Getting people management right: the burden of proof
In an age of constant deadlines and delivery pressures, there are some hard truths when it comes to what makes a good manager. And what doesn’t.
I know a few people who hate being people managers. They hate the responsibility, the admin, the distraction. There is honesty in that and I don’t judge, I only lament the common organisational propensity to force these folks to manage regardless, because it is part of the established growth path, even though we know they won’t do it well and their heart's not in it.
For everyone else, people management is a challenge and its own reward. The most amazing way to learn, the most rewarding way to deliver. The thing that gets us up in the morning. For some of us, the team is everything.
Yet even when you feel that in your bones, you don’t know for a fact that you will get things right. Your team are as diverse as life can make them: they learn differently, have different communication styles, have different emotional needs, operate to different processing cycles.
And you are you. Even with the best intentions, you are just you. And there is work to be done. You need to deliver.
The first rule of getting people management right is lead them to success. Deliver. Build a high-performance team that gets shit done. Make the business happy, delight your customers, give the team something tangible to be proud of.
That is a non-negotiable given.
But it is not enough. Delivery is key, but not everything.
It is sad and liberating in equal measure to realise you won’t always get it right
The humans behind the delivery, are everything. And your duties there go much beyond the deliverables, both in depth and time horizon.
You need to support and guide, lead and coach, manage and challenge, nurture and cajole, develop the team, develop the person, deliver to the client, deliver against the dream of what you are trying to become as a business.
And in the thick of it all, how do you know you are doing it right?
You won’t always get it right, but you should try anyway
It is sad and liberating in equal measure to realise you won’t always get it right. No matter how well you mean or how hard you try.
Your tone may be off, because you are human. Your reading of the situation may be off, because you don’t have all the data you need. Or you have too much.
Your task may be an impossible balancing of conflicting priorities between team members, or visions, or deliverables where only one thing at a time can be true and therefore some have to be wrong: wrong for now, wrong for this and a ‘no’ has to be said in what is perceived as a choice between this and that.
And you may just get it wrong, it will happen. Accept it. There are two things and two things only you can do about it.
Firstly, when you are wrong, admit it. Apologise if needed. But always explain and hold your hand up. Secondly, whether you were wrong or right, always be consistent. Find a way of working that feels right in principle and practice: that chimes with your values and works with your personality.
You are doing great. That was awesome. That wasn’t a good call, because. That caused a problem, because.
Mine is constant, actionable feedback. Good and bad. You will always know how you are doing.
I will give you a north before we start (“this is what good looks like”), I will give you help and resources, I will let you run but I won’t let you fall: course corrections are possible, small adjustments helpful. Or so I think. But I don’t always get it right.
You are doing great. That was awesome. That wasn’t a good call, because. That caused a problem, because. Next time, perhaps we should do it like this…
I may not always be right. But I am transparent, I am consistent, I am reliable, I have your back and you have access to challenge me, question me or seek further advice.
But I am not for everyone.
I have been told I am not great at managing juniors or ops staff because I don’t hand-hold. I expect people to know more than me and outsmart me daily. It’s true.
I may not be right in that, but I am consistent. You know what you are getting and hopefully it works for both of us. We are each different and we have to find an authentic voice that allows for continuity and reliability.
But seriously. Even after we do that. How do we know whether it had worked or not?
The proof of the pudding is in the eating
Your team performance is a sure indicator of how you are doing as a manager. There is no substitute for delivery in this world or the next.
Your team’s overall happiness is also a pretty good barometer of how you are doing. The space between feeling supported but not micro managed, and free but not untethered is not big.
Keeping your team within those margins is your duty and your legacy. And you won’t always get it right. But overall, on the whole, you must, or you have failed. And you won’t know whether you did it right, on a person by person basis, until the fat lady sings.
Over the years I have learned this: you only know if you got the people part right after the fact.
We are each different and we have to find an authentic voice that allows for continuity and reliability.
You will know if your team was high performing almost immediately. Results and delivery records are what they are. That piece you will know.
But the humans? When do you know you got the human side of people management right?
After the work is done, after you or the team have moved on. Are they coming back?For help? For advice? For guidance? Are they still in your team, no matter where you and they are? Then you did good. You did fine. You weren’t always right. But you got it right on the whole.
You delivered against your duty to the humans, not just the business. They trust you. Their career is a story that still involves you. You did ok.
In fact, you will know a tiny bit sooner. Not every job is forever. When someone resigns, are you part of the decision to leave your team? Did they come to you with personal and career aspirations and worries, did they discuss what they want and why they think they may not get it here? Did you help them think and, if that was right for them, help them find the next thing?
The truth is, if you weren’t part of a person’s decision to leave your team, you are a bad manager. Blind to their development needs and life balance. Bereft of their trust.
But if you were part of the decision to move on, the high performance and delivery and you, the nurturing and loving manager, if you were part of the thinking and the doing then, perversely, you have the ultimate proof that you got people management right.
You have worked out how to balance delivery with care for the human and have learned that deliverables are daily, monthly and quarterly but humans are sort of forever.
No matter where they are, they can always be on your team. And you on theirs.
If you get people management right.