Choosing the right managers is one of the most critical decisions an organization makes. But what makes someone a great manager? While a lot of research have identified qualitative traits of great managers and the different ways they contribute to business success – there is still a lack in understanding of what great managers actually do on a daily basis.
Our most recent panel in the Helping Managers Become Better Managers series was held in Berlin. We welcomed expert speakers from TAM Trainer Akademie (Lorenz Illing, MD), Marley Spoon (Cindy Rubbens, Head of Culture & People Operations) and SoundCloud (Jennifer Beecher, Learning & Development) to discuss the importance of managers in organizations. Below we’ve summarized a few key takeaways:
What behaviors do great managers exhibit?
They don’t “manage”, they facilitate
“We have a reverse pyramid at Marley Spoon,” said Cindy. “It’s the manager who enables and makes sure everyone else can do their job. The manager is working for the employees, not the other way around.”
Lorenz seconds the notion that managers must facilitate purpose within their team. “Serve is the number one attitude you should have as a manager. The manager has more context and information than the rest of the team, which is why you have to empower your employees and give them every resource they need, so they can do what they are paid for.”
When it came to identifying what makes someone a good manager, Jennifer chose self-reflection. “The higher up you are, the more influence you have. And the more you’re an amplifier, the more you yourself need to be able to adjust to the people around you,” she explained. “If you can’t reflect on what your strengths and gaps are, then you can’t grow. Only if I know the values I project onto other people, the biases that I have, and can communicate them clearly and manage to deal with them – only then can I really be effective in handling group dynamics with several people involved.”
They give AND receive honest feedback
In order to communicate successfully, managers must build relationships that create trust, open dialogue and transparency. “You have to learn to open up to others to receive opening up from others; in a very respectful way, but also a very real way,” Lorenz said. “And you always have to make the first step. It’s your responsibility to make others know that you are an honest person with no agenda.”
Being able to have difficult conversations is also important. “I try to frame the conversation by saying this is not a personal conversation, it’s a business one, and this is how I will behave afterwards.” Jennifer shared her own personal approach. “Be explicit about how difficult their own reaction to feedback will be and give them time to deal with it.”
What are some actionable ways to help managers succeed?
Set clear expectations
“We create our processes together with the management team, train managers to do the processes and then we let them free,” Cindy shared. “Our role is to make them successful, make sure they are owning the KPIs of retention, and not HR.”
“Enable managers by setting clear expectations of what the management role means,” said Jennifer. “You can’t fulfill the expectations if you don’t know them.“
At Marley Spoon, every single person has a 1:1 meeting (aka one-on-one-meeting) at least once a month. “It’s all about the person – how are you, what is happening in your office, how are you coping with the environment at Marley Spoon, etc.,” Cindy explains. “We believe if we build trust and get to know each other, then we can find conflicts and solutions early.”
Provide extra support
Being a manager is not an easy task, and regular training sessions can keep managers at their best. Lorenz highlighted the ability to be a moderator as an important skill many managers need additional training on. “Very often as a manager you’re directly in that position,” Lorenz said. “There are different kind of groups with different ideas, but as a manager, you are not the opinion leader, you’re the moderator of the situation. You have to be able to ask the right questions and put your opinions out of the room. This is a technique that you have to learn.”
“We also believe that there’s a lot of knowledge already from within,” Cindy added. “So we have our leadership academy, and that is for everyone who is leading or managing people, even just one person. And we rotate, there is one topic being set up, then let’s have a conversation and learn from each other.”
Establish a culture of accountability through leading by example
“We actually don’t use email, what we do use is Slack. Every conversation within our company is on a Slack channel and all channels are open. It’s about how we communicate with each other and hold each other accountable,” said Cindy.
When “being accountable” means sharing and reflecting on your own work instead of punishment, it yields positive results in employee engagement and performance. “We have our quarterly goals, driven from the CEO, to see how we did on our goals and write a self-reflection report. The CEO starts it; he writes five points he did well and five points he did badly, and that is immediately posted on the Slack channel for everyone to see. And the CEO makes sure all of his reports do the same. If you admit to something you did wrong, instead of sweeping it under the carpet, just admit it publicly and move on.”
Build foundational skills into your culture
Other characteristics of a great manager that came up included empathy and the ability to inspire others. But a big question raised was – are these traits things you can learn and develop, or do you have to come with it? Jennifer believes it is possible for people to improve upon talents they lack naturally.
An approach to encouraging specific behaviors is to build values into the organization. “One of the values at Nokia was empathy,” Jennifer said about her previous employer. “How great is that? If the company ensures you care about how people feel. One of the best things you can do is make values part of your culture explicitly.”
Maintain a level of discomfort
“The founder makes sure we always feel a little bit uncomfortable because if we are too comfortable, we are not performing,” Cindy added. “He sets high expectations with lots of challenges along the way. The moment I feel like I accomplished something, there is the next.”
“Create a culture of authenticity, vulnerability, and transparency; and enable managers to have human conversations, including the difficult ones,” said Jennifer. “With these ingredients, employees will be encouraged to take more risks, and the whole uncomfortable part is where growth happens.”
Want more tips? Check out the full panel discussion below!
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