by David Deacon, author of “The Self Determined Manager: A Manifesto for Exceptional People Managers“
We all know managers do crucial work. They shape culture, improve employee performance, drive creativity and innovation. And yet, fewer training dollars are typically earmarked for managers than for people at other levels. You’re right: This makes little sense.
But don’t despair. There’s a LOT you, the individual manager, can do to improve your impact on those you lead and on the company as a whole.
I’m not saying you don’t need training in the technical skills of management. Of course you do. But what makes a great manager has far more to do with your attitude than anything else.
While you may not get to choose the training your company invests in, you can choose your attitude. You can choose your intention. In this way, you invest in yourself.
Attitude and intention. Deacon says they are the cornerstones of becoming what he calls a self-determined manager — one who constantly and intentionally creates environments of over-achievement, where people thrive and produce great work.
Bad managers are so focused on their own needs, or their own fears, or their own performance that they lose sight of the negative, unproductive, demotivating, or destructive environment they are creating. It’s like they think it happens accidentally. On the other hand, the best managers intentionally choose the environment they hope to create.
Making this deliberate and intentional choice is the most powerful thing you can do to become an exceptional manager. Everything else you do will flow from this decision, and, without question, you’ll be a better manager regardless of any skills training your company may or may not offer.
That said, here are a few pieces of advice.
1. Get hyper-focused on the power of amplification.
By virtue of being a manager, your words and actions are amplified. (You cannot stop this, because it is inherent in the way organizations are shaped.) Every pronouncement you make may be repeated many times by your direct reports, every action you take may be emulated many times, and every expectation you set will be reflected in the work of your team. Amplification can be good or bad, so make sure that you remain aware of how anything you are “putting out there” is being received and interpreted.
2. Set your own standards (and make them high!).
Self-determined managers never look outside themselves for the standards of their work. So, set your own very high standards and strive to live up to them as far as possible. You are the one who defines professionalism and sets benchmarks — and when you do this, you will be recognized as a role model for others. Remember, however, that recognition is a by-product, not a goal. Your intention should be to do a great job because that is the point.
3. If you need training in a certain area, ask for it.
There are certain things all managers need to be able to do: give feedback, coach employees, hold tough conversations, communicate clearly, manage time and tasks, and so forth. If you’re lacking in a critical area — and, yes, you’re most likely aware of this — ask for training. If your company can’t or won’t provide it, you must seek it out yourself. Be proactive about developing the skills that will help you create the best environment possible for your team.
4. Start treating employees like adults.
Work is not school. Adults do their best work when they are treated as adults. Therefore, great managers don’t bully, shout, patronize, belittle, name-call, behave aggressively, or condescend. To generate trust and respect, you must create an environment where adults can do great things.
5. Stop playing favorites.
Some managers give certain people time and attention, but offer little contact or guidance to others, based on personal preferences rather than business or project reasons. Those in favor can do no wrong regardless of how much (or little) they do or the quality of their work. Those out of favor learn to moderate their efforts and simply do enough to stay out of trouble. The result? People direct their efforts toward staying in favor; there is no focus on performing well. Resist any urge to have favorites among your team.
6. Be more restless. Each week ask yourself and your team: What can we do better?
The best managers have impatience (if something is worth doing, why wait?), an instinct for continuous improvement (good enough is never good enough), and a lingering sense of constructive dissatisfaction (how can we do this better next time?). They set themselves and others very high standards of performance and conduct.
This demanding impatience for ever-greater impact and ever-higher standards can make self-determined managers very difficult to work for. Just be sure to always balance the high expectations with encouragement and a positive approach.
7. Have a plan in mind for your people.
The best managers have a good sense of where they believe each of their people should be headed. For each employee, look forward and ponder three thoughts:
Where might they be in a few years’ time: perhaps a bigger job, a different role, or a larger team?
Do you have a clear view of what they need to learn now and what they need to learn next that will support their future growth?
Do you have a sense of responsibility and accountability for helping them make that progress?
With great managers, the plan is mainly in their heads, and they can tell you instantly what it is. Not in the language of career frameworks and competency models, but in words that show what they see and appreciate and hope for and worry about for each of their people.
8. Manage your own energy.
Self-determined managers know that maintaining their energy and enthusiasm is their own responsibility. Pay attention to your energy levels and develop habits that help you sustain them. Focus on fitness, nutrition, and stress management and be alert to signs of burnout, to taking on too much (or too little), and to giving yourself breaks.
Remember, one of the most powerful outcomes of maintaining your energy is how it enables you to be positive. If you feel good, you will show it and transmit it!
9. Learn something new. Take a class, master a new skill, even take up a new hobby outside work.
The best managers are interested, curious, open, and alert. They are forever seeking knowledge. This extends far beyond their professional work and reflects their interests, passions, pastimes, and preoccupations.
First, thinking ‘widely’ opens possibilities by helping you foster connections, recognize new opportunities, and find better ways to do things. Secondly, broad knowledge and curiosity make you adaptable; a key part of career success is about applying what you have learned in new situations.
10. Learn to like the people you work with (yes, even the unlikeable ones).
If you deal with someone who is unlikeable, find something to appreciate about them. First, it changes the nature of all interactions and maximizes the chance that you’ll be successful. You get a less cooperative, less inventive, and less engaged relationship with someone you do not like. Secondly, it furthers the chance that your team members will overlook your unlikeable qualities and focus on your best traits as well. Finally, everyone responds well to being treated well.
11. Figure out why the work of the team matters and articulate this to them.
Without this sense of purpose, it’s hard for people to make a greater effort, direct their energies, and self-correct. Further, they will struggle to relate their actions to their employer’s performance, substituting instead other purposes, such as pleasing their boss or doing only work that interests them.
12. Don’t expect perfection, but do keep working toward it.
It’s virtually impossible to be self-determined 24/7, especially when you lose your focus because other things get in the way. Maybe your boss makes an unreasonable request or creates a firestorm you must pay attention to, or the CEO is creating a negative environment, or you have a problem in your personal life. These kinds of things happen to everyone — even self-determined managers. During these times, it’s important to stay conscious and determined, catch people doing things right, articulate clearly, and find meaning and purpose to transmit to your people.
Until you believe that you are worth investing in, you can’t be a self-determined manager. Decide right now that you not only deserve to become the best manager you can possibly be, but that you are capable of reaching this achievement on your own. Once you do this, you’ll be unstoppable.