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Five Essential Lessons I Learned In 20 Years Of Managing People

One longtime manager explains how he learned that you don’t actually need the best people.

Five Essential Lessons I Learned In 20 Years Of Managing People
[Photo: Flickr user Mohamed Nanabhay]

Management guru Henry Mintzberg once observed, “The great myth is the manager as orchestra conductor. It’s this idea of standing on a pedestal and you wave your baton and accounting comes in, and you wave it somewhere else and marketing chimes in with accounting, and they all sound very glorious.”

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“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.” In other words, leading people never turns out like you think it will. People, events, and other factors often surprise you. That’s why the most important thing you do as a manager is to keep learning.

When I first became a manager two decades years ago, in my mid-twenties, I probably wasn’t quite ready for it. But then again, you’re never quite ready to lead until you actually do it. As I’ve learned since, managing other people isn’t so much the art of orchestrating plans but, as Mintzberg suggests, one of guiding teams through plans gone awry. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do that.

1. You Don’t Need The Best People . . .

When I started out as a manager, I looked to hire candidates with impressive credentials–hard-working people who went to top schools, scored well on aptitude tests, and had impressive resumes. I also offered pay and designed and retention practices that I thought would motivate great performance.

However, recent studies show that high-value work isn’t necessarily done most by individuals but by teams–and that, more and more, those teams are increasing in size. Other research suggests that diverse teams outperform others that are more homogenous, even if the more uniform teams are composed of people with higher ability.

After 9/11, the CIA commissioned a study to determine what attributes made for the most effective analyst teams and discovered this to be true. It wasn’t the individual attributes of their members that led to top performance, or even the coaching they got from their leaders, but the interactions within the team itself.

I’ve learned that you really don’t need the best people, you need the best teams. I eventually realized that the main attributes to look for are curiosity and temperament. A curious person can learn just about anything they set their mind to, and if they have the temperament to work on a team, they can achieve far more than a highly skilled jerk.

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2. . . . But You Need To Fire The Nasty Ones

And so, after my first five years or so years as a manager, I began to suspect that I should fire nasty people, even if they seemed to be high performers.

The first time I tried it was with a sales director I’d inherited, who accounted 90% of her department’s revenues. It was a highly controversial move. But when the dust settled, something amazing happened: Sales shot up. As it turned out, she wasn’t really great at selling, she was great at getting sales attributed to her.

After that, I never looked back. Firing nasty people became a mantra of mine. In fact, it became so ingrained in our company’s culture that it was even included in orientation training, so that employees knew from day one how important we believed a collaborative environment to be.

Some time after instituting the policy, Bob Sutton published his book The No Asshole Rule, assembling a wealth of research on the hidden costs of holding onto nasty people in your organization. So if you are wondering if that high-performing jerk on your team is worth the trouble, rest assured they’re not.

3. Your Mission Needs To Drive Your Strategy

Early on in my management experience, I considered strategizing a rational exercise: You comb through the data, then build Excel sheets and PowerPoint decks in order to map out your competitive advantage. Analytical skill, not emotional motivation, I thought, would determine my team’s course.

Things didn’t often work that way. It’s not that teams and managers don’t need a coherent and substantiated logic for making one set of choices rather than another–we do. But I’ve since learned that it’s your mission drives that your strategy. That’s what motivates people–employees, customers, and partners alike. You can add up the numbers any way you want, but if your organization isn’t aligned with your stated strategy, it isn’t going to be very effective.

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Strategies can come and go, but the mission of the enterprise is what directs any productive, successful action. And unless people are committed to it, there’s little else you can do to get them to perform at their highest level.

4. Money Isn’t The Best Motivator

As Daniel Pink explains in Drive, decades of research have shown that incentive pay often decreases productivity, especially for tasks that require creative thinking. He argues that the best way to motivate people is to give them opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

That’s not exactly a new idea. The 19th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed strongly in the notion of dignity, which he defined as treating people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. Nobody wants to be a cog in somebody else’s machine.

When you treat people as ends in themselves, you make their goals your own. You want employees to do more than just perform tasks but to fulfill their whole potential. You see customers as more than a way to pay the bills, but as central to the mission of the business. You want communities to be invested in your success, rather than just tolerate your existence.

Some very successful companies have taken these lessons to heart. Zappos pays its employees a bonus to leave after a training period, realizing how important it is that people actually want to work there. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman suggests that managers treat staff as allies, rather than as underlings.

5. Being Wrong Sometimes Is Part Of The Job Description

Probably the most important thing a manager does is make decisions. When I was leading an organization of 800 people, I routinely had to make decisions that not one of them–many of whom were extremely smart talented and intelligent–could answer on their own. I didn’t necessarily know any better than they did, but it was my job to make the decision.

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I like to think that I got it right more than I got it wrong, but the truth is that when you have to make tough decisions about complex issues, you’re going to come up short a certain percentage of the time. When that happens, you’re going to get a lot of blame and have to clean up the mess you’ve made.

What makes these mistakes even more painful is the knowledge that there will always be people who are pushing for another approach. In fact, the lack of consensus about what to do is often the reason you had to make the decision in the first place. Making mistakes with substantial consequences is simply part of your job.

In fact, that’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned in my two decades as a manager. Being put in a position of responsibility doesn’t make you clairvoyant or endow you with any special wisdom, it just means that the consequences of your actions will be much greater than for anyone else. Once you accept that, though, everything else gets easier.


Greg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, will be published by McGraw Hill in May, 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @DigitalTonto.

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