The Practices of Successful Managers

As a manager, you have the opportunity to lead, supervise, mentor and motivate others – and your ability to do so effectively makes a huge difference to your company’s overall success. But, statistics show that 50% or more of middle managers fail to achieve the expectations of those who promote them. Find out why and what you can do about it.

If you are a recently promoted manager, or if you define yourself as part of “middle management,” this article is for you. If you manage managers, this article is for you, too.

First, the good news: As a manager, you have the opportunity to lead, supervise, mentor and motivate others – and your ability to do so effectively makes a huge difference to your company’s overall success. In fact, the success of your company has as much if not more to do with your performance as it does with the performance of the CEO and his or her senior team.

Now, the bad news: 50-80% of all middle managers fail to achieve the expectations of those who promote them. With over 5 million managers in this group in the U.S. and Canada, that’s a lot of missed expectations! Why is this so, and what can you do about it?

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In spite of the plethora of technical training available for middle managers in most industries, this group has to “sink or swim” more on their own than just about any other professional group in the corporate world. Why? Because the training programs geared for this group are either too generic or focus on technical skills instead of people skills. Managing is about bringing out the best in people, not overwhelming subordinates with technical information. Management isn’t learned by memorizing seven simple steps or a catchy acronym like. (L) is for “Listen”, (E) is for “Engage” , (A) is for “Authorize” and (D) is for “Demonstrate.” Learning to be a more effective manager is complex, not simple, and one technique definitely does not fit all managers

As you know, managers find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. You are expected to increase or maintain success, however your company defines it, by getting the best performance possible out of your people – yet you have to operate within often difficult and demoralizing policies, procedures and guidelines established by senior management.

Moreover, middle managers are generally the most under-supported and under-developed segment of employees. Unless you work for one of a handful of forward thinking companies, the types of management training and mentoring you will receive is not the kind you need. So called “management academies” or corporate universities frequently teach skills that are too basic to help you be successful or are not customized enough to address the specific problems you face.

As a group, new or middle managers are typically the most difficult employees to train or help. There are several reasons for this. First, you are working so hard to do your job, the cost of slowing down long enough to get some training feels too high for you. Secondly, managers, particularly newly promoted managers, have a difficult time asking for help or admitting to their own weaknesses. Whereas senior managers generally have the credibility or self-assuredness to admit to their shortcomings and weaknesses, many middle managers feel that admitting to their weaknesses is an admission of incompetence that could be a career-limiting move. Unless you work for a senior manager with antiquated notions about leadership, or if the culture of your group, department or company uses internal competition to motivate employees, admitting to weaknesses is generally not a bad idea. Think of it this way: there are two types of middle managers, those who are aware of their weaknesses and those who are not.

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Research shows that you are more likely to be successful as a manager not by fixing your weaknesses, but by understanding and working around them. Time and time again, we have seen managers gain the support and recognition they deserve by being genuine and humble instead of arrogant or fake.

Through our work with managers in a variety of industries across North America, we have observed the management habits of thousands of successful middle managers. We have distilled them down to the following successful practices:

Understand and Negotiate the Right Management Contract
In other words, if you don’t think the job you’ve been promoted into is possible, either don’t take it or renegotiate the scope of the job. This is hard for ambitious managers to do. When asked if they can be effective in a new management position, most managers feel pressure to answer “yes” with confidence and self-assurance, even if they have doubts. Accepting a position that is virtually impossible to be successful in does not help the company you work for and it certainly doesn’t help you. Better to make sure the job is one that is both attainable and doable, albeit ambitious.

The reverse may also be true: the scope of a management assignment may be too limited and the newly appointed manager may need to re-negotiate a position with a bigger scope.

In either case, the universally successful management practice is to consider an assignment as a “contract”. Each contract needs to have clearly defined success and failure criteria assigned to it so that the manager can measure their own success and to adjust the scope of the assignment to ensure its success.

Be Yourself
A common mistake of newly appointed managers is to assume that they are expected to act differently now that they manage others. While there is some truth to this notion in terms of behavior, successful middle managers find it is important to continue to be the same person they were before the promotion. Develop a management style that fits with who you are as a person; don’t try and behave like someone else. If your natural approach is fun-loving and less serious, find ways to manage that way. If you are more serious and impersonal in the ways you interact with others, don’t assume you have to change personalities to be successful. Managers are promoted based on the judgment of others, and that judgment is based on what was seen in you before you were promoted. If you attempt to completely change your approach or style, you are less likely to be successful.

Listen to what your employees are telling you. Listen to your customers. Listen to what your superiors are telling you. And listen for what is not being talked about. Check the accuracy of your listening when you’re not sure what you are hearing by feeding it back to the people who are talking to you. Contrary to popular opinion, managing is less about telling and more about listening. Effective listening managers help their employees solve important problems by allowing them to talk through the problem. More often than not, employees can solve problems on their own once they fully understand the problem. Listening allows people to “hear themselves think” and, then, to develop solutions.

Don’t Badmouth One Group to Become Accepted by Another
A temptation of new managers is to develop kinship with the employees they manage by talking negatively about senior management, other groups competing for resources or the policies and guidelines established by the company. “Bashing” one group to get closer to another group is a bad idea. Employees need to know how to manage their frustrations, not gossip about them. Managers who bash management offer an interesting model: if they don’t respect management, but do nothing to change management – and they are managers – whom can the employees rely on? Managers need to set an example of how to deal with difficulty. If their example is to critical of others behind their backs, they can assume at some point their employees will do the same to them. Finally, undue criticism destroys accountability and creates distrust. Employees need to be coached and encouraged to work out problems, not blame others for them.

Be a Role Model
Assume you are always being watched, even when you would prefer not to be, by the people who report to you. Humans learn first by imitation; your reports will pick up on and follow your behavior. If you want people to admit to mistakes, show them how to do that by admitting to your own. If the honesty and integrity of your employees is important to you, work to make sure your actions line up with your words. Conversely, don’t assume that everything you do will be copied. Being a role model alone isn’t enough, but successful managers remain aware of the example they set for their employees.

Rely on Your Ability to Support, Not on Your Ability to Do
Successful managers need to make a shift from being “Doers” to being “Supporters”. Many managers are promoted because of their excellent grasp of a function or job, but as managers, they are expected to help others develop their skills, not to do the job for them. For many, this is the most difficult management practice to develop. Teaching others how to perform a job better or differently requires a totally different skill set than simply doing the job yourself. Learning to follow through on delegated tasks is a form of support that employees need in order to ensure success. Delegating, including following up with every delegated task, is a critical management practice.

Give Up the Illusion of Changing Anyone Except Yourself
Humans change of their own accord, not because someone else wants them to. This is an unassailable truth about human nature and the sooner a newly appointed manager accepts it, the better. Managing or leading people doesn’t mean changing them to suit the needs of the leader; it requires leaders to change themselves to suit the needs of the people they manage. Leaders influence change in people by building on their strengths and candidly discussing what they perceive as their weaknesses, but no one changes anyone else, ever. If you want someone to behave or act differently, change the way you approach them or work with them.

Blow Your Team’s Horn, Not Your Own
When a team succeeds, managers sometimes feel unacknowledged for their role in helping the team achieve results. If acknowledgement as successful manager or leader is important to you, resist the temptation of blowing your own horn. Instead, find the glory of your team’s success and be humble. Assume that anyone who really understands the art of leadership will see your contribution to the effort. Conversely, when a team fails, take all the heat. After all, you were leading them, weren’t you? And you agreed to take on the job knowing the restrictions of it, right? Taking the heat and passing on the credit builds your credibility with those above you, even if it doesn’t always feel good.

Focus on Your Team’s Strengths
Research into what makes groups of people successful shows conclusively that managers and leaders get further by accentuating the positive attributes of team members than by working on their weaknesses. If you understand that people only change when they decide to change, this concept should make sense. Successful managers don’t work too hard at changing the bad habits or behaviors of their employees; they find ways to build on their employees’ innate skills. Focusing on strengths does not mean you need to turn your back on all of the unproductive or negative behaviors of your employees, but you do need to distinguish between those traits that can be changed from those that cannot be changed. Invoke the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous: “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Limit your focus on “fixing” to those things that are completely unacceptable, and have the courage to put your energy into finding and bringing forth employees’ strengths.

Take Charge of Your Own Growth
It is not your employer’s responsibility to make you a better manager, it’s yours. If you wait for someone else to show you how to improve, you might be waiting a long time. And, as we’ve said, the only person who can change or improve you is you. If you want your manager to manage you better, show them how to do so. If you want more feedback on your performance, go ask for it. If you need more guidance or mentoring, go find a mentor. Employers can send you to training or hire a coach for you, but how much you grow or improve is totally up to you.

Be Patient
Change takes time. When people work towards changing their own performance, it is not uncommon for Herculean internal effort to show-up as incremental visible improvement. Telling people they aren’t changing fast enough in hopes of accelerating their development usually has the opposite effect. Be patient, particularly with yourself. Experience is a great teacher, but it often takes a lot of it before people understand how to apply it. There are ways to accelerate this process, but pushing people is rarely the answer.

Work on Your Emotional Intelligence
Best selling author Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of “emotional intelligence” (how people handle themselves and their relationships) as a critical set of competencies that distinguish the most successful leaders and managers. Goleman identifies five dimensions of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self Awareness – knowing enough about our own internal triggers, hot buttons, personality weaknesses and strengths to talk about them openly and comfortably. Self Awareness is the cornerstone to developing emotional intelligence.
  2. Self-Regulation – the ability to regulate and control one’s own behavioral responses to situations and events.
  3. Empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things as they might see them.
  4. Motivation – Having a passion for achievement and self-improvement.
  5. Social Skill – being sensitive to human dynamics and the feelings of others in how we interact with them. Social skill is where emotionally intelligent leaders get to practice all of the preceding emotional intelligence skills.

Developing emotional intelligence is a lifelong journey. The most successful managers not only work to develop the people who report to them but also have embarked upon their own journey of self-development.

Tell the Truth
Overwhelmingly, research shows that the single most important attribute a leader can demonstrate to those they lead is the ability and willingness to tell the truth. Whether the truth is good or bad, pleasant or hard-to-hear, hearing it usually helps people find their way through chaos and uncertainty. Furthermore, the most important kind of truth to tell is the truth about oneself.

Don’t Manage, Lead
The old familiar notion of “management” as oversight of work processes is outdated. Increasingly, people are both able and required to manage themselves. The pace of the typical work-a-day world and the volume of work to be done make traditional management impossible. However, it is possible for managers to give their employees what they most want and need — leadership. Under leadership, we include creating and communicating a plan for achieving group goals; unwavering commitment towards those goals; dedication to the work and the people performing the work; and the ability to prioritize tasks and follow through on assignments of each team member.

Leadership and management are far more complex than the 14 practices above. However, we have found that these key concepts are enormously helpful to those who are starting to hone their skills as leaders and managers.

Learning to lead can be pleasant and painful, frightening and invigorating, rewarding and frustrating – all at the same time. The only certainty is that how you lead will be remembered. For better or worse, your leadership becomes part of the legacy you leave behind in your job, your community and your life. Every action you take contributes to that legacy, every day. Have fun, give it your best and enjoy the space between a rock and a hard place. It’s where diamonds are made!

Visit the Bristlecone Learning web site.

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