7 Key Elements of Managers Who Keep and Grow Happy and Healthy Employees
A few shared methods and mindsets of leaders who effectively earn the respect, trust and loyalty of their direct reports.
The first job I ever held involved a shaved-ice hut in an Arizona parking lot at the ripe old age of 15. Considering that I’ve doubled my life span (whoa!) since those incredibly hot and sugar-infused shifts, I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about the working world in the many jobs I’ve had in the interim.
While I could wax on about the correct way to add flavor to a perfectly crafted cone without melting the ice and warping the shape (and believe me, I can still throw down in this department), there’s a different piece of career world I want to focus on today: management.
It’s an oft-touted anecdote that a manager can make or break a job, and that one of the #1 reasons people leave a role is due to poor management.
In other words, it’s pretty damn important.
So 15 years after securing my first-ever job, 8 years after finishing my undergrad and entering the full-time workforce, 4 years into Silicon Valley (the real life, not the show) (they’re about the same though), and 1 year into an MBA program (and one wrist brace into tendonitis from all of the above), I’ve had a chance to observe many-a-manager and develop some opinions about the characteristics of both the good and the bad. And while there’s the obvious “give feedback” and “focus on growth” components, I want to lay out 7 more specific areas that I consider critical to really succeeding in a management role and not driving your employees out the door.
1. Be Visible
If your direct reports ever wonder, “What does she even do all day,” you’ve got a problem. When there’s a hierarchy involved, it’s dangerously easy to slip into an us vs. them territory. One of the key elements of building trust is shared experience, and this can’t happen if you hole up in your office all day and emerge occasionally like the Wizard of Oz (I genuinely dislike that movie — just me??), grab a cup of coffee and slip back behind the curtain. Sit with your team, eat with your team, talk with your team, walk to grab lunch with your team, share inside jokes with your team, etc.
Most importantly, talk openly about the projects you’re working on. While for most of my career I’ve been able to easily report what my peers are working on every day, I often couldn’t say the same for my managers. And when someone is working hard for you, it means a great deal for them to actively know the details of where you’re spending your own time and energy.
2. Get Your Own Hands Dirty
I recently spoke with a friend who praised her manager for a specific detail: when the company had events, the manager participated in both set-up and post-event cleanup. It might seem like a small thing, but to my friend and anyone who has experienced something similar, it speaks volumes. I can say personally as someone who, at various points in my career, has had the dirty work of events and office tasks fall onto my plate even though it was outside the scope of my job, that it gets tiring. It’s especially tiring when management is present, enjoying the benefits of the grunt work, but largely disengaged from the behind-the-scenes labor.
To be fair, managers often have many things on their plates, and the entire purpose of support roles is to take care of the details of keeping things running smoothly. But all too often, the people picking up the slack and cleaning up the nitty-gritty nuances (see: refilling the coffee, washing the dishes in the sink, orchestrating or making food for a voluntary company potluck, etc.) are the people in the room being paid the least to be there — and in my experience, also quite often female, which is dangerous territory for both morale and feminism. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but it’s critical to maintain awareness of how easy it is for this unfortunate dynamic to emerge.
As a manager, watch out for this. Roll up your own sleeves. Spread those extra, sometimes unpleasant tasks evenly across all roles and all levels — including yourself.
3. Use Your Words
If I was on the decision committee for a management position, communication would easily be the #1 thing I’d evaluate. While it’s tempting to promote people for any number of reasons (time at the company, specific technical skills, etc.), if they can’t interact effectively (or ideally, way above average) with the people around them, the entire team is going to stagnate, get restless and potentially leave. Management is its own, unique skill set and exceptional communication is the keystone qualification.
I’ve observed 3 specific ways that managers (and any employee, really) can fall short in this arena:
One, not communicating enough. While you might be unable to tell your team everything, tell them everything you can. Never, ever withhold information solely as a source of privilege or power. Do you avoid hard conversations? Do you forget to inform your team of important deadlines, or specifics of deliverables you want? Do you regularly ask them about their needs and if they have appropriate resources? Do you let them know ahead of time when you’re going to be away from the office or stuck in meetings all day?
Two, failing to listen. When a team member attempts to talk to you, do you talk over them? Do you get defensive? Do you diminish their concerns by comparing them to another team member, or wax on about how well you handled similar circumstances earlier in your own career? (← I’m never clear why it’s useful to bring this up other than making someone feel especially shitty about not measuring up. Abort! Avoid at all costs!)
Three, not sharing enough about yourself. I realize this can seem counter-intuitive to the second point about not listening enough, but it goes back to what I wrote earlier about being visible. Communication is a two-way street, and solely soliciting information is no way to build open dialogue. Being the first person willing to share information can result in some truly valuable reciprocal transparency. Be vulnerable — share some of your own daily concerns, challenges and successes. Open up first, and you’re more likely to receive that trust and honesty in return.
4. Don’t Be Above Your Own Rules
This one is fairly simple: there’s no quicker way to alienate employees and generate resentment than by letting yourself off the same hooks they’re beholden to. Do you require punctuality? Be on time. Do you not allow working from home? Don’t regularly dial in to meetings from your living room (as much as I love seeing your cat or dog wander across the screen, because believe me, I genuinely do). Do you have a policy against meals or drinks being ordered on the company dime? Bring your own sandwich and buy your own beer. Whatever the details are, actively model the behavior that you’re requesting of the people who work for you.
5. Admit What You Don’t Know
And, admit that you might not know what you don’t know (for this I recommend regularly soliciting feedback, with anonymous employee surveys being particularly valuable to elicit candor).
Of all the managers I’ve worked under and around, the most difficult scenarios have come hand-in-hand with a fair level of arrogance. Are you amazing at sales or marketing, but not so great at managing your time and inbox? Hire an assistant! There’s no shame in not being an expert at everything — but there is danger in not admitting it. I realize there’s pressure, as a leader, to come across as competent and skilled at all things. But, the best executives and managers I’ve had the pleasure of working with share something in common: humility, and the self-awareness to hire a fantastic team to fill in their own gaps (and then having the willingness to step away from those areas and trust that their team is on it without micro-managing things into a sad, stressful spiral of doom).
6. Continue to Aspire Upward
A high school teacher, knowing I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, once told me that “you learn to write by reading.” This phrase has stuck with me for all of my adult life (several years of which I did spend working full-time as a writer, and thus can now say I believe this advice to be true).
I consider this critical to becoming a great manager: you need to have experience being managed. Seeing it from the other side, both the good and the bad, is the single most effective way to gain empathy and grow a deep sense of what it is that you do and don’t want to model.
Even as a manager, continue to have someone who you look up to and aspire to be like. Actively grow and improve your management skills, no matter how much experience you have on your resume.
7. Don’t Forget How It Feels
I’ve witnessed this bizarre phenomenon many times: as someone moves upward, they forget how the bottom feels. It’s almost like there’s magic management goggles that can make previously enjoyable coworkers turn into someone you want to avoid running into in the kitchen. I get it — new roles bring new pressures and there are all kinds of beasts breathing down your neck when you’re a manager. But in all the ways that you can, peel off those blinders and stay aware.
Think through the words you’re saying, the expectations you’re enforcing, and carefully consider how it comes across to someone in a lower tier and lesser-paid role. While a management position almost always brings with it a higher salary, never forget that feeling of working your ass off, barely getting by, scraping rent together and watching your bank account dwindle to anxious levels as you pay your monthly bills. Many of your employees may currently be living that reality, so be sensitive to it.
In short: keep yourself humble, keep your eyes open, keep your hands and heart in the game, and make sure the people around you never have to worry about feeling small or overlooked with you at the helm.
(…some free shaved ice from a classy parking lot hut never hurt any situation, either.) (I know a place.)