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6 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Managing People

2015 February 25
by Greg Satell

I first became a manager in my 20’s and, back then, I probably wasn’t a very good one.  Nothing really prepares you to lead other people.  There is, of course, no shortage of advice out there, but most of it is more myth and lore than anything else and not very helpful.

Henry Mintzberg wrote, “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.”

“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.”  In many ways, being a manager is the art of figuring out all the stuff that nobody ever told you.  Your job is to solve problems that no one else can and there are no hard and fast rules for that, but here are 6 things that I wish I had known starting out:

1. Your Information Is Wrong

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes an exercise he was asked to observe for the Israeli Defense Forces that was intended to identify potential leaders.  When he wrote his evaluations, he was confident that he was singling out those who were destined for greatness.

But when he followed up, he found that his judgments were little better than blind guesses. He would have done almost as well if he had just flipped a coin.  The problem is that we’re wired to jump to conclusions if our evidence is consistent, even if is incomplete.  He calls this phenomenon WYSIATI (what you see is all there is).

The machinery of our brain is naturally geared towards making quick judgments.  We tend to lock onto the first information we see (called priming) and that affects how we see subsequent data (framing).  Then we will seek out information that confirms our conclusions and ignore contrary evidence (confirmation bias).

Having research to back up an assertion means nothing.  We have a tendency to use data for support rather than illumination.  If you haven’t looked (and looked hard) for contrary evidence, you might as well be shooting in the dark.

2. Your People Have To Be Right

The two basic jobs a manager does are to plan and make decisions.  While others can focus on the work at hand, you need to look ahead for potential problems and opportunities.  So every good manager needs to get the best information available and make thoughtful decisions based on that information.

However, as I noted above, despite your best efforts, your information is usually going to be wrong.  Besides our natural tendencies toward bias, there will also inevitably be problems with how the information is gathered and analyzed.  Most of our information is also backward looking, so unforeseen events can render it invalid as well.

So not only is your information usually wrong, your plans are too.  Adjustments will need to be made and that’s best done by those who are closest to the problem.  As Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg put it in How Google Works, “Since the plan is wrong, the people have to be right,”

Good managers are not merely supervisors, they’re coaches.  Once the plan is in the field, you are on the sidelines.  If you’re people aren’t able—and empowered—to make good decisions, you won’t be able to achieve much.

3. You Don’t Find The Right People, You Develop Them

Some years back, I found myself working for a struggling company.  At executive board meetings, there was a never ending litany of complaints about the performance of our people. My colleagues thought that if we could only recruit “quality” people, then all of our problems would be solved.

I remember thinking.  “Wait, we recruited these people.  We trained them.  We manage them. If our people aren’t good enough, it’s not their fault, it’s our fault.”

The truth is that talent is overrated. There are really very few jobs that can’t be learned in six months and mastered in two years.  So instead of instead of looking for people who worked in the same job somewhere else, I’ve found that it’s best to look for two qualities in new hires: Curiosity and temperament.

If someone is eager to learn new skills and can work well with others, chances are they can be trained to thrive at any position.  On the other hand, if someone has done the same thing for the last ten years, it will be much harder to take on new skills and challenges.  I’ve also found that a poor temperament can do serious damage in a team environment.

4. Great Teams Will Outperform Great People

We’re raised to focus on individual achievement.  You apply yourself, do your homework and perform well on exams in order to get into a prestigious university.  Then you repeat the process in college and possibly graduate school before moving on to a successful career. That’s been the formula for success: Work, achieve and reap the rewards.

However, one of the realities of our modern age is that collaboration has become much more important.  In fact, a study in the prestigious journal Nature showed that an average paper has four times as many authors as a generation ago.  Scott Page, an economist at the University of Michigan has also found that diverse groups perform best.

Interestingly, the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning initiative, which seeks to help prepare students for future careers, puts a special emphasis on teamwork skills.  It’s received heavy support from business organizations like Autodesk and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, because they recognize how much they need workers who can collaborate.

The reality is that today we’re tackling issues that are much more complex than in the past and solving tough problems often requires more than one person,  As MIT’s  Sandy Pentland has put it, “We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears, when in fact it actually happens between people.”

5. You Mission Drives Your Strategy

Strategy has long been considered a rational exercise.  You comb through the data, build Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint charts in order to seek out a competitive advantage. Analytical skill, not emotional motivations, is what’s supposed to determine your course.

Yet in reality things don’t work that way.  The truth is that your mission drives your strategy. That’s what motivates your employees, customers and partners.  You can add up the numbers anyway you want, but if your organization isn’t aligned with your stated strategy, it is very unlikely to be effective.

Great businesses, in the final analysis, are built by passion.  Strategies can come and go, but the mission of the enterprise is fundamental to directing action.  Unless your people are committed to the purpose of the enterprise, they will not perform at their highest level.

6. Culture Can Be A Springboard Or A Prison

We often hear about how great companies have great cultures.  Places like Google and Zappos are renowned not only for being incredibly profitable, but also for being great places to work. That’s led many to believe that building a strong culture is a essential for building a strong business.

But a culture can also hold you back.  Blockbuster and Kodak both had strong corporate cultures and in both cases, ingrained attitudes contributed to their downfall.  Excessive reverence of culture makes it difficult to adapt to new realities and therein lies the dilemma.

A corporate culture, properly understood, is how an enterprise values its mission and has little to do with specific strategies and practices (like retail stores or photographic film), nor does it depend on perks like ping pong tables, relaxed dress codes or pet friendly policies.  A strong culture is based on values.

Values, unlike perks, cost something.  They determine what you will and will not do.  When people at Google commit to not being “evil,” that constrains them and requires commitment. That’s how you build a strong culture.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. February 25, 2015

    Great post, Greg. This is a a management manifesto! A whole leadership course could be built around it.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks! I’m glad you think so:-)

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. March 1, 2015

    Management is not easy. I very much like the comments on coaching and development. What is always the case is that things change, and so flexibility of mind and of the team is critical. Those that can see things are they are at the moment, and adjust and enlist and support their people generally do best. Thanks Greg.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Very true! Thanks Robert.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. March 17, 2015

    Good post.

    I don’t currently manage people. But when I did, I followed these three simple rules: Be tough, be fair and be kind.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Sounds like good advice. Thanks Jay.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. Taurai permalink
    December 30, 2015

    Thanks Greg for saying it as it is. I have been following your posts (on /off) since around 2011. This is also the year when I started my undergraduate studies in Business Administration.
    Up to this festive season I have been consuming quite a lot of posts from different blogs I subscribe to. But while I am in my semi-holiday (working during this holiday) I have also made it my work to whittle down the number of blogs. Yours will stay with me, more consistently now, into the future!
    My reasons for my retaining it are mainly 2. 1. You do not sugar-coat your articles. I have a feeling some bloggers do, in order to buy a following. 2. You write with a holistic (organization-wide) slant. This makes your posts resonate with those looking for daily management solutions – like me. Thus in today’s rat race, one does not end up having to read a zillion posts from a gazllion bloggers to get the gist of what one is researching on.
    Managing people. And what someone didn’t tell us before we managed people.
    Unlike you, my 20s were spent trying to find a foothold on a career. Turning 20 and completing high school in Africa in the early ‘80s had its share of mistiness. Looking around I find very few of us then or now for that matter, that hit their chosen career on the 1st trial and start developing themselves. So it happened that I finally managed to get into my chosen career at almost 30. Yet I had been dying to join it since 23. It meant sacrificing my young family’s only livelihood (day job) to take a full time diploma course. But fortunately, that career choice has rewarded me not too shabbily.
    I mention these issues because when I look at my jobs as an untrained teacher, then post office worker and finally as a trainee construction supervisor I am reminded of how managing people can destroy or improve them. My 1st 2 jobs (above) unfortunately involved working under managers who did not stand up for the development of those under them. They could even hold back someone’s promotion if this threatened the station’s staffing equation. Some even did this due to personal insecurity. And this is why I finally had to leave each job.
    What a stark contrast this was to the time I left construction college and started working on the sites. One year in the early ‘90s stands out. I got 2 promotions and 3 salary raises that year. And 2 & ½ years after leaving college I was given my 1st project to run. I thanked my employers by completing it earlier than scheduled. Then I left my country for greener pastures and further personal development. This career choice has enabled me to visit & work in other countries. I benefit from the culture immersions.
    My last career move (end of 2012) came because our project, of which I was a key junior manager (4th in the organisation’s ranking), failed due to the financial incapabilities of its sponsors (my employers). But for the 2 years I was there, having been brought in specifically to turn it around, I was under a lot of pesornal stress just trying to keep us all going in the same direction.
    We had our unenviable share of confusion. And when this mismanagement involves about 100 site personnel, that is a recipe for disaster. (Eventually we all lost our jobs prematurely)
    The angle which I am bringing in here is that of managing one’s superiors/managers, yet at the same time one is in shark-infested waters trying to keep the multitudes of junior workers in the right direction. There is a strategic disconnect. No shared vision. It is a painful experience that gnaws one down.
    Since I was still doing my 3 year undergraduate studies at the time, sometimes I found a disconnect between what my lecturers and text books were telling me. Eg ‘All workers are always willing to put in a good day’s work. It is poor managers that kill their performance.’ I read this from some management blogs too. Now, I have now been working for 33 years. In 3 different countries. I do not find 100% truth in this pontification. Sorry to say. I can confidently declare that there are some workers, in any industry, on any given day, who wish to perpetrate & spread their negative attitude and scuttle the performance of any organization.
    That project failed not only because my employers failed to raise enough money to complete it. (Luckily we completed 30% which is now operational.) It failed because my superiors did not heed what I was warning them about the under-currents caused by our junior supervisors on site. 1. How they were hunting with the hounds yet running with the hare. (Instigating junior workers and sharing with them classfied information from our management meetings) 2. How some were systematically stealing money and materials. Even up to today I still can’t understand whether my superiors ignored my warnings or they just plainly were overcome by the enormity of the project since running a construction project (of that magnitude) was new to them. From the time I walked onto that troubled project I deciphered that the culture of the workers was mainly due to the management style of the site manager. I became his deputy. The 2 of us were project based while the owners (top 2) were at headquarters 1 000km away. For that whole duration I was trying to show him that style was not gonna produce the results the company wanted. I was technical advisor (to him & the company) because I was the most senior person trained & experienced in construction management. Not beating my drum here, but finally sharing information – emotions removed thanks to years now past – from my most painful management lesson.
    I struggled for a couple of years to finally get my own company going. But that pain, I vowed, is sweeter than ever putting my career in the hands of another person/manager/company’s management style again.
    I still meet this kind of worker daily. I induct, train and develop my workers in-house, since I do not have the budget to attract fully trained workers. Even when I was managing my employers’ projects I told myself that I should not hesitate to fire someone if they become a threat to the organizational goal. This because maybe I am unlucky not to meet the worker that means well all the time (per my lecturers, books & blogs). Without exaggerating, maybe 30% meet this billing. The other 70% have to be cajoled along.
    My management philosophy as a result of what I have experienced over the years is, ‘Managing all stakeholders’ expectations within a fair and firm work environment.’ This ensures that each person (employee or employer) is rewarded according to performance without either party trying to benefit from an erroneous sense of entitlement.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your incredible story Taurai. All the best in the New Year!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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