Top 10 Things Good Managers Do

Your analytics chops have earned you a management role. Congrats! But what makes a good manager?

Excellent managers are hard to come by. If you are fortunate enough to be in a people management role you can help add to the pool of talented bosses. Here’s how.


1. Interviews are a random mess.

Do you really think you can accurately predict someone’s performance in a 45-minute interview? Google studied thousands of hires they made and attempted to correlate the score given at the interview with the person’s on-job performance. Result? Zero correlation. “It’s a complete random mess”, says Google’s Laszlo Bock who is Google’s SVP of People Operations.

What does this mean? In the interview, I tend to focus on understanding what they’ve achieved so far in their life or career. The candidate’s own personal history is going to be the best predictor of their future performance. Less predictive of anything are the case-study questions, puzzles, and the classics like “what’s your greatest weakness”.

Instead of putting dozens of candidates through full-day interviews with everyone they might work with, try something else instead. Find someone who has the skills you need, and whom you feel (but can’t know!) will be a good fit. Hire them for a test-run as a contract-to-perm position. You decide if it is 6 weeks or maybe 6 months. Have others in the queue (or contracting simultaneously) in case they don’t meet the expectation of the job. You can probably try out a few candidates and see their actual on-the-job performance in the time it would take to get one candidate through the traditional interview process.

In my hiring, I have found that even working with my colleagues to develop a rigorous interview matrix and then hiring only someone with a unanimous “yes” vote produced no better outcomes. “Try before you buy.”

2. Hire up.

As a manager you are the head coach of your own football team. As head coach your job is not to be the fastest or strongest. Your job is to build a winning team. You want to hire a quarterback who can throw better than you and every other professional quarterback in the league. Don’t seek out a team full of people just like you. Diversify.

Even when hiring junior staff I still look for people who I would love to learn something from. Maybe it is not directly related to the job, but perhaps they have outside interests that demonstrate their ability to take the ball and run with it fast and far. Some of the best engineers I’ve worked started out as successful carpenters, musicians, or artists. Someone who can develop mastery in one arena can often succeed at almost anything they put their mind to.


3. Inquire like a radio interviewer.

It’s not rewarding to go to work and color-by-number from the boss’ instructions. So as a manager you have to resist the urge to dictate to your reports what to do, how to do it, and when to do it – and then criticize their results. That’s generally considered micro managing.

Try this instead: Think about the outcome you need. Now, share that outcome with your report. Tell her that you want to her think about how she would achieve that outcome and you’ll meet to discuss her plans in a few days.

When you meet, pretend you are Terry Gross or Charlie Rose or your favorite interviewer. You are simply asking questions. You are curious to get into their thought process. Some example questions, “What have you come with to reach that goal?” “What led you to that plan?” “How confident are you it will work?” “What are the biggest risk factors?” “What are the areas where you will need the most help and support? From who? When?” “If your initial plan does not work out, how will you know? What will you do in that scenario?”

In the discussion focus on two time frames: long-term (their vision) and short-term (the very next tasks on their list). And nowhere in this conversations are you judging, telling them the are going about it wrong or writing down a to-do list. Your questions might cause them to think things through further but the ideas are theirs, not yours.

Is this hard to do? Absolutely! You’re the expert, right? Isn’t that why you were promoted to Big Cheese? So why let them go in the wrong direction?

The answer is two-fold: First, just because you know one way to meet the goal, does not meet it’s the only way or the best way. Your goal as a manager should not be to create a “mini-me” army. Hopefully you see the value in hiring people with different skills, perspective and fresh ideas. So if you tell them how to you would do it, you are not bringing out how they would do it.

Secondly, if you are always telling them how to get it done, they won’t last long. They won’t feel ownership. They won’t feel invested. They won’t feel like the project is “theirs”. While they remain in you department they’ll only be half of an employee. Don’t limit what your team can do to simply what you can do.

Ok, but won’t your team members make mistakes? Yes. So read on.

4. Give them projects to make mistakes on.

There’s nothing worse than starting a new job, being immediately put on a make-or-break project and failing. Woops. Yet, often times a new headcount is created well after the need exists. By the time the new hire starts, they may have a mountain of critical projects already piled up on their desk. Is this situation, failure is not an option.

Try to anticipate your resourcing needs well ahead of it becoming a code red. Then when you bring the new person on board, hand then projects that are anything but mission-critical. Think of them as training missions.

Let me give you an example. I had set out a three-year vision for my department and one of the pillars of that vision was for our organization to get good at advanced analytics – things like predictive modeling. It was difficult to hire someone proven in that space and so I took a chance on someone with a great educational background but little practical work experience. If the first project I put her on would have damaged by reputation (or bonus) if it failed, that would have been bad.

Instead, I anticipated that this would take some time and to get going and made sure I was in sync with my chain of command that this was a training mission. We are building our own talent pool and that would take some time.

Our first project our feet wet and sent a signal to our partners that this was an area we would be investing more in over the years. Shortly thereafter we did launch a follow-up project in the space that had high value to the company. That project would never have happened if we didn’t generate enthusiasm – and build skills - with our training mission.


5. Help your people grow their resume.

Long gone are the days of lifetime employment and pensions. So for most employees it is important to stay current, keep their skills sharp, and be prepared for the next opportunity.

There are at least two strategies a manager can employ to maximize employee retention. The first is to make their employees less hirable by other companies so they have fewer opportunities to move on. The second is to make their employees more hirable. Which do you think will work better?

If you are thinking that the first strategy reflects an overly cynical view of the world, let me convince you otherwise. For many years, the top firms in Silicon Valley - Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit, Adobe - all secretly banned together to agree not to hire each other’s talent. If employees had fewer options outside the company they would not demand higher wages or hop around as much. The companies eventually settled a class-action lawsuit on the matter for over $300M.

With my employees I make a regular and explicit effort to help them build their resumes. And those who take me up on it have never left me. Why? It is somewhat rare for a manager to take such an active interest in making the employee more marketable. They have a good thing in me and they know it! I am eager to give them projects that may stretch beyond their current skill-set but can help them grow into those areas. I am passionate about training, networking and certifications. And so they don’t want to go somewhere else where they may not get all that support.

How much does it cost the company to go the extra mile with career development? Very little. Maybe a few thousand dollars a year and a few extra coaching sessions. On the flip side when a valuable employee leaves, there’s a hole in your team and up to 6 months of lost productivity. You may even wind up spending $30K on head-hunting to place a new qualified candidate. It’s a huge energy suck.

So when I invest in my employees they stick with me.

6. Your word is everything.

As a manager your people really rely on you. There is nothing more likely to cause anger and anguish than interfering with someone’s ability to earn a living. So trust is critical.

Whether you know it or not, your team is calculating your “say / do” ratio with each action you take. Do you almost always “do” what you “say”? If so the trust goes up.

In practice it can be hard sometimes. Some managers may be so afraid of conflict that they will say anything that the person wants to hear, just to make move past the issue in the moment. But in reality they have no intention of following through on their promises. Other managers want their employees to believe they have more power and authority than they do so they make promises that they want to keep but ultimately can not.

Good to remember the (modified) golden rule: “Don’t treat others how you would not want to be treated.” If you wouldn’t want your boss lying to do, don’t lie to your reports.


7. Plan for your vacation.

You want to go on a nice long vacation, right? And when you are in Hawaii (as I am right now writing this) you don’t want to be getting frantic calls and email, do you? Show me a manager who can go on a stress-free two-week vacation and I’ll show you a successful manager.

Really, this one is about much more than safeguarding your vacation. It’s also about empowering employees throughout the year and getting the most from your team. If you area always in the critical-path of projects, then your team is not empowered enough. If you still need to review everything, you have not built a high-performing team.

Sure, there will always remain situations where the best capable person of handling it is you. But you should be striving throughout the year to build up your team to the point where those situations are few and far between.

So this one connects back to Rule #4: plan for your people to make mistakes. Let them work through crises without you. Keep in mind crises come in all shapes and sizes. There are plenty of “little crises” that you need to just step away from and delegate those on your team to resolve.

For example, in running the Ecommerce function we had website releases once a week. Each release can be stressful since unexpected bugs during the go-live can force some hard trade-off decisions. In truth though, not every release has make-or-break code being pushed out. So here is your chance as a manager to tell once of your employees, “Hey, I am going to ‘out-of-pocket’ tonight and I need you to be on point to make any and all decisions during the production release.” You need to build up their courage to make hard calls – without you. That is just the kind of talent you will need when you go off to Hawaii for two weeks.

Is it irresponsible to manufacture events whereby lesser ranks are in charge? I’d argue it is irresponsible not to. You want to build up their courage and let them learn from mistakes first hand. But just as importantly you want to see which of your direct reports is most capable in these situations. So you should do this regularly and “round robin” who is in charge.

8. Share the spotlight.

When your employee does great work, they deserve to receive the recognized. Nothing is more demotivating than having your boss grab all the credit. And yet it happens all the time.

How? When your employee has produced the report but then you present it to the exec team without them there, that’s demotivating. When your employee successfully completes that project that has taken up the last eight months and you don’t make a big deal – celebrating the success, emailing a congrats out to other stakeholders and managers, giving them a chance to present at the next all-hands meeting – that’s demotivating.

So not giving the employee the spotlight they deserve is the most common “don’t” in this category. But a less common, though still important “don’t” is that you the manager should ensure you also get a bit of the spotlight as well. Why? You took the chance in hiring them. You directed your precious time and budget to developing their skills. You had the courage to green-light and support their project through to its successful conclusion.

There is a danger in become the kind of selfless manager who ALWAYS steps completely into the shadows to give the employee 100% of the limelight. Eventually that manager can undeservedly earn a reputation for just a seat-warmer who happens to have lucked into a managing a really talented pool of people. And there’s no glory in being so selfless that you work yourself out of your position. In that unfortunate situation you can be of no help to your former employees because your power was taken away. So it actually benefits for your employee for you share in the spotlight, if only a little.


9. Learn the skill-will matrix

If you have ever gone through a leadership training program such as San Diego’s prestigious “Center for Leadership Studies”, you will have learned something similar to the “SKILL-WILL MATRIX”.

Essentially it is a 2X2 grid. On one axis is “Skill” – how good are they at what you need them to be doing. On the other axis is “Will” – how positive is their attitude in performing their job. One employee may be highly skilled but lately has been distracted and delivering subpar results. Another employee may be a willing eager-beaver but unable to perform at the level needed because they lack either the know-how or the experience or both. Your star performer will rank high on both “skill” and “will”.

At any given time you should be able to place your employees (and in fact your team at-large) somewhere on this grid. Depending on where they are on the grid is what determines the management approach that is appropriate for them at that moment-in-time.

Someone lacking in “skill” should receive additional training. That’s an easy one. Now, there is no saying that they will be able to acquire the appropriate skills and apply them in a time that is acceptable for the organization. But it is important to appropriately identify the root cause of the performance gap: skills.

Someone lacking in “will” however may be a tougher case. The effective manager will have built up enough goodwill prior to this episode to have a good conversation and go deeper. Perhaps it is something at home that is creating a lack of motivation at home. Perhaps they are frustrated with the direction of the career. Perhaps even it is something that arose out of an interaction between you and the employee. Best to find out what is causing the will deficit before starting to explore solutions.

Learning the Skill-Will matrix and the appropriate style of management is worthy of an entire multi-day course so I will only introduce you to the concept here and let you explore further on your own. It is in my experience a very powerful management technique.

10. Learn to let go.

If you manage long enough you will eventually have to release someone from your organization. So this is a critical skill to get right – especially because getting it wrong can have legal implications. Hopefully you have an HR partner to work through this with and if so, follow their lead so you are in line with the company approach to letting go of employees. If you are on your own in this situation, here is what I have been trained to do by HR departments. (Disclaimer: Do not mistake this for legal advice!)

Not everyone is a good fit for the organization they are in. That’s just a fact of managing and it behooves no one to perpetuate a bad situation. That being said there are skillful ways to extricate an employee for the role that is no longer a match for them.

So here is the endgame in a nutshell: If you have already reached the point where you know the person has to go, then your goal as a manager you should be to get them to leave on their own unless they show rapid improvement. It saves them face. And it saves the company legal risk. If you are at a big company with a professional HR department and have been managing long enough you will know this routine, but if not here’s the deal.

First step is to sit down when them and have a serious conversation. Let them know that you want them to step up to a performance level that meets expectation and you are going to give them an opportunity to do that. Write down for them what exactly is expected and where precisely they are lacking. It is helpful too to share with the employee the negative consequences to the organization and to their peers should they continue to underperform. Sometimes they just were not able to see beyond their own nose. Getting the fuller picture may help motivate them to improve Your rationale for this stern discussion must be grounded in business needs, not in personal judgment or ad hominem attacks. You must keep it professional, respectful and non-emotional.

Ask them if they think they can work harder to deliver at the level required and want to give it a try. Likely they’ll say yes. You will want them to write down what precisely you are expecting and they are committing to doing in the coming month. You setup another meeting in 30 days and review their progress.

If they have improved to the point where their performance is no longer an issue, great! Typically you will not be this lucky. At that junction you must be frank with them and ask them what their plans are going forward. Often times they will voluntarily plan their graceful exit with you and if so you should be somewhat flexible and work with them. Perhaps they are working on an opportunity elsewhere in the org that is a better match for them and they just need a little time to work through that. If on the other hand they say, “I plan to stay in your department and continue doing this job” but they have not shown enough improvement, that’s the point at which you need to take control of their exit plan. Here you should set a firm date - say 30 days out – by which if they have not greatly improved their performance they will receive notice and whatever exit package your company offers in this situation.

There are so many situations that a manager faces. These tips are the tip of the iceberg but you have to start somewhere. Good luck.

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