What managers do

A long time ago, in a job far, far away, I worked on a team of people where all of us had different roles and functions and a shared set of goals. And for the most part, we all liked and respected each other, too, except for one outlier. There were a variety of reasons as to why we all felt this way about the outlier, but there was no doubt, this was a shared opinion among all the team members except, of course, that one person.

Managing that person was the responsibility of the team director and here’s what I learned from watching the director do it: it was really, really hard work. Also, it was not pleasant work—there were difficult and complex dynamics and feelings to navigate. Lots of people, when encountering that type of work situation, will just toss off phrases like, “Why don’t they just fire that person?” but let me tell you something: there is no “just” about firing someone, there are never any easy and straightforward exits out of difficult employment situations, because there are almost always misunderstandings and mistakes that happen on both sides (employer and employee).

What I also remember from this time is that the team director let me peek behind the curtain and see all the work that went into managing people on the team. Many people in management positions wouldn’t do that, because confidentiality in employee relationships is really a big deal. But without violating confidentiality, the team director somehow let me know that the issues had been flagged, that steps were being taken, and that it was all a lot of work. I really appreciated getting that peek, because it made me go into my first management position with eyes wide open.  And that’s basically today’s topic: management is hard.

As far as I can tell, most people want to be promoted and want to advance in their chosen career paths to eventually attain a management position. There are lots of very good reasons for wanting to advance in one’s career: more money, more financial security, and also, more explicit leadership authority—the last benefit meaning, you have more opportunity to do things and lead things rather than have things done to you as an employee.

What people don’t think about, however, is the additional work that comes with ascending to different levels. I mean, they do think about it, but not really. It is somewhat similar to how people think about the Kardashians—many believe that they have achieved fame with no discernible talent whatsoever, but what they overlook is how much work they put into simply maintaining and growing their identities for public consumption. Yes, some of us may find elements of their brand off-putting—I, for one, hate the artificial, surgically altered, full-on make-up aesthetic being projected by the Kardashians onto my daughter and other young girls, but that’s just a values disagreement—not for one second would I claim they don’t work at what they do.

Similarly, the work of being a manager is just as concrete, and just as time-consuming, as being a Kardashian (I think). Being a manager means exercising a level of responsibility over very weighty but boring things like budget, and policies. Most importantly, it means being responsible for other people. You are not solely responsible for those other people—after all, most of them come to their jobs with an understanding that they are now grown-ups with their own grown-up jobs.  But you have a great deal of responsibility for their contributions and their success, nonetheless.

What does it mean to be responsible for these other people, as a manager? It means that you have to give them the guidance and support to succeed in their jobs. It means that you know when to get out of the way, too, when they are brilliant and need the space to just do their thing. It means that you are responsible for their performance—what they are contributing to the enterprise—and you are also responsible for their development—how they are growing and developing in their individual career tracks. (I have never stopped being surprised at the number of managers I have met who do not even get that there IS a distinction between performance and development.)

And you, as a manager, have to find time for both. You have to find time for the performance conversations—where you let them know how they are doing, good and not-so-good—and you have to find time for the development conversations, where you help them define their career goals, and you share advice and also point them to resources that could help them get to whatever the next step is for them. And finding time for these things means going beyond the once-a-year performance review and building and investing in a relationship that is real, durable, and mutually beneficial.

So now that I’ve taken a stab at summarizing why being a manager is such hard work, why, then, are so many people so ill-equipped to do it? An inept manager is often cited as one of the top reasons why employees leave companies—and while it is always possible to recruit new employees, it’s an expensive and time-consuming process for organizations that puts yet another burden on managers. What happens, I think, is that many people confuse the leadership and management elements of the job—they see themselves leading with creative strategy and ideas, and they are less able to visualize the day-to-day work of managing and connecting with people and wrestling with budgets and policies and managing workflow and keeping everyone on track.  A wise mentor once said to me that most people try to juggle management and leadership, and then end up failing at both. Also, many organizations under-invest in management training, and even when they invest in management training, they then under-invest in follow-up support for managers.

Here is what I’ve seen in truly gifted managers I’ve known:

–They make you feel as if they believe in you—in your talent, the value of your work, and your potential to learn and grow.

–They give you the feedback you need even when it’s the feedback you don’t want to hear. Every piece of feedback I’ve gotten that’s been specific, actionable, and clear has filled me with gratitude (sometimes afterwards, after the sting has lessened) at how much the person must have cared in order to deliver it.

–They see you as a whole person, not just for what you can contribute to the organization or to the team.

–They seem jusssst as happy about your successes as you are. Really. It’s almost a quasi-parental feeling.

–They also create spaces to learn, and grow, and to make mistakes.

And for the truly gifted managers: it’s still hard work. And no one should go into it thinking otherwise.