4 manager challenges and how to overcome them

This article explains 4 of the biggest manager challenges and how to deal with them

  1. Understanding what’s expected of you: Clarify manager expectations in a playbook or SLA
  2. Keeping people motivated and engaged: Master your coaching, feedback, prioritization, and 1:1 meeting skills
  3. Having difficult conversations: Request a GBU (the good, the bad and the ugly) report from each employee
  4. Bringing the best out of people: Get to know them, be selfless, ask the right questions, and lead by example

Tips from Grovo, Soundcloud, Lifelabs Learning, and Recruiting Inferno

Nobody said managing and leading a team would be easy. In fact, being a good manager is one of the most difficult responsibilities a person can take on. According to Gallup, only about one in 10 people have the talent required to manage. But why is it so hard and how you overcome the most common manager challenges?

To find out what it takes to be a great manager, we sat down with:

  • Joris Luijke, VP of People at Grovo
  • Steve Levy, blogger, recruiter and Principal at Recruiting Inferno
  • Neil Wilks, Soundcloud’s Director of People Partnerships
  • Tania Luna, Co-Founder of Surprise Industries and leadership consultant at LifeLabs Learning

There is a video recording of the whole panel discussion below and we’ve also distilled four manager challenges, and suggestions for tackling them, that arose during the conversation.

Challenge #1: Understanding what’s expected of you

Joris Luijke on overcoming manager challenges

A “good” manager may look different depending on the organization. How do you know what’s expected of you as a manager and what “good” looks like in your company?

Many organizations don’t have outlined expectations or requirements for managers. For example, how often should you have a 1:1 meeting with your direct report? When is a good time to discuss career growth and development?

Manager Service Level Agreement (SLA)

At Grovo, the leadership team decided to clarify manager expectations at a company level, in what they call the “Manager Service Level Agreement (SLA).” The Manager SLA includes all of their defined, basic expectations for managers.

“We know it’s a good idea to send a first-week plan to new hires before they start,” said Joris Luijke. “So, we add it to the SLA and give any financial or educational resources necessary to support it.”

Training programs

Training programs are another excellent way to help managers understand what’s expected of them. At Soundcloud, Neil Wilks said, “anyone who joins, or is promoted, as a manager goes through a leadership and management program.”

This program is open to all people leaders and walks through key manager challenges to help them grow. “We put a big emphasis on letting new leaders know that they’re not alone and we’re here to help and support them,” said Neil.

“Put a big emphasis on letting new leaders know that they’re not alone”

People Leader Playbook

Ever heard of a football playbook? How about a “People Leader Playbook”? Tania Luna conducts leadership training at Lifelabs Learning. She developed a “People Leader Playbook” for a company looking to help their managers be successful.

In the playbook, you’ll find 12 behaviors that they expect from people leaders. This playbook creates a language of shared norms across the organization and gives managers a guide to success.

Whether it’s a guide, a training program, or a playbook, clearly defined standards will reduce ambiguity and act as a supporting foundation for manager growth in your organization.

Challenge #2: Keeping people motivated and engaged


It’s said that employees don’t leave companies, they leave people.  According to Gallup, 87 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged. Yet, managers have the greatest impact on employee engagement. 

At LifeLabs Learning, Tania and her team focus on training managers “Tipping-Point Skills.” These skills, once mastered, open up the door for greater employee engagement.

A few of the skills required to overcome this and other manager challenges include:

  • Coaching skills 
    • Learning the fundamentals of what it means to be a good manager, how to empower employees and what types of questions to ask.
  • Feedback skills
    • Learning how to give and receive feedback.
  • Prioritization skills
    • Learning how to effectively manage your time and that of your direct reports.
  • 1:1 meeting skills
    • Learning what an effective 1:1 looks like and techniques for success.

Google’s Project Oxygen team research highlights similar skills. They found, “the number one trait of a good manager is that they are a good coach.” This is followed closely by a manager’s ability to empower their team and not micromanage.

“The number one trait of a good manager is that they are a good coach” 

Managers who take the time to learn these identified success traits will have a much greater chance of engaging their employees.

Challenge #3: Having difficult conversations

We’ve all had to have those tough conversations that we’d rather avoid. How can we help managers master those difficult conversations, instill an environment of openness, and encourage honesty within their team?

You’ve probably never thought of Sergio Leone’s film, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, as a resource for managerial advice. But, for recruiter and consultant Steve Levy, it’s the inspiration for his weekly check-ins. Every week, Steve requests a “GBU” or “the good, the bad and the ugly” from each of his employees. This report helps to highlight problems and maintain an open, honest environment.   

Neil uses a similar technique for this called the “traffic light.” One of his favorite managers would say, “give me a traffic light of how you’re feeling at work and outside of work. Then, tell me why.” This strategy helps to unlock employee emotions, get a feel for where they stand, and tackle any issues.

HR can help with these tough conversations as well by pushing managers and employees to have regular check-ins. Joris found that when managers have a more frequent, open, and honest dialogue with their reports, those difficult discussions come up naturally.

“When managers have more frequent, open and honest dialogue with their reports, difficult discussions come up naturally”

Tricks like these help to solidify the relationship between manager and employee. They keep conversations flowing, uncover issues earlier, and create a foundation for the tough conversations.

Challenge #4: Bringing the best out of people

Great managers help people find something within themselves that they hadn’t seen or didn’t know was there. But especially for new people leaders, helping employees shine is one of the most important manager challenges. Joris recommended the book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, by Liz Wiseman. In the book, she explains that great managers are able to extract out an individual’s full capacity.

“If you add up all your passion, intelligence, and energy,” he said, “that combined together is your 100 percent capacity. But, if you ask an employee how much capacity they’re using at this given moment, it’s probably closer to about 60 percent. The job of the manager is to help people use as much of their capacity as possible.”

“The job of the manager is to help people use as much of their capacity as possible”

How does a manager do this in practice? Here are a few starting points:

  • Get to know them 
    • How well do you know your direct reports? What does a good day look like for them? What are they passionate about? Where do they want their career to go? Take the time to learn who they are and you’ll discover opportunities to help them grow.
  • Be selfless 
    • The best managers have arrived at a selfless place in leadership. One where they no longer think about themselves first. At that point, they only think about helping people reach their maximum potential. “If you’re constantly focused on helping people be their best, regardless of team or organization, that’s when you grow from good to really great,” said Joris.
  • Ask the right questions
    • “A little trick that we teach managers in training is to ask open-ended questions,” said Tania. “Instead of asking “what do you think?” ask, “what are your thoughts on?” This tiny tweak opens up the door for conversation.
  • Lead by example 
    • Lead in a way that will make others want to follow you. Steve quoted The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack, where he says, “shit rolls downhill.” If the leadership team isn’t doing what you expect managers to do, you’ll have a snowball effect and struggle to get everyone on the same page.

The end-goal of overcoming manager challenges

As a leader, a mentor or a manager, the end-goal is the same – but the journey to get there will differ for everyone.  

“As a leader, a mentor or a manager, the end-goal is the same – but the journey to get there will differ for everyone”

Ultimately, it’s about overcoming challenges and obstacles to build lasting relationships and creating an environment that facilitates growth, encourages honesty, and promotes continuous learning.

Watch the whole discussion here: