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4 Essential Skills Good Managers Have

When you become a manager you accept responsibility for everyone on your team. These are the ways you should step up.

4 Essential Skills Good Managers Have
[Photo: Flickr user smoinen]

In 2009, Google embarked on an ambitious project to build a better manager. Dubbed Project Oxygen, the company turned its typically robust analysis and data mining capabilities inward, mining feedback surveys, employee awards, and performance reviews for clues to find out just what kind of behavior makes a good manager. The outcome of all this work was a list of “Eight Good Behaviors And Three Pitfalls.”

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On first glance, Google’s list is almost comically full of management cliches. The New York Times referred to it as “a whiteboard gag from an episode of The Office.” But the truth is I’ve never found a more straightforward or more practical one-sheet reference. I find myself recommending it often for first-time managers.

The shift to management is essentially the shift from being responsible for your own set of tasks to being responsible for other people. I love using the word stewardship when talking about leadership. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to you. In this case, think of yourself as the steward of your team and the company’s strategy.

In terms of practicing stewardship and taking responsibility for your team, of particular interest is Google’s Rule No 4:

Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented. Focus on what employees want the team to achieve and how they can help achieve it. Help the team prioritize work and use seniority to remove roadbocks.

The term “sissy” leans a little too cozily toward bro-culture Valley norms for my tastes, but the point is well taken: Don’t be wishy-washy. Be tough. Focus on the outcomes. Do not fear big decisions. Use your clout as a boss to shepherd your team to success.

Your mission is pretty simple: to make the people around you more effective. The study of management, the act of learning how to manage, is figuring out just how to do that, through experience and the purposeful development of your own skills.

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It’s a bit counterintuitive to focus on what your employees want to achieve, but it’s an interesting practice: It turns you into a better listener and places you first in a position to be useful.

This sense of responsibility, care and stewardship is what differentiates a good manager from a great one.

What are some of the ways you can practice taking responsibility for your team:

Say No to protect your team. Michael Lopp, the author and manager, writes: “As a manager, you are caretaker of No for you group. When it is time to do the right thing by stopping, it’s your job to bust out the No. You defend your team against organizational insanity with No.”

Take the blame when things go wrong. Never, ever throw your team under the bus. That’s the cardinal sin. By modeling this type behavior, you encourage the value of responsibility in your team. Blame kills. Banish blame from your team’s vocabulary. Encourage them to take responsibility for their own work’s success or failure.

Shelter your team. Provide a haven from critical outside forces and upper management. Let your people know you have their back first and foremost, even when balancing the demands coming down from above.

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Guard their talents. If your team is coveted by other managers, it’s a good sign. When people feel wanted, they tend to perform. Let them flourish, take risks, and try new things. Be protective until it’s time for them to go. Ultimately the best reflection of you as a manager is what they do next.

In the end, it’s all about taking responsibility and not passing the buck. There’s a tendency to be fearful of criticism or to be defensive about the work of your team. That’s normal.

But are you prepared to be vulnerable to criticism and take responsibility when things go wrong?

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