Being a Good Manager

My last day of work was February 1.  After 24 years as a software developer, project manager and records manager, all I’m managing now is my own time and effort.  I’ve started my next book, and you will hear much more about that in future blog posts.  But, for the next few weeks, I’d like to share some of the wisdom that I earned over the course of my career. 

I enjoyed my work.  It was intellectually challenging and I loved leading a team.  But being a manager in a top-10 bank is also very stressful.  The pace is fast, regulatory pressure is intense, change is constant, and both employees and customers have high expectations.  And the bureaucratic red tape gets redder, longer and snarlier with every year that passes. 

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges for a manager in a large, bureaucratic organization is retaining good employees and keeping them motivated.  Employee retention is a particular problem when the job market is as good as it has been for the past few years.  The best people, the people you don’t want to lose, can go somewhere else and probably get a raise.  Large employers like the one I worked for even encourage employees to move internally and get experience in new areas.  That’s great for the employee, but not so great for the manager who wants to hang on to good, experienced workers. 

You can’t count on being able to give people big raises and bonuses.  Most big corporations are pretty stingy at compensation-review time. 

You can’t count on loyalty to the company.  The work force today is made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, who grew up watching their Boomer parents dedicate years of late nights to big corporations, which then shed them like old coats in the next economic downturn.  Our children learned a lesson from that. 

It took me a while to figure out how to counter those headwinds, but I finally came up with two principles:

Keep them busy

Keep them busy enough.  For a while, my team was overstaffed and I had trouble keeping some of them busy.  Then two people left and I was only allowed to replace one of them – and it took a while to find the right person.  The rest of my team pulled together and got the work done.  One fairly junior person, in particular, stepped up and took on work that I thought was beyond his capabilities.  Lesson learned.  People like to be challenged; they like to be busy.  Don’t be afraid to give people a little more than you think they can handle. 

And, don’t just keep them busy; keep them busy with the right things. Work hard to put people in their sweet spot, doing work that they enjoy, are good at, and which challenges them a bit.  Ignore official job descriptions if you have to, and put people where they can shine.  Are most people working for the paycheck?  Sure.  But, day to day, what the best employees want is the opportunity to do good work.

Build loyalty at the team level

Talk to any war veteran and they will tell you that, in the heat of battle, they aren’t fighting for something abstract like “Freedom.”  They are fighting for the guys on the firebase with them.  To build loyalty to yourself as a leader, you must first demonstrate loyalty.  Be quick to give credit to your team when things go right, and to take accountability yourself when things go wrong.  Advocate for them as best you can at compensation-review time.  Talk to them several times a year about their professional development and encourage them to take training opportunities.  Ask for their feedback and take it seriously.  Remember their spouses’ and children’s names and ask about them. 

And give them opportunities to develop loyalty to each other.  Celebrate birthdays and accomplishments.  Pair an experienced worker with a newer worker on a project.  Conduct regular team meetings and do occasional team-building activities (yes, they feel hokey, but they do work).  Go out and do something fun together as a team occasionally.  And, by the way, you can’t fake this stuff.  If you aren’t the kind of person who really cares about the people you are leading, you shouldn’t be a leader.

When I walked out the door for the last time on Friday, February 1, I was leaving behind a cohesive team who were all doing the work they liked and were good at, and I hadn’t had to replace anyone in over a year (believe me, that is a long time by behemoth-corporation standards).  I had a lump in my throat on the elevator down, a little sorry to leave my fine team behind. But I was confident that they would function superbly without me. 

Coming next time:  How to get comfortable with conflict at work. 

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