Good Manager, Bad Manager

Jake Wilder
Apr 2, 2020 · 9 min read

Sometimes We All Just Need a Couple Reminders

“If done well, management is among the most noble of professions,” wrote the great Clayton Christensen. Of course, the alternative is equally true. While a good manager can help people spend their days in a positive, exciting environment, bad managers make their peoples’ lives miserable. And unfortunately, many people would instead find themselves siding with Drucker, in that “most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”

And yet most managers are doing their best. They’re trying to be effective. They’d much rather be seen as a positive influence than an obstacle. But despite the best of intentions, it’s easy to fall short. It’s easy to let short-term demands override long-term judgment. It’s one thing to know the right thing to do. It’s another to consistently do it.

So borrowing a practice from Ben Horowitz, I put together the following reminders for myself. Whether they can help you or not, I’ll let you be the judge.

Good managers are not the individual contributors. They do not engineer, they manage the engineers. They do not program, they manage the programmers. Good managers know that the moment they start doing their peoples’ jobs for them, they’ve taken ownership away from those that need it most.

Good managers don’t micromanage their people. They know that if they need to micromanage them, then there’s something wrong. And they take action to correct the situation. Bad managers pride themselves on their ability to do the work of their people. They’re so involved in the minutiae that no one’s managing the team.

Good managers focus their efforts where they’ll have the biggest impact. They know which key inputs drive the business and focus their resources there. Above all, they are direct and unambiguous — we will do this, we will not do that. Bad managers lack the vision needed to apply disciplined focus. They chase new opportunities without strategy and dilute their team’s efforts. Absent a coordinated plan, nothing substantial ever gets done.

Good managers couldn’t care less about their title. They know that titles are meaningless until they’re earned with results. They know that the only thing a title affords is time — and very little of it if that. Bad managers complain that people don’t give them the respect their title deserves. They associate placards with influence. They assume that people are impressed when they include an alphabet soup of credentials after their name.

Good managers admit their mistakes. They make rebuilding trust a priority. They recognize that their people already know that they’ve screwed up; they’re just waiting to see if the manager admits it. Bad managers double down on denial. They keep quiet, hoping it will all just pass over.

Good managers lead by example. Their standards of performance are higher for themselves than those they set for others. They know that nothing builds a stronger case for holding employees to a high standard than a manager who holds herself to an even higher one. Bad managers give themselves an out. They feel that their accomplishments entitle them the right to stop making sacrifices.

Good managers have relentlessly high standards. They don’t tolerate deficiencies. They know that today’s exception becomes tomorrow’s standard and the temporary quickly becomes the permanent. Bad managers look the other way “just this once.” They lower their standards to make today easier. They claim that they don’t sweat the small stuff, but fail to realize that the difference between success and failure often comes down to that same small stuff.

Good managers are winners. They win for the simple reason that they refuse to accept defeat. They know that there’s no substitute for performance. Bad managers are happy with a 50/50 record. They’re quick to explain how learning is an acceptable consolation prize.

Good managers recognize that they don’t have all the answers. They don’t know in advance which ideas will work out. So they develop hypotheses. They test. And they use positive feedback loops to keep moving forward. Bad managers overly commit to their first idea, especially when it’s their own. They delay testing for fear of being proven wrong. When the time comes to pivot, they’re too emotionally invested to make the tough call.

Good managers communicate transparently. They understand that honesty alone won’t build trust, but there’s no trust without honesty. They know that people make the best decisions when they have all of the relevant information and they do their best work when they understand the broader picture going on around them. Bad managers view information as an advantage. They hoard it, offering limited amounts, and playing favorites.

Good managers are humble. And because they’re humble, they’re learners. Their growth is never complete — there’s always another skill to develop or another discipline to dive into. Bad managers display their MBA diploma as though it’s the Magna Carta and think that absolves them from ever opening another book.

Good managers are output-driven people. They understand that success comes through initiation and new ideas. They despise days packed with meetings. Bad managers are input-driven. While others are creating, they’re sitting in their office waiting for someone to tell them what to do next. While they publicly criticize time lost in meetings, they love having an excuse for not doing more.

Good managers welcome questions and challenges. They take extra steps to make sure everyone’s bought into the plans. While they don’t seek consensus, they know that people will rarely adopt a solution unless they had the chance to discuss their perspectives first. Bad managers want a command and control strategy. They view dissent and challenge as a threat to their authority. They prefer coercion to dialogue and debate. Bad managers expect everyone to blindly follow their orders, only to be disappointed later when no one does.

Good managers recognize that balance requires give-and-take on both sides. They recognize that if they give their people freedom and authority, they’ll respond with commitment when needed. Bad managers think that work-life balance means people can work Saturday, but not Sunday.

Good managers assess performance based on the work. The amount of time someone puts in is irrelevant to the quality of their output. Bad managers monitor time worked as the primary metric. Worse, they align someone’s hours to their “commitment to the mission.”

Good managers would rather be right than consistent. They don’t hesitate to change their mind when given new evidence. Good managers know that their toughest decisions — to pivot or persevere, require this open mindedness. Bad managers prioritize consistency over all — refusing to back down from any prior stance. They see any reversal as a sign of weakness.

Good managers recognize that peoples’ time is sacred. They prepare in advance to make sure they use it most effectively. Bad managers waste peoples’ time with poorly-run meetings. Their lack of preparation shows that they value their own time over everyone else’s.

Good managers are utterly contemptuous of making the same mistake twice. They practice the five whys. They push for root cause. In no situation is it acceptable to not learn and teach others to avoid similar issues. Good managers don’t ignore near-misses. They know that the difference between a near-miss and a complete failure is often a roll of the dice. Bad managers are too busy deflecting blame to learn anything. They’re destined to repeat the lessons of history because they’re unwilling to look in the mirror.

Good managers are both optimists and realists. They’re realistic about the challenges they’ll face, but they know they’re important enough to take on anyway. Every issue is coupled with the question — so what are you going to do about it? Bad managers feel that wishful thinking is an acceptable strategy.

Good managers recognize when someone’s not working out and take action. They know that to keep someone in a poor fit is as unfair to them as to the rest of their team. Good managers recognize that an underperforming employee is their fault. They poorly assessed the fit. And it’s on them to take ownership to fix this mistake. Bad managers put off these tough decisions. Meanwhile, everyone else needs to work harder to compensate.

Good managers focus on emphasizing peoples’ strengths. They put people in positions that emphasize their positive features and help them make the biggest difference. Good managers understand that while they need to address mission-critical weaknesses, they don’t need everyone to be a jack-of-all-trades. Bad managers want everyone to learn how to bowl left-handed.

Good managers understand that working harder or putting in more hours is rarely the right answer. They know that blindly throwing more resources on a project may look good on paper, but it won’t help the problem. Bad managers complain that people aren’t working hard enough. Their every solution involves people working longer hours. They can’t understand why their project schedules don’t mirror reality.

Good managers encourage people to accomplish big things. But they accompany this with the flexibility to change paradigms and chart a new course to do so. Bad managers preach about big, hairy, audacious goals and expect people to deliver miracles within the same old over-constrained system. When failure inevitably occurs, they complain that people just don’t get it.

Good managers require innovation from their people. They communicate bold vision and encourage their team to push the boundary. They know that if their team isn’t pushing the edge, they’re taking up too much space in the middle. Bad managers first instinct is to not rock the boat.

Good managers create an environment for people to try new things and test their ideas. They understand that a key part of failing safely is incorporating failure into the process. They set up redundant systems and are rigorous in challenging the toughest unknowns early. Bad managers talk about the importance of failing fast and then punish people for said failure. They save the toughest problems until the end, setting people up for more costly failures and rework.

Good managers hire people that cover their blind spots. They surround themselves with top quality people. If they find a diva that can operate at 10x everyone else, they hire the diva. Unless someone rates exceptional in at least one category, they don’t get the job. Bad managers try to clone themselves. They look for well-rounded people. Their criterion for hiring is an absence of weaknesses rather than the presence of strengths. Mediocrity inevitably results.

Good managers prioritize customers and customer service. They know that service objectives inspire people in ways that profit objectives never will. They give people maximum flexibility to understand customer needs and deliver solutions to their customers. Bad managers give quotes about Henry Ford and faster horses.

Good managers recognize that few decisions are irreversible. They understand that speed is critical so they don’t hesitate to make immediate, provisional decisions. They know the data that would cause them to change their mind and they make it a priority to find those details. Bad managers are afraid of making the wrong move. They’re still analyzing data while their competition’s moving forward.

Good managers face facts brutally. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best. They know that unless their plans are rooted in reality, they’re not really plans. Bad managers don’t turn over rocks for fear of what’s underneath.

Good managers treat all metrics with skepticism. They know that behind every metric is a person. And people are very skilled at gaming metrics. Bad managers confuse their dashboard with reality. They manage by spreadsheet and are perpetually surprised when their numbers stay in the red.

Good managers are obligated to challenge decisions that don’t make sense. They do not compromise for the sake of team unity. Bad managers, like dead fish, are happy to go with the flow.

Good managers never stop trying to make themselves obsolete. They develop groups whose performance will transcend their own involvement. They know that one of their greatest challenges — and the best sign of a great leader — is to develop their team that will be even more successful in the next generation. Bad managers build teams around themselves. Their team’s accomplishments come through their own will and determination. They create systems that cannot scale beyond them — limiting their influence and the capabilities of everyone in their organization.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I welcome any additions or modifications that you may have. Especially in these times of crisis, it’s imperative that management uses their influence to elevate and support those around them. Good manager or bad — which were you today? Which one will you be tomorrow? Best of luck.

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