will often have even better ones. Encourage them to disagree with you vocally, articulately and passionately whenever they genuinely disagree with you on something of import. I encourage my people to fight for their ideas if they feel strongly about them. I want them to make a strong case for their idea… a cohesive, articulate, impassioned case for why their idea is worth pursuing, investing in or executing. I don’t want them throwing #$!#$% against the wall and seeing what sticks. I want them to do a deep dive and really formulate a strong case for their idea.
There are two simple truths here:
1. People feel more empowered if they’re encouraged to contribute their own ideas. They feel more ownership if their company ultimately incorporates some of their ideas. People rightly feel that their contributions are unique to them, and therefore, when their ideas are implemented, they feel more ownership in their company’s success. Nothing should be held in higher regard.
2. I want the best ideas out there. I don’t care where those ideas come from. In fact, nothing makes me happier than for one of my team members to not just come up with a better idea than mine, but to outright prove me wrong. I love being proved wrong. First, it means I’ve learned something. And second, it means I have surrounded myself with people smarter me and successfully encouraged them to think freely and speak their mind.
As a manager, at the end of the day it is incumbent upon you to make final decisions, and to do so decisively. So while I encourage dissent among my team (see Golden Rule #2, above), when it comes decision-making time, it’s up to me to evaluate all the options in front of me, hear and absorb everyone’s arguments, and ultimately make the final call. And when I do, I’ll always articulate to my team why, and then move on. [Note: The “why” is really important… so important that I devote the entirety of Golden Rule #4 to it.]
The 3 scenarios of difficult decision-making:
1. When I’m facing a difficult decision, leaning strongly in one direction, and everyone agrees, great. Easy decision.
2. When I’m facing a difficult decision and I’m leaning strongly in one direction, but there is a strong dissenting opinion from one or more team members, I’ll urge them to convince me otherwise. I’ll hear them out and strongly consider their reasoning. I tend to favor the Socratic method of questioning. But if after that, I’m still leaning strongly in the same direction I had been, I’ll go with my gut.
3. When I’m facing a difficult decision, and I don’t feel convincingly one way or the other, I’ll not only ask my team members for their recommendation, but I’ll often ask them how strongly they feel about the issue. Sometimes I’ll even ask them to put a number on their conviction. “On a scale of 1–10, how strong is your conviction?” If they give me a 6, a 7, or even an 8, I’ll duly note it, and likely go with my gut. But if a great team member rates her conviction a 9 or a 10, I will almost invariably decide in favor of her conviction.
Remember, as a manager it is your responsibility to do what you think is best when facing key decisions. That is your job. If you ultimately decide that your impassioned team member is wrong about something and you’re right, then it is incumbent upon you to make the final decision and go with your gut. And when you do, be decisive, be clear, explain your decision… and then move on.
Once your decision is made, your impassioned team member needs to (a) listen to your decision, (b) carry out your decision effectively, but (c) and perhaps most importantly, execute and evangelize the decision across your team — or to clients — as if it were their idea. No passive-aggressiveness allowed. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Suffice it to say that the only personal characteristic I can’t — or won’t — deal with is passive-aggressiveness, and I make that very clear to all team members. If I smell even a hint of passive-aggressiveness, I’m done. And my thinking goes something like this… I welcome your dissent. I encourage your dissent. I want to hear your dissent. We’ll respectfully debate the issue as long as is warranted. Maybe you’ll convince me, maybe you won’t. But as a manager, once I’ve made a final decision, we both need to move on, and you need to get behind the decision, genuinely. If you can’t do so, then we can’t work together anymore. It’s that simple.
Old-school management thinking goes something like this… You ask an employee to do something. They ask why. You say “BECAUSE I SAID SO.” The employee begrudgingly does the work.
This may work with your children — although I also happen to think it’s a poor way to parent, but I digress — but it will surely backfire with your team members. In a knowledge business, your team members need to know that they are part of a larger purpose. They need to know that whatever task they’re doing ties into the larger company goals. They need to know that their work matters. I can’t overstate this. If you believe that a motivated and happy employee is a better employee, then take the time to explain to them why you are asking them to do something, rather than just asking them to do something. And when making a difficult decision, explain to them why you are making a certain decision rather than just informing them of the decision.
Plus, you can’t be — nor should you be — beside your team member every second that they are working on a project, right? They’ll be making macro- and micro-decisions throughout any given project. If you want them making optimal decisions at optimal times, arm them with the why. The project will get done faster, better, more efficiently, and with fewer revisions than if you don’t arm them with the why.
Yes, I realize that this one may seem a tad self-serving. After all, UpdateZen is all about brevity. We limit project updates to 250 characters. But in management and communication, the benefits of brevity so outweigh the benefits of verbosity that it must be included in these golden rules of management.
When you task one of your team members with something, it’s paramount that the communication is crystal clear, right? They must understand exactly what they need to do, and why. And if it takes you too long to explain something, it’s probably because you haven’t first taken the time to distill it down to its core essence. As a manager, this is your responsibility; Say what you need to say as efficiently as possible. Sure, give your team member some color, some background, and certainly any necessary context. But the more efficient you can be in communicating the assignment to your team members, the more likely they will know in no uncertain terms what is expected of them and why.
[Permit me a musical analogy to make the point. There’s a reason Bob Dylan’s finesse with lyrical brevity resonates with so many people… his efficiency with words is uncanny. Few words are wasted, and therefore those that he does decide to include have all the more impact. I recently wrote a blog post on Bob Dylan’s contribution to both brevity and the founding of UpdateZen, if you’re interested.
Now… once you’ve effectively tasked your team member with an assignment, it’s then incumbent upon them to update you as briefly and efficiently as possible throughout the execution of the project. Encourage them to take the time to distill their project updates down to the core essence of what you need to know, and just as importantly, encourage them to leave out what you do not need to know. Sure, they can give you a little color, a little background, a little context, but they need to learn to keep it brief. They shouldn’t waste their time writing verbose, two-page, single-spaced status updates, and they sure as hell shouldn’t waste your time by asking you to read them.
Just as necessity is the mother of invention, brevity is the mother of well-written, tight communication. Maybe not as catchy a phrase, but just as true. Mandatory brevity teaches your team members to think in terms of what’s essential, and write in terms of what’s efficient.
In the age of electronic communication, brevity can sometimes be confused with curtness. It shouldn’t be. In 2015, people are still figuring out email etiquette. They shouldn’t be. Short, curt emails are purposeful… they save the writer time, they save the reader time, and therefore they make your company that much more productive. Period. End of Story. There, I just added 3 extraneous words that I shouldn’t have added. Point taken.
Why would I include this in a list of the golden rules for managing great people?
Because if you keep toxic troublemakers on board, you will lose your great people. It’s that simple. So let me cover it here, briefly.
I have managed my share of troublemakers in the past, even in the very recent past. And truth be told, I’ve been managed by troublemakers, too, in the past, the not-so-recent past.
In Golden Rule #2, I explained that there is a certain strain of trouble-making that is absolutely essential for a healthy, successful company that wants to grow. But there is also a strain of trouble-making that is absolutely unacceptable, and I’m talking about people whose personality or actions can be described as disrespectful, toxic, disloyal, and ultimately counterproductive to your business goals. Fire these toxic troublemakers promptly. This is not to say that these troublemakers are bad people. They’re probably not. They’re probably very good people. But in the context of running a business or team, who cares?
If you have a toxic personality on your team, fire them before you take your next breath. You will never regret it. And know that you will never change them. If they’re toxic — no matter how talented they are, they’re not right for your team. And guess what? They know it. And more importantly, the rest of your team knows it. And that’s why I’ve included it here as a golden rule. It is not only unfair to your truly great team members if you keep a toxic personality on board, it shows weakness on your part as a manager, and you will lose some of your great people who have far better things to do with their time than work in a company that tolerates toxic troublemakers.
If you’re in a knowledge business, then you put a premium on your team members’ thoughts and thinking. And you acknowledge that their passion, creativity and self-motivation are more important than anything else. And I sure hope you also know that your best team members have more career options than you can shake a stick at.
So guess what… you better make it fun to work for you. And I’m not talking about going out for drinks after work, or bringing in sushi for lunch, or giving them an allotted “20 percent time” to screw around with crazy ideas. No, I’m talking about the work they do for you, day in and day out. You better make it fun and challenging and interesting. Have a purpose. Have a mission. Have a goal and state it clearly, state it passionately, and scream it from the proverbial mountaintops in your office. Let your people know why it’s important, why it matters, and what difference your product or service will make in the life of your customers or users. Give your people the freedom to — and the support to — push the envelope and think outside the box. Make the work that they’re doing for you, for the team, and for the company… fun and interesting.
More than anything, make sure they wake up in the morning with a passion to come to work. Make sure they care about your mission. They can make more money elsewhere. They can have a nicer desk elsewhere. They can have a shorter commute elsewhere. They can get a bigger 401k elsewhere.
But the one thing you can provide them which nobody else can is the privilege of working on the product or service that makes you and your company unique in the world. The most creative minds — the very people you need in your knowledge business — want to work on something unique and special and important and consequential. Give it to them. State the mission. Tell them all about the WHY. Explain to them the WHAT. And then give them the freedom to get their job done as they see fit. And then let them fly. Let them fly and I assure you, they will have fun and so will you. And the quality of work is the beneficiary.
Disagree with any of these management tips? Love to hear about it. Shoot me an email at email@example.com.
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