The 5 behaviors of successful managers

Date: May 1, 2018
Author: Kristin Zhivago
Man steering ship with his hands on the wooden wheel

The most successful managers make it easier for everyone to do their best work; the worst managers make it more difficult, if not impossible. The companies run by the successful managers thrive; the companies run by substandard managers struggle. How can you make sure you are behaving like a good manager, not a bad one?

My use of the word “behavior” is intentional. I’m not talking about the characteristics you were born with or developed as you were trying to grow up.

I’m talking about your behavior, which comes from the conscious choices you are now making as an adult in management. An adult responsible for finding, hiring, guiding, encouraging, warning, and, sometimes, firing people who work for you.

Behavior #1: Be kind, and be fair.

The best managers are kind and fair, in all situations. They are as kind and fair to the jerk they are firing as they are to their best, most productive employee. They never get upset (unless it’s entirely appropriate), they calmly work through all issues, and they make decisions that will help everyone do a better job.

We all have our quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. Any manager who is kind and fair will be easily forgiven for quirks and weaknesses. Workers pay attention to how others are treated; they see the decisions that are made; they know what is kind and fair. Fairness is one of the most important reasons that people stay or leave companies.

If you choose to be a jerk, putting others at a disadvantage for your own gain, you will not be kind nor fair. You shouldn’t even be a manager. You’re in the wrong job. Frankly, I’m not sure which job you should be in, but it’s definitely not management. You will make everyone else’s working life a misery, and only the most desperate or devious people will work for you.

Behavior #2: Don’t abuse your position.

People who own and run companies are in a position of power. They are the leader. Leaders are held to a higher standard than the other people in the company, and rightfully so, as their decisions affect many others, positively or negatively.

This is obvious on the face of it, but when you are the leader, how does that mean you should act? There’s the obvious answer, which is that you shouldn’t ask people to do things that make them uncomfortable or unnecessarily inconvenienced.

However, many managers don’t appreciate how much a seemingly subtle or innocent request can slow down progress.

For example, a CEO who routinely sends emails out to all his managers asking, “Is this something we should be investigating?” is slowing everyone down. Emails from the CEO, sent to multiple people, are “Important.” The need and desire to impress others, including the CEO, will be strong. Recipients will also feel that if they do not respond, they will be making a career mistake. So the five people who get that email will all stop their important, revenue-producing work to attempt to answer the CEO’s question. They will spend time doing some research, come to some conclusions, and then write their answer. Thus begins an email debate.

Debates conducted via email are a revenue-sucking waste of your three most valuable resources: people, time, and patience.

Instead of doing this, the CEO should take one of two approaches:

  1. Assign one person to these questions, someone who can do the preliminary research and come back with an answer such as, “This is a complete waste of time and not for us (and here’s why),” or, “This has some merit (and here’s why). Who do you think should investigate it further?”
  2. Gather up these questions and wait until the next staff meeting. Have a 15-minute session where you briefly mention each of these concepts or companies, and ask for their initial reactions. Everyone should know that the goal is simply to decide if this is worth pursuing or not; not to debate all the pros or cons of doing so.

When a CEO sneezes, the rest of the company gets pneumonia. What you do as a leader has an amplified effect on everyone in the company.

Behavior #3: Don’t dump, and debate only as much as needed to make a decision.

I’ve sat in meetings where the company leader spends 15 minutes telling a personal story that has no relevance to the company’s growth or progress. Or, the leader goes into excruciating detail about the particulars of a recent conversation or meeting (the dreaded “he said, she said”), which only serves to put the listeners asleep and keeps them from productive work.

This is verbal dumping, and it will also suck the energy right out of your company. If you need to rant, talk to your spouse, a friend, or your dog.

No one in your company should be your therapist. Just because you are paying them doesn’t give you the right to keep them from their work.

You’ll also want to make sure you debate properly. Debate is healthy, but always with the goal of coming to a decision so action can be taken. Decisions drive actions, and actions drive revenue.

The goal of every debate in business is to be able to take the next step. Sometimes the next step is, “We need to gather more data before we can make a decision,” because it is obvious from the debate that no one knows enough to make a decision. That’s fine.

Firmly guide every debate to a decision on what to do next.

Behavior #4: Give clear instructions.

There is an art to giving clear instructions. None of us grow up knowing how to do it; no one teaches us as we are being schooled. We need to teach ourselves and keep getting better over time.

Use clear, active language. Be clear about what the problem is and what you’re going to do about it. Provide the big picture and goal, then the details. Give people clear assignments. Use bullets. Use a system where the initial instructions are recorded and subsequent actions, questions, and answers are recorded.

Give people what they need to get the job done; spelling it out clearly. Time spent giving good instructions will save two to five times as much time later, because people were confused or they were forced to make (usually incorrect) assumptions.

Behavior #5: Don’t let your emotions run your company.

Fear not. Be anxious for nothing.

Why is this great advice?

Because the truth is, whatever it is, if you stay calm and gather data and make good decisions, and help people do their work, you will succeed. Whatever happens, you will find a way to handle it. Whatever mistake is made, whatever your competition does, whatever the government decides to do, whatever disaster befalls you, you will find a way to handle it.

There’s a lot of anger and hysteria filling our screens these days. There are a lot of people who get very upset when something goes wrong.

The truth is, no one – no one – is immune from the reality of life. Stuff happens. And when you are in a position of leadership, with lots of people working for you, lots of stuff will happen. The less time you spend being angry or anxious about that stuff, the better. Your goal should be to entirely eliminate anxiety from your life. It is possible, and it’s an awesome way to live.

Stuff just happened? OK. Got it. Now what do we do to fix it?

The best defense against stuff happening is a strong offense. Every single day, the best managers find that thing that most needs fixing, and they fix it. As my father used to say, you do the “worst things first,” so they can never pile up. 

Being a successful manager is one of the most rewarding things one can experience in the course of a career. The best news is, anyone can do it, with some focused behavior modification.

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