Our first taste of management is typically rooted in team class projects for school (high school or earlier, and university). My first professional taste of management was in my first job out of university in 2001. I had a team of five people reporting to me (after the original manager left the company). Over the years, I have managed teams and projects ranging from small team initiatives to multi-site multi-national projects encompassing thousands of people. I have built teams up from near-zero and have come into well-formed and normed teams. Early in my career, I treated management as a secondary responsibility. I was the primary individual contributor and was accountable for writing a large amount of code and setting the standard for the team.
Managing was how I was able to scale myself to get more things done. I did not treat it with the same discipline I applied to my software engineering. I did little reading on the subject and had no formal training. I made all of the mistakes. I never had a mentor as I struggled to learn how to be a leader and manager. I received excellent advice from many sources (occasionally from my manager, but more often from team members and peers). The one thing I felt has saved me over the years was the childhood advice that my parents taught me. Treat other people at least as well as you would want to be treated. Make sure to be self-critical and always look back and think of ways to improve, be better, and avoid past mistakes. With these guideposts, I was able to teach myself along the way and avoid repeating mistakes and bad practices. Later in my career, once I committed to being a manager exclusively, I started to apply the same rigour to this discipline as I had when I was a software engineer. I found that the books I was reading reflected many of those same hard-won (and sometimes costly) lessons that I had learned. I continue to read to develop thoughts, ideas, and approaches to provide a good environment for my teams, better understand people, and make our careers and our time together a value-adding experience.
The following are some of the principles of management that I have formed. Most should be familiar based on your personal experience, or based on literature. Thankfully, the topic of interest continues to revolve around the same set of purposes and audience. Ideas may change, over the decades, as to the best implementation of the necessary environment to encourage the best results. However, the optimization functions tend to revolve around goals of increasing productivity, innovation, and retention.
It is interesting to note that the reason we may have so much change in approaches to manage and motivate employees is not only due to insights and development in the relevant sciences, but also because the people involved (the employees) keep changing. The management techniques that worked well in the 1980s resonated with the majority of the workforce at that time. Later in the early 2000s, we had to change our approach due to the change in generational thinking. This is not a single point in time change where we pivot. It is about making sure that your employees’ principles, feelings, and personal experience are incorporated into (and are part of) your managerial technique.
The following is a work in progress
- Focus on and development each individual employee along their chosen career path
- The ability to make a decision, and inform the direction of the team and organization
For a period time I worked as a software engineer in a place/group where all of the work was decided in a command control method. I would come into work, goto my task management dashboard, check the next (or current task) and work on it. The tasks were often contradictory as they came from different teams with competing execution plans. It was some of the worst time I spent as an engineer. I was complacent, uncaring, and completely disenfranchised. I made a promise to myself that I would not treat others in the same way.
This principle is tightly coupled with trust. To give people agency, you have to trust that they will make good decisions. Not necessarily the same decisions that you would make, but decisions that align with the team, organization, and company goals. They need to have the room to make decisions, be wrong, and learn and grow from those mistakes. This only works when they have the support of their manager and team, and are supported (and taught) in taking the right risks.
This principle is also tightly coupled to transparency. How can people make the right decisions (both short and long term) without the right information? Decisions made in a vacuum are no better than random chance. Supporting your team means giving them the right tools (in this case, information) to make these decisions. In the same way, it is not sufficient to only provide them with agency in their immediate area of control. Mechanisms to provide the ability for people to influence and inform the larger context are also needed. In general, we call this a bottom-up organization.
Do what you say, say what you do
Open book and door policies
I once worked at a place, that for a time, I referred to as a mushroom farm. (The employees were kept in the dark and fed horse shit.) Nobody was motivated, empathy among employees was near-zero, and there was no sense or purpose. There was zero faith in a secure future. The spill out to people’s personal lives was extremely negative. I made a promise to myself that I would never treat my organization in the same way.
Open Book Policy: It is a common topic in my first one-on-one and the first time I address a team or organization that I touch on this topic. I will tell people that any information I can legally share will always be available to those who ask. My organization will always look for ways to share information (cross-team decisions and actions) and the bigger picture (synthesizing news from my report chain). However, an information flow can quickly become overwhelming and inefficient (people spend too much time trying to know everything, or tune out everything because it is too much to absorb). Thus, we are always looking at ways to strike the balance of providing the right synthesization of critical information. Since this will be targeted for the average set of expectations, we will also strive to make this information available through open documentation (wiki, meetings notes, etc.) as well as question and answer time through open forums and open office hours.
Open Door Policy: One on one meetings are a great way to pass on best practices and to learn things about your organization that would not bubble up in any other way. Having a mechanism so that anyone can book some time and ask questions is a great value add for both you and the employee.
Respect and Trust
Respect: Basic human decency, and appreciation of the time and effort put towards their work.
Trust But Verify: In this case, set the goal, review the plan, and have a regular mechanism for reporting progress
My personal experience as an employee is that this is one of the hardest principles for managers to adhere in action (though not in words). “Hire the best, and let them do the job.” To truly commit to this principle, you have to be able to step back, take your own ego out of the picture, and truly commit to growing your impact through others. I am not advocating the abdication of your responsibilities (delegation without verification). You do have to let your directs and the wider organization execute based on the plans, goals, and culture of the organization.
Mentor, coach, and grow every team member
Teach not what you would do, but how you decided what you would do
Mentoring: Providing guidance and feedback based on being a subject matter expert in the domain.
Coaching: Providing guidance and feedback for the other person to self-actualize change and growth.
The goal is force multiplication - you want your organization to work in such a way that it is predictable and dependable.