The Key to Being a Successful Manager

Lacy Starling
Sep 10, 2019 · 8 min read

Last week, I wrote an article outlining the three types of bad managers we have all had to interact with in our working life, and a comment from one of my readers (love comments!) got me thinking about what makes a good manager. It’s easy enough to bash the failed supervisors we’ve had over the years, but it seems more difficult to pinpoint what makes a great manager. (Especially because they are so rare.)

So I set myself to thinking about what it is that makes a great manager, and the answer is actually pretty simple — a great manager takes the time to manage. She creates time in her schedule for regular, formal check-ins that allow direct reports to share their work in progress, along with successes and stumbling blocks. It’s not difficult, and it’s not revolutionary (I don’t think I could write a bestseller on the topic) but it is effective. And that’s what good management is about — being effective.

If you are looking for a core strategy for how to build regular, formal check-ins with your team, here’s a basic outline:

Start Daily

I think that any time you have a new team member, you need to start with frequent contact. I always start with daily work-in-progress meetings with any new direct report on my team, whether they are an intern, a salesperson, a new member of the management team, or an independent contractor I’ve hired to do short-term work. The only way I’m going to get to know someone, and also find out what gaps they might have, is by talking to them daily. And just dropping by their desk won’t do. I need to have a structured, 15–20 minute conversation with them, following the same agenda daily, to effectively integrate them into my team, and my management flow.

During these work-in-progress meetings, you shouldn’t just review the day before and set up the current day’s work (although that’s important). You should also be closely observing your new employee, to see what makes them tick, what motivates them, and how they like to be rewarded. People, even in the same role, are often quite different on these fronts. You might have a sales team made up of money-motivated extroverts sitting right next to recognition-motivated ambiverts and if you deal with them all the same way, half of them will be left out in the cold.

These daily meetings also give your team a chance to get to know and understand you. New employees (or new members of the team) are going to need some time to figure out how you like to work, what level of detail you expect from them when they are reporting out to you, and what makes you happy, as their supervisor.

For me, these meetings are non-negotiable, but the time each day can be a little flexible. For my business development team, I try to have their WIP meeting as early in the day as possible, but I also have several very early meetings with other teams that I need to attend to. I have come to understand that as long as we have the meeting before 9 a.m., when they start making sales calls, we’re fine. For my other teams, we work the meetings in around my schedule, but we always complete them before lunch. And if I’m not in the office, we schedule a phone call to stay on track. It’s not ideal, but it is better than a day without contact at all.

For my sales team, I never get away from daily meetings. There are simply too many discussion points that happen in a day when you are working to close business to allow a whole week to go by without formal contact. A good sales team needs a quick meeting every morning to talk about any roadblocks, set the tone for the day, and celebrate the previous day’s wins.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Move to Weekly

For many of your teams, daily meetings will eventually start to seem like too much. Not enough changes from one day to the next to justify meetings this frequent. Once a new employee has gotten the hang of prioritizing their work, getting you information as you need it, asking for help when necessary and is relatively independent, I like to switch to a weekly meeting. These meetings are scheduled for the same time, every week, and I view them as non-negotiable, both in timing and frequency. The only time I move one of my weekly WIP meetings is if someone is on vacation or out sick.

(Pro Tip: I schedule all weekly WIP meetings for Monday morning, and my Monday mornings are off-limits for scheduling out-of-office meetings. I think it is too important to get up to speed on everything that happened the week before and set priorities for the upcoming week to be out of the office on Monday mornings.)

In these meetings, we follow the same agenda, and we review all the major projects in motion at any time. With my marketing team, we review the creative they’ve done, talk about timelines and obstacles, re-focus on the end result, and make any strategic changes that the previous week’s metrics have revealed. With digital marketing, you don’t want to wait a month to see if what you are doing is working — you need to move more quickly than that. With my HR and Finance teams, we review a few key metrics, talk about long-term projects and re-prioritize based on what’s happening with the rest of the company. This is the perfect opportunity to talk about projects that are stalled or that we have to table because a new strategic initiative has come up.

These meetings are also a time for me to address any issues (that aren’t formal HR-documented events), suggest changes in process, and bring new projects to the table to discuss. We’ll schedule formal resource-planning meetings for new projects later in the week, but I can introduce the idea, get some immediate feedback, and get everyone’s wheels turning. This allows people to come to the longer, more formal meetings with some of their questions already formed, so we can all be more productive together.

When we get to the point as a team of only needing weekly meetings, this also gives me the chance to introduce the concept of request-batching. Instead of reaching out to me whenever a thought or idea pops into their heads (and vice versa), everyone in a weekly WIP meeting writes down these thoughts during the week and then we address them in a batch on Monday. (Emergencies are obviously an exception, but very little of what we email about on a daily basis is a true emergency.) This allows us to all work with fewer interruptions, and prevents my direct reports from “popping into” my office to chat about something mundane, and keeps me from “dropping by” their desk to discuss something non-urgent. The goal is to allow people to enter a flow state more often, blocking time for concentrated effort, rather than simply reacting to 10,000 banal emails a day.

In Rare Cases, Monthly is Enough

Very, very occasionally, you’ll find that a weekly WIP meeting is still too much contact for one of your teams or direct reports. I find this only happens when you have someone who has been on your team for years, is managing their own team, and knows well enough how you’d deal with something to start making those decisions on their own. But this is very, very rare. I have this kind of infrequent formal interaction with my finance manager, who has been in her role for seven years and has a team that works like a well-oiled machine. She’s a wizard, and more importantly, the systems and processes of our finance department do not change that often. We have processes that works, and they work those processes.

She and I will meet occasionally when she has a gnarly issue to deal with, and we are obviously both present in our weekly management team meeting, but between those interactions, she just doesn’t need much from me, and I don’t need much from her. Our trackable metrics are housed where I can see them easily, and if there aren’t anomalies, there’s no need to discuss them.

However — and this cannot be overstated — this is an exceedingly rare circumstance, and any time we make a change in our process, we go right back to weekly meetings until everyone is humming along again and the changes have been internalized by the team. She is the only one of all my direct reports who gets away with not talking to me formally every week, and I’d caution you against moving anyone with less tenure, ability and stability in their reporting team to this kind of arrangement. (Everyone on her team has years of tenure, as well. She creates sticky people!)

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

What About Existing Teams?

All of this is good and well if you have new teams, or team members, but what about the folks you’ve been managing all along? How can you become a more involved manager for them, without it seeming weird? In a word, framing. How you frame a transition to more frequent formal contact is the best way to make it successful.

For teams that need daily interaction, like sales, customer service and production, introducing a daily WIP meeting is as easy as saying that you are instituting a daily meeting to cut down on endless “update” emails, answer questions that more than one person might have, and to help with the workflow of the departments. And then, just start having them. Make attendance mandatory, start on time, have the same agenda every single day, don’t take longer than you need to get through all the agenda items, and then get out there and get to the work. It will take your teams (or individuals) about two weeks of this to forget there was ever a time when you didn’t have daily meetings.

For individuals you want to meet with weekly, it’s even easier. Just tell the person that you are going to put a standing 30-minute meeting on the calendar every Monday for the same reasons mentioned above (fewer emails, batching requests) and start having the meetings. After a month, it’ll be the status quo and you’ll have a much better, more informed relationship with your direct reports. What I’ve found in most of these situations is that people are thrilled to have uninterrupted, focused time with you as their manager, and will be fully bought into the idea of a formal WIP meeting.

As I mentioned before, being a good manager is not rocket science. It doesn’t require complex psychology or a master’s degree in management. It requires being present, having structure, and creating space for your direct reports to discuss their jobs on a regular basis. Institute regular WIP meetings, and you’re honestly 80% of the way to that “World’s Best Manager” title everyone wants.

Lacy Starling

Written by

Serial entrepreneur, educator, storyteller. Laser-focused on helping organizations improve culture, strategy, sales and marketing.

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