What Great Managers Do Differently
What I learned about leadership by observing how it was presented to me.
I’ve been working side jobs since I was twelve or thirteen. The very first one was a paper route in my local neighborhood. A friend’s sister needed someone to cover her round for one or two months. This was the first time I earned my own money, and it felt nice, even though I wasn’t working under any manager just yet.
Most of the other jobs did involve working under someone, those at the canteen of a local factory, at various restaurants, at a supermarket.
No manager is ever the same. Their management and communication style depends on their personality, what they believe is good leadership, company culture, the people the current team is made out of, and how they are performing.
Does the rule book always cover and include basics such as guiding an employee on his or her own career path? Being there as a role model and someone to learn from? To serve as the first point of contact in case of questions or when anything is unclear? Definitely.
Most managers I worked under did a great job. They were kind, helpful, supportive, and really made an effort to take care of individual needs within the team while meeting goals laid out company-wide.
The one example that stuck
One manager, in particular, set the tone and he did so by miles. How come? Why did this one experience out of many leave such a firm and positive impression in my memory?
The company where I interned under the still-reigning Best Manager Ever is a big, multinational corporate. I was in a department of three, consisting of the manager, my internship supervisor, and me. The manager did the people-y tasks: speaking with humans over the phone, building relationships. My supervisor did that too, and produced tons and tons of written content, which she did so well. I was always amazed at the speed at which she pumped out perfectly written pieces. I provided assistance where they needed it, mostly through writing, website maintenance, and email support. We made up a great team.
There was a lot of work to do. Or it at least felt heavy for the lazy, undisciplined younger me. Weeks before I started working at this position I was still slacking off and making nothing of my life, partying up to three times a week until morning dawn. I was mostly in a state of constant hangover. The transition to full-time work was a much-needed shock to my system:
- I started going to bed at normal times again.
- My meals started to include more than just french fries, kebab, or any other snack you pull out of a vending machine.
- And I started going back to the gym once or twice per week.
I have very positive memories of the time I was allowed to be a part of the team. Now I have more material to compare and I can put a finger on what exactly it was that made this particular experience memorable. I ascribe it to the following behaviors my managers exhibited.
I was treated as a full-fledged member from day one.
Both my supervisor and manager introduced me to everyone I needed to know on the first day and helped me get settled. Better than getting assigned a seat and being told “Here you have your desk and computer, now off you go and work”.
I could ask any question at all.
I once made the remark that a question of mine might be “stupid” and apologized for what I was about to say. They objected and let me know then and there that “there are no stupid questions”, which felt very reassuring.
I got answers to my questions…
…instead of a mere response or acknowledgment that I asked a question, often within ten minutes. Even when I asked the same question repeatedly, I’d get a patient response. Not once a snarky comment such as “…I already told you” or “I explained this to you last week”.
I was assigned my own responsibilities…
…and learned to autonomously take care of them. I could put my stamp on it. When the website needed an overhaul, I was given freedom in deciding how to shape it.
I was granted trust.
No micromanaging. Just the faith that I’d be able to adequately handle the tasks assigned to me. And the faith that if I needed help, they knew I would ask for it. On their turn, they stepped in when they noticed I needed help.
Mistakes were allowed to happen.
Where people work, mistakes will happen. No major events could go wrong, because the area of work I got assigned was in an overseeable environment where one could easily step in in case things would get out of hand. Mistakes were not seen as the end of the world, but as problems to be solved, or fires to be extinguished. I made three tiny mistakes in addressing people in very (very) high positions wrongly in emails. I felt extremely embarrassed, but my team members never ridiculed or mocked me for it. After this naming mistake occurred more than once, I just made sure to triple check names, titles, spelling, and abbreviations before sending off anything to anyone.
I was respected.
The office was located just out of the city. I used to go to work on the same bus, nearly always at the same time each morning. A colleague from a different department also took this same bus. She didn’t really pass my vibe check. I small-talked with her, purely out of a feeling of obligation (and because it was challenging to ignore each other in a cramped space).
During one bus ride, she told me about how she was looking for a localization service and how she had difficulties finding something suitable. Then it struck her. From gazing out of the window, she turned her look to me. I could see a light bulb switched on above her head. I was of the nationality she needed translations for.
Later that day she walked over to my office and asked me to help her out. Unwilling to do so and already occupied with my own tasks, I politely declined. I was more than willing to take on tasks that were outside of the scope of my established role, but not just to comfort someone I don’t even like.
Instead of accepting my rejection, she turned towards my manager and said “How does your manager feel about this?” with a cynical undertone. I raised my eyebrow internally. I felt a bit worried that my manager might throw me under the bus. Luckily, he responded with, “If Gracia says she can’t take on extra work, then she can’t *shrugs*”. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued to work on my tasks while the colleague walked away defeated.
I felt relieved and happy that my manager respected me enough to back me here. This was a pivotal moment in our professional relationship that increased my trust in and respect for the team.
Paying it forward
Years later at a startup, I had to train a batch of newbies. When talking to and training them, I mirrored the way I was treated years ago in this three-person team. And whenever I need to explain something to someone else, no matter if they ask me for the first or the tenth time, I will take however much time is needed to get up and running.