Supportive management: how not to suck at being in charge

(This is part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 is about intentional hiring, and part 3 is about the payoff of combining intentional hiring and supportive management.)

Managers! What are they good for?

The traditional startup answer to this is, in fact, “absolutely nothing.” Too many people have only ever experienced managers as authoritarian taskmasters who see their role as squeezing as much out of their employees as they can. A slightly less discussed failing is managers who try to avoid that behavior, but don’t know what to replace it with, resulting in unresponsiveness and disengagement that leave everyone feeling like management is a pointless exercise in bureaucracy.

Before my last job, this had been my experience with management too. So it was a shock to me when, a few years ago, I suddenly had a manager who actually cared. He saw it as his job to make sure I was as happy and productive as possible. If I wasn’t making headway on something, he didn’t nod sadly or push me to do it faster; instead, he worked with me to figure out what was blocking me and helped me deal with that. When I told him how surprised I was, he told me that this was “management 101”. This was my first time experiencing that the principles of good management are well-known to good managers…and not to anyone else. It was interesting to see the split in opinions among my friends when I talked to them about this: half thought it was completely obvious, and the other half, like me, had literally had no idea that managers could do that. This meant that when I started looking for other positions, my biggest requirement in a company was that they understand good management.

What does that mean? In my experience, good managers see their function as being primarily supportive. Their #1 priority is to make sure their employees have everything they need to be productive. That means:

Asking about how they feel. An employee who has too much (or too little) to do, or isn’t doing the kind of work they want to be doing, is not going to be a happy employee — and an unhappy employee is an unproductive one. Everyone knows this! A good manager doesn’t just know it, but is actually interested in how this applies to the people working for them. Good managers have a list of questions they ask at every 1:1: “How do you feel about this project?” “Do you think it’s going well?” “Are you blocked on anything?” “What is it like to work with this team?” A good manager knows that an employee doesn’t necessarily know how to articulate what problems they’re running into, and tries to draw them out before they start impacting work.

Paying attention. A good manager doesn’t just assume that everything is OK unless they hear otherwise, or that things will sort themselves out. They make it their business to note trends in people’s behavior and work and ask about them if necessary.

Being responsive. In my last position, we sometimes had trouble working with different teams, because the people we were working with would try to ask their managers for confirmation of priorities or tasks — and those managers wouldn’t respond for days on end. This didn’t just slow us down, it also meant that the people we were working with often had no idea what they were supposed to be doing, which made them less happy and less willing to work at their jobs. A good manager knows that supporting their employees means responding to them and telling them what they need to know to get their job done.

Caring about work/life balance. If an employee is working long hours, a good manager will notice and ask about it. Maybe that person really likes working long hours, or maybe they feel they need to in order to keep up with their work, even though they would prefer not to. In the second case, it’s a manager’s job to step in and help clear things off their plate. Or, maybe someone hasn’t taken a vacation in a while — a good manager (who is paying attention!) will notice this and encourage them to take that vacation.

Advocating for employees. Advocacy takes many forms. It means blocking people on other teams, or with more authority, from making undue demands on employees; it means defending an employee or their work to others when needed; it means helping get an employee on track to get what they want out of their career, whether that means advancing in the company hierarchy or just doing their best in the position they’re in. (And a good manager should know which one their employee wants, since they’ve been asking questions.)

Setting the tone. Human beings take cues about how to behave from the people around them — especially the ones in a position of authority. Good managers realize that this makes it their responsibility to set the tone for their team. Responsive, polite management often results in a responsive, polite team; distant, uncaring management can result in the opposite, all because a manager is making clear with their behavior what they value in a team.

Setting a tone sounds easy, but it can actually be uncomfortable. A friend of mine told me a story about a former coworker of his, who was apparently so annoying — he would follow people around to argue with them — that eventually someone nearly threatened him physically. This, I think, speaks to a failure of management on that team. A good manager, knowing that it’s their job to set the tone for the team, would have stepped in early on to figure out how to stop that behavior, even though it might have involved some difficult conversations.

Setting and communicating priorities. A good manager doesn’t hand out tasks arbitrarily; instead, they communicate to the team what the most pressing issues are and why they’re important. This also means settling disputes over priorities or tasks as needed. Sometimes people just need to get a decision about something. This is where management talent really shines; a good manager works with their team to figure out which decisions they need to make and where.

So, this is all well and good, but how do you achieve good managers? As far as I can tell, every good manager I’ve talked to has been trained in some way — either explicitly, or by having had good managers who were role models. This may be somewhat disheartening, depending on how many people you think are modeling good management in the world. But in some ways I think it’s good, because it shows that this is a skill that can be learned, if only people are willing to try. Regardless, no one in a company should get into a management role without having some understanding that they are there to support others.

Good management is its own reward, in terms of employee productivity and low turnover. But I think committing to it also helps to mitigate many culture problems that startups have. I talk about this more in the infamous part 3 of this series.