Over the years I have had the privilege to manage some very bright people. The lessons they taught me will always be more valuable than what I could ever teach them. Recently, I reflected on some of the most important lessons I have learned during my time as a manager. While there are many aspects to being a great manager the following lessons have stuck with me over time.
Lesson 1: It’s not about you. It’s about them.
Every time I first meet a new team member I focus the conversation on their goals. Not their goals for the week, month, or quarter — but their big goals. Their aspirations. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask this question because it’s important I know what experiences each of my team members need. If I don’t know where they want to be how can I give them meaningful assignments?
When you’re managing someone, it’s not about you. It’s about them. Often, as managers and leaders, we assume that everyone on our team aspires to be … well, us. I lead a team of product managers. I asked each of my team members what their career aspirations are. Four out of five said they would rather become product experts than manage people. Until I asked them, I assumed they would all want to move into management roles.
Great managers invest time learning their team members’ goals and aspirations. Then they identify the best opportunities to achieve those goals. In my example, I now focus on giving my team projects that will build their expertise. It’s more valuable to them and their goals than the opportunity to manage an incoming associate.
Take Action: In your next 1v1 with your direct reports ask them what they want to do in their career. Don’t be afraid to discuss goals that may take them away from the current role or company.
Lesson 2: Your top performers will grow faster than you expect.
When you have a high performer on your team it makes your job as a manager a lot easier. You don’t have to worry about the quality or timeliness of their work. They know when to escalate to you and when to own it. They’re learning at a very fast pace. They are comfortable and can do their job with one hand tied behind their back. If the job is so easy, I ask myself: Have I run out of meaningful ways to challenge them and continue growing?
High performers on your team will outgrow their current role fast. They will be ready for the next challenge well before you have it defined. In fact, at small companies or startups, they could outgrow the whole company. For many managers, their first reaction focuses on how to keep this person around. If they leave who will pick up the slack — there isn’t anyone capable of completing their job. Or worse, managers, by default, think about how much more work it will create for themselves.
Great managers lean into this situation. They create opportunities that will help continue their employee’s growth trajectory. If that isn’t possible they encourage widening the search to new teams or even companies. This happened to me. I had an incredible offer to lead a product organization. My former manager responded, “You have to take it. You’re ready, and I can’t offer you that kind opportunity any time soon.”
Take Action: Set aside some time to map out the next opportunity for each of your direct reports. Review the plan with each team member — everyone wants to know their path forward. Remember, the next opportunity may be outside your team, department, or company.
Lesson 3: Everyone fails. Learn from it. Move on.
People fear failure. They hate being wrong. My teams are no different. Mistakes are inevitable. When I first add a new team member it’s often difficult to change their mindset about failure. Once you realize that failure is inevitable, you can find ways to make it valuable. I always push my teams to be experimental. If you have a hunch, play it out in a way where you can fail fast and save yourself time, money, or both.
People are going to fail once in a while and perfection is not a plausible end-state. Many managers have a low tolerance for failures. This creates tension and stress. It also slows you down; people are so afraid of failing they become paralyzed in the analysis stage of a project. Fear of failure is a momentum killer. Fail. Learn. Move on.
Great managers create a safe environment that embraces failures as a learning mechanism. I tell every one of my people that you own your work. You make the decisions. If others criticize my team when something doesn’t go as expected I always take the blame myself. I make sure all involved understand that my team is doing what I told them to do. Later, we will discuss what happened and what lessons they learned from the failure on an individual basis.
Take action: At your next team meeting, let them know that:
- You expect that on occasion things won’t turn out as expected
- You have their back
Make it real by giving them an example of when you failed and how you learned from it.
I learned many of these lessons the hard way: failing or making a mistake. There are more than three elements to being a great manager. These lessons influence my management style the most. Care to share your management lessons? Drop a comment!