Soft Skills checkup: The many phases of Managing
Oh, to be young again. I remember a time where going to work was simple. My expectations were laid out before me, I was given my tasks to complete, and I completed them to the best of my ability. I punched in, I punched out, I went home at the end of the day and didn't think about work again until I got back the next morning.
How simple things were, and how naive I was. But things would change...
The first phase of management - General Adulting
This is the first management skill anyone really needs to pick up - how to be an adult in general. This means the ability to keep your temper and your excitement under control, recognize when you need to sleep, when you need to eat, when you need to stop eating, generally taking care of yourself, etc. In short, being a functioning human in society. This one is so common that it's not ever really discussed, but it's surprising how many people are missing facets of this. (Present company included). Regardless, this is where you start, but I won't go into this in much detail because civilization in general kinda walks us through this.
The second phase - Managing yourself at work
Sooner or later in everyone's life, they encounter circumstances where they are expected to provide for themselves. This is that four letter word we all like to hate on: WORK. But the first stage is usually pretty easy to get through. You are just starting, so others don't expect you to know much. You are given tasks, you are given resources to complete those tasks, you try to complete those tasks. If you are successful, you get a paycheck and more tasks. If you aren't successful, you get a final check and are forced to search for other work.
This might be as far as you want to go, and that is perfectly fine. Skilled workers can do amazing things, and the best way to get really skilled at something is to practice, and practice a lot. I've seen skilled craftspeople do things that can only be described as high art. In fact, most full time artists fall into this category. By avoiding the distractions of the next management phases, you can grow into the top of your field and far exceed your earliest limitations.
At some point however, you will be faced with a decision - and sometimes even pushed into it - between staying the course at the skilled worker level and just managing yourself, and taking the plunge and moving into the next phase of management -
The third phase - Managing other people - The managing part
This is where things start to get murky. Managing other people is hard. Doing it well is even harder. Becoming a good leader is harder still - and there is a BIG difference between a somewhat capable manager and a good leader. But we'll get to that in a minute.
The first thing you have to know about managing other people is that it takes an entirely different skill set versus just managing yourself. Your responsibilities shift from just accomplishing your tasks to coordinating others and making sure they accomplish their tasks, and still making sure you accomplish yours. Suddenly some of the variables you are working with to accomplish your goals - your staff - have motives and opinions and strengths and shortcomings that you have to work around. You have to find ways to motivate them, train them, and give them the support they need - without alienating them in the process. You have to find ways of getting people to do things they don't necessarily want to do at the time.
The main issue you have to overcome when you get to this point is as follows: People that step up into management are generally considered good at getting things done. But the skills in doing the work are very different than the skills in managing the same work. People often have different opinions and workflows to get the same results, and you have to learn to be tolerant of that. People will surprise you with alternating moments of profound brilliance and moments of downright frustrating behavior. You have to be able to roll with it. People on your team will have internal issues occasionally. You have to be ready for it. All of these are different skills from the last phase when you were just managing yourself.
This is where I have personally seen many people fall on their face. I fell on my face here the first time I was put in a management role. Usually it is a combination of inflexibility when working with a team and personal ego that gets in the way. Taking the attitude of "I'm the boss and I know what's best" will almost always backfire. So there are a few things you can do to get over this hurdle gracefully.
- Live by the mindset that management is a service position to the people you are managing. Your role is quite literally to orchestrate the work your staff is doing and to remove any obstacles that are preventing them from working effectively. Your role is to enable them to do their part.
- Understand that if your staff has a problem, it's your problem too. You need to be involved in solving it, and you need to take steps to make sure it doesn't come back.
- Stay humble. You don't know everything and you never will. Your staff won't do things exactly the way you would do them, but if they get results, this is fine. They will also appreciate NOT being micromanaged. The exception to this one is anything safety or compliance related. Make sure everyone gets home safe and the lawyers don't come calling! Beyond that, learn to live with different work styles and let people get good in their own way.
The fourth phase - Managing other people - The leadership part
Now that you've gotten yourself into a management position and gotten your feet wet, it's time to look at how you shift from just managing people to actually leading people. Things here start to get more conceptual, and will require more words for me to express, so bear with me.
Remember how I said there was a big difference between a capable manager and a good leader? The vast majority of that difference boils down to 3 key concepts: Trust, Communication, and Respect. Everything else that can be considered a hallmark of good leadership will lead back to these concepts. So let's take a look at them.
The first on the list is Trust. This seems pretty straightforward on the surface but it's more complex than you might think. There are a few ideas that fall into this line of thinking that you need to be aware of, including;
- Integrity - Do what you say you're going to do. Be honest with people about expectations, and own it when you make mistakes. (And you will!) And be honest with people, first and foremost, or they WILL find out eventually and you won't be trusted again.
- Delegation - Passing tasks off to your staff and allowing them to do the work. This isn't just calling out a simple task to do and that's it - that would just be managing - but instead giving giving people meaningful projects and letting them manage the projects on their own.
- Self Awareness - Knowing where you are strong and where you aren't. Finding ways to get the sort of feedback that can be much needed reality checks on how your staff sees you vs how you see yourself. Making sure your staff knows that this is important to you and making yourself approachable on this issue.
The second on the list is Communication. This means maintaining a level connection between you and those you lead, and is closely tied to Trust. Some of the ideas that fall under this concept are;
- Transparency - Showing the people you are leading that you are working toward the same goals as they are and that you have their best interests at heart. Being honest and frequent with any updates that might affect your staff members.
- Empathy - Listening to your staff and showing that you recognize where they are and how they feel. Connecting with them on a level that shows them that they are heard, their input is valuable, and you will keep their input in mind when making future decisions.
- Gratitude - Showing honest appreciation for the work that people are putting in, both in getting their own work done and in soft skills like interpersonal communication.
The third on the list is Respect. This one ties in closely to trust and communication, but needs it's own section. Some ideas here are;
- Cultural and religious sensitivity - Being aware of the beliefs and customs of others and making sure you don't hinder them. Allowing people to be 100% themselves without fear of reprisal of any kind - as long as they are being respectful to others
- Courage - Thinking highly enough of people to have hard conversations with them, and trying to do so in the most delicate way you can. Also standing up for your team to others - especially your own bosses.
- Differences of opinion - Understanding that people are different and being aware of how this can be challenging, but also very beneficial. Listening to all sides of an argument before deciding on a course of action.
All of these ideas converge into a set of principles that you can take with you to establish yourself as a leader.
- Accountability - You are accountable for the welfare, success, and failure of your staff. You know this and you own this, and you take it seriously. You keep yourself accountable to them to constantly do better, communicate better, and lead better.
- Mentoring - You readily become the "blueprint" for a leader to the people you are leading. You show them how to do it right, and quickly and fully admit when you do it wrong. You show strength in humility and constantly work to assist your team in their own learning journey. You strive to help them get better than you are, and challenge them to be excellent leaders in their own right. You provide advice on how to make difficult decisions and handle tricky situations - not by telling people what to do - but by advising on how to think it through on their own and come to their own resolutions.
- Coaching - Different than mentoring, and also different than training. Training is a management practice. Coaching is bigger, harder, and more expansive. Coaching begins where training leaves off. Coaching is the set of activities surrounding helping people to take initiative on their own, grow past their limitations, and work around their own shortcomings. It is challenging and inspiring people to push themselves to be better, independent of your input or anyone else's. It's how you make the best even better.
- Community - Creating a sense of culture in the team. Helping people to find common ground and celebrate differences. Helping people to learn from each other and want to learn from each other. Helping to foster a sense of shared ownership.
- Mission - Creating an atmosphere and a set of expectations that leads to a culture that moves in the same direction. Creating common goals and a roadmap that your team can use to steer their decisions and create their own metrics. Having a clear mission allows team members to create a sense of autonomy, and the more clear the mission is, the more autonomous they can be since they will know if they are going the right way or not. This give people a sense of agency in their own work and makes them feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.
- Vision - Being able to see beyond what is "now" and imagine what is next. Finding the possible in sometimes impossible things, and then bringing those things into the mission of the team. Anticipating change and being proactive rather than reactive.
There are also some gotchas that you should be aware of when in any leadership role.
- You don't need to be friends with everyone on your team. But you DO need to be their ally. They need to know you have their back and that you would never intentionally do anything not in their best interest. Fail to stand up for your team and you erode trust and integrity and convey mixed messaging on priority. You can be closer to some than others on a personal level, but be aware of the next point.
- Consistency in how you deal with your staff is critical. You can't have favorites. If one person is getting more of your time and attention than others, or being favored for choice assignments, you aren't doing it right. Fairness needs to be maintained at all levels, so that your staff as a whole knows that they can expect fair treatment in good times and bad. On this same point, preferring certain team members for certain things based on ability is acceptable, as long as you aren't leaving others behind and are still providing support team wide.
- You need a succession and contingency plan. Even if you don't think you do. What does this mean? Ask yourself these questions:
- If you were suddenly required to leave for 2 weeks, and couldn't work at all, what would happen? Would your staff's work grind to halt? If so, this is an indicator that you have just been managing and not leading. If they could continue producing quality work in your absence, chances are you've been leading them, at least to some degree. If they could do so with zero outside instruction from your boss or leaders of other teams, chances are you have been leading them well.
- If you were suddenly required to leave for 2 months and couldn't work at all, what would happen? This should be harder for the staff to manage on their own, but if you have led them well, they should be independent enough to continue until you can get back to work.
- If you were to leave permanently, what would happen to your staff? How long could they continue on? Would any person in particular be the expected next leader? Would total chaos ensue? How do you prepare your staff for this scenario?
If you can do a decent job of handling all this, you will see your staff flourish and do amazing things. You will also probably eventually get pushed into the next phase, ready or not. Which brings us to....
The fifth phase - Leading leaders
Welcome to the world of organizational leadership. This will take exceptional skill in creating a sense of shared purpose, mission, and drive. This will take influence at a strategic level. This will take everything you've got!
Actually it's not that bad. But it does require a foundational shift in thinking about the way you approach the work. At this stage, you are aware of the work being done, but typically not engaged in the work being done. You are steering the ship, so to speak. You are identifying opportunities for the entire organization, and then positioning to take advantage of those opportunities. You are leveraging the leadership skills of others to get things done at a high level.
What this represents at it's core is taking everything you would have learned in the earlier phases of management and scaling them up, and making them an official requirement of your job in the process. If you weren't an effective leader before, you won't be at this level either, and the effects will multiply with the scale of what you are doing. However, if you did well in earlier leadership positions, this is where you can really soar.
To help you out in this front there are a few questions you can seek answers for to help you make decisions and lead effectively.
- What is the core, essential purpose of the organization? In other words, what are you trying to accomplish to complete organizational goals? I'll give you an example: Starbucks. You might think their core purpose is to sell coffee, but it's not. Their core purpose is to provide a consistent, pleasant experience every time you visit, no matter where you visit. Other places sell coffee for cheaper, others have better coffee, but Starbucks uses coffee sales as a part of a greater experience, and by shifting their thinking they became the largest coffee shop chain in the world.
- What opportunities can you uncover and how can you align the organization to capitalize on them? Another example: Amazon Web Services. They were the first to identify that their extra compute, database, and storage resources could potentially turned into services that could be sold as on demand, scalable cloud infrastructure. that realization led to a portion of Amazon that accounts for $70 billion in annual revenue. But it took a large amount of work in decoupling the services to be able to sell and scale as needed, and leaders with the vision to see the opportunity to begin with, and then see it through to something that now runs the majority of the internet.
- How do you align the vision and mission of the leaders you lead to match your own vision and the direction of the organization? This one comes down to personal style more than anything else. You have to find your own brand, and find a way to create a positive connection between your teams and the core mission of the organization. It's the culmination of all the other skills mentioned so far, blended with your own brand of delivery. If mastered, you can be among the best of the best and lead the best teams around.
I hope you have enjoyed my long winded tour through management. Whether you are just beginning or a seasoned pro, it helps to see the process at a high level, from the beginning to the end. And remember, these are skills that can be learned and they take time, so don't get discouraged and don't give up. Learning to manage and lead will help in all aspects of your life and give you a greater appreciation of the good managers and leaders you have worked with. And as always, drop a comment below with anything you wish to add.