How to Become a Better Manager

Question from a reader: “As a manager what would you say the most valuable learning resources are (besides experience)?”

1. Be self aware

2. Observe other leaders (The good and the bad!)

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes 

4. Role-playing

5. Read Books

1. Be self aware

Take time to Pause and reflect: There are many opportunities to learn and hone your leadership skills when you pause after critical conversations, coaching sessions, presentations, meetings, etc. and ask yourself these important questions:

  • What went well?
  • What did not go so well?
  • Did I communicate what I was trying to?
  • How could I have been more concise and effective? 
  • How was my message or action perceived? 
  • Did my behavior match my core values and beliefs?

When I take the time to be brave and truthfully ask myself these questions I always learn and grow as a leader and am often surprised at the answers. As a manager there are many moments where a lot of personal emotion can come out and you may not realize in the moment you didn’t handle yourself to your standards. This is perfectly okay! This will happen, what is important is to learn and handle things differently the next time. You can even ask your boss, peers, or co-workers these questions. People love to give feedback. If you give them the chance, you are open minded, and take feedback well, people will always be willing to help. Don’t make the mistake of never taking their advice though! People can tell when you are asking out of compliance and when you are honestly trying to improve yourself. I can remember so many times that leaders had their co-workers fill out start-stop-and continue surveys, but their people blew them off and didn’t give good feedback because they felt it wouldn’t be listened to anyway. You can come back from this, but it is hard to do!    

Values and Integrity

  • What do you stand for?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are your tendencies and what gets you emotional? 

The better you know yourself and what you stand for, the better you can ask yourself each day if you are living up to the version of yourself in your mind. You’ve heard of WWJD (what would Jesus do?) I think it is good to ask yourself what do you wish you would do. This helps to lift yourself out of the current moment and above the fray to respond how your integrity and values would have you respond. I am not saying you should change who you are necessarily, but it is important to make sure you are reflecting the best version of you that you hope to each day. Because sometimes this side of you can get lost during the daily grind and the stresses of leading a team.

Compassion and empathy (putting yourself in their shoes): You probably hired most of your co-workers and they must have been great in the interview for you to have hired them, right? They must have shown passion, work ethic, curiosity, experience, a willingness to learn, and a lot more! So what happened? The person you are working with displays none of these traits anymore. They are toxic to the workplace and are bringing the entire team down. Are you that bad of a judge of character? 

Sometimes… Yes, that is the case, but the amount of times that someone like that slips through the cracks will get smaller and smaller over time as you learn to trust your gut. But more often than not this person was a rockstar when you interviewed them and they still are a rockstar! I am not going to go deep on this because I think that it could be an entire additional article and the book Extreme Ownership covers this well, but I think it is important to remember this key point: Nobody wakes up in the morning, gets dressed, comes to work, and then says to themselves, “I am going to do a horrible job today!” If you believe that to be true, and you interviewed and hired this rockstar of an employee, what happened? Take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if anything you have (or haven’t) done is contributing to their behavior. Take ownership of their behavior first and see what you can change in yourself. You might be surprised what you will find.

Positive attitude: This one is tied to the previous. Are you believing the best story of yourself, your co-workers, and customers? 

Home life: You need to have a balanced home life and not bring your external problems into work. Once you demand this of yourself you can demand it from your co-workers. Obviously this won’t always be possible, but more often than not you can leave your baggage at the door when you enter your workplace. 

Pay attention to how what you are doing and saying is being received: You are responsible as a manager for how your style affects others… It isn’t your teams responsibility to “toughen up”.

Why am I feeling this way?: This is a great question to ask yourself when you are emotional and hung up on something. Get at the root of it, not the surface level petty emotion. Keep asking why you are feeling this way until you get to something deep about yourself and not the external factor that originally sparked this emotion. I can’t tell you how many times I did this exercise and found the reason for my frustration or anger was because I was embarrassed or because I didn’t feel comfortable with a task. It is hard for me to continue to be emotional once I realize it is something as trivial as being embarrassed. But oh how the mind hides this from me, in the moment I can think of 100 external reasons why I am upset, but once I finally get to the root, I realize that most of the time my emotion was manufactured to protect myself from the shame of how I was truly feeling. 

2. Observe other leaders (The good and the bad!)

The good…I learned most of my management style by observing how I was being managed and how it made me feel and also by emulating managers I liked working with. Early on in my career I worked for a leader named AJ that everyone loved. He made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the world, he always knew what was going on in your life and he actually seemed to care about your personal future and career. I had never worked for anyone like AJ before and I was hypnotized by his leadership style. It seemed like he floated around the store on air and that there was a trail of positivity left in his wake. Needless to say when he was in the building things just got done. People were more productive, they had more fun, and the time flew by. He would high five or shake hands with every single employee he passed and he lived and breathed the “hour of power” which basically is that during the first chunk of your workday skip reading email, sitting in the office, and doing busy work and instead spend time going and saying hello to each employee in the building. He actually did this, it wasn’t always a hour, but he stuck with the the philosophy and what a difference it made! He had a presence when he was in the building, you knew he was working, and it was intoxicating for the employees. It appeared as if he loved the entire team. Needless to say, AJ was promoted quickly and ended up running a store on the other side of the state. As soon as there was an opening at his new building, I followed. I needed to learn more about his leadership style because it was a style of influence without authority and I loved it. He had the official authority, he just didn’t need to use it. People wanted to please him and get the job done well. He wasn’t everyones “friend” like some of the managers I worked for before. He wasn’t hanging out with all of the employees out side of the building, he was very professional, but he just knew how to make you feel special and to uniquely motivate you. Years later when he left my building and went to a larger volume one people still talked about him positively. Normally in retail the turnover is so high that most mangers leave hardly any mark on their store. Within a few months most of the employees don’t even remember them. But AJ was definitely was remembered. Just by observing AJ over the years and trying to emulate his leadership traits, I learned a great deal. I suggest finding a leader that you respect and doing the same thing. You will eventually create your own style that is unique to you.

The not so good… I’ve learned a lot from just thinking about what traits I didn’t like in previous managers too… and avoiding those traits. Yes, the opposite is also true. I am almost positive you have worked for at least one manager you did not like. Their style didn’t motivate you, if anything it may actually have demotivated you. When they are working you let out a sigh and know it isn’t going to be a great day. When you find out they aren’t working you are extremely excited and look forward to the day. You can learn a ton from these types of mangers too because if this person drains you, there is a very good chance they drain other folks too. So take some time and actually think about what specifically they do. I had a manager once that was toxic for the workplace, let’s call him Greg. When Greg worked I was not happy. He was wildly immature, inappropriate, and embarrassing. He would say inappropriate things about female employees just out of their ear shot, make up nicknames about them, make fart noises and faces behind a customers back while you were trying to help them, and had his little group of fans that would snicker at all his jokes. I couldn’t stand it! I had no clue how someone like him could be in a leadership position and was embarrassed to be on his team. But man did I learn a lot from him. I learned the exact traits I did not want to possess as a leader and how I never wanted to treat my co-workers and customers. A lot of times managers like this will try and hold back anyone that isn’t like them. To keep their power they push down any competitors or people that don’t like their style. I was given this advice a long time ago and it helped me get through this time and also to rise above… “If you don’t like your current boss, just wait a few months and they probably won’t be there anymore.” If you are a hard worker with a good attitude, this will almost always prove true. Hang in there, things equalize and people like this don’t last forever. Learn everything you can from them and turn this negative time into a positive one.

Get out of the office and spend time around your team… I talked about this a bit above with the hour of power. But really… If you want to learn to be a great manager, just spend time with your team. They can teach you everything you need to know. Paperwork in the office is rarely going to do that. The real learning happens in the trenches with your peers and co-workers. Be genuinely curious and get to know your team, what they like, what they don’t like, how they like to be coached, everything! I am always shocked at the answers I get when I straight up ask an employee, “What could I do to make your job more enjoyable?” or, “If you could change one thing about your work what would it be?” People love to share their opinion, you just have to ask. Sometimes people will blow smoke up your rear, but they probably are doing this because they don’t trust you or they have been burnt by others in the past. Rarely is anyone this disengaged. Prove to them you are seriously interested in improving yourself and the workplace and they will give you feedback in the future. You need to ask for feedback whenever you can. 

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

I learned a lot from making mistakes: Being a compassionate and competitive achiever type person I always beat myself up and want to do a better job next time, so I think critically over my mistakes. Why are most of our nation’s military leaders veterans of multiple wars? Because the trenches are where the majority of learning happens. You have to actually get your hands dirty to learn. Books, classes, and online learning modules will only take you so far. You have to get out there and try and lead a team to truly learn to be a strong leader. You are going to make mistakes. I have made a ton of them and I am going to make a ton more. Some of my tendencies as a leader are the absolute worst… I have favorite employees, I have a hard time giving up on a clearly lost endeavor, I always give people too much benefit of the doubt and blame myself far to much (I really take Extreme Ownership to the absolute breaking point… I think it is my responsibility talent theme), I get far too emotional, I hate doing things out of compliance, I have to understand why I am doing something before I am willing to actually do it, and much much more. But guess what, I learned these thing about myself because of mistakes I’ve made with each of those tendencies. What are your tendencies? If you can’t answer this question yet, you need to spend more time in the trenches.

Don’t be afraid: Sort of a continuation of the previous point, but you need to actually be out there giving feedback, coaching, and holding people accountable to learn. You don’t have to know everything and have the most experience to help people. If your intentions are pure, if you genuinely care about your team and believe the most in them, you should have honest conversations and you have every right to. You are going to offend some people, some people have never been spoken to directly. A lot of managers tip toe around the truth, you can be different. You can take your team to a level they’ve never been before. The best compliments I have ever gotten are when an employee comes up to me months or years later and says, “Hey James, you were really honest with me and it was extremely hard to hear at the time, but now I am grateful because I know you were just looking after me.”

4. Role-playing

In spite of experience role playing is really helpful… even if the person you role play with isn’t an expert you can still get feedback and practice doing what you are trying to do. Role-playing is a fantastic learning tool. Grab someone you have a great relationship with and practice giving an annual review, a coaching, a compliment, or constructive criticism. Whatever you want to work on you can practice before you actually do it. In spite of experience this is the best way to learn how to actually deliver feedback to your team. A great thing to do is to grab two people you trust and have one act as the employee and have one just listen. Ask them what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what needs to be different after your practice. Thank them, and then repeat. You must have people you can practice with. Look at any professional sport. Athletes spend more time practicing than actually performing. How much are you practicing as a leader? If you’ve read about Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule then you have to get a lot of practice in before you are going to be an effective communicator. Get started right now. If you have someone that you trust who has a lot more experience than you, ask if they will role play being the leader and you observe. Watch everything! The little things make all the difference. A long time ago I learned that sitting next to an employee when delivering feedback or an annual appraisal is much more effective than sitting across the table from them. I learned this by experiencing it myself and then actually implementing it later. It changes everything about the conversation and sets the stage that your conversation is going to be different than the ones they have had previously and more of a conversation. A lot of managers phone in annual appraisals… Don’t do this, I will write all about annual appraisals in the future and how much they can motivate and inspire a team. And they aren’t all about your company either, you should be talking about your employee’s personal goals too.

5. Read Books

Not the best source of learning… I’ve read hundreds. It is okay, but books can be very passive and make you feel like you are learning when you really need to take action. However, they can be okay if you have a system of practicing what you are reading. I think you only need to read one book on managing other people to become a great leader. I feel great when I read a book about leading a team. I feel like I am already a better manager and it checks a box making me feel good. This is my enemy! I don’t need to feel good, I need to make other people feel good and help other people reach their top potential. If a book is making me feel good then I should put it down and read a different one. A book should make me feel like I am not doing enough and challenge me to think differently. A book is only as good as what you do after reading it. Seriously, just read one book on management, there are hundreds of fantastic ones, and then go do something. After truly taking action on a management book the future books you read will be mostly refreshers of what you already read and can be good to keep your skills sharp, but seriously, get in the trenches and actually do the tough things that help you to learn.

In conclusion…

There is a lot here to do. If you are new to leading a team some of this may be completely new. If you are a veteran leader a lot of this will be old news. But no matter which camp you are in I challenge you to think about your leadership qualities differently. Ask yourself the important self awareness questions and truly put the effort in to continue to grow. As a leader you are never perfect and you are never done growing. That is why it extremely fun to lead a team. You must hold yourself to the same standards of your team and you must expect to get better each year. 

What did I miss? Please send me a note and let me know!

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