When we think about managers, we think about people we know (or knew) who have shaped us. We think about people we either look up to or despise. We think about people who are incompetent, and you could do their job better, or those you are amazed at their time management skills.
I’d like to share a few personal stories today on some of my managers and how they have shaped me over the years. There are some good and some bad. There are those who knew what they were doing and those who were thrown in the deep end. Some were leaders, and some were following what they were told. I call this essay “I am a Good Manager”, not because I am a good manager (I’m not even a manager yet), but because I want to enlighten people on what good and bad management looks like.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a lead software engineer with a few companies under my belt. I’ve experienced the ups and downs of the software world. I’m learning about leadership and management every day, and I’m trying my best to stay humble. I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about management or leadership, but I have had some glimpses and insights as to what a good manager looks like to me.
My earliest management experience comes from my dad. He’s one of the people I most respect in the world. He has built a company of family values from the ground up and kept a culture burning within the company that shares in happiness, hard work, and family. What do I mean by family? My dad has kept all his employees close. Most of them have stayed with the business through good and bad times.
Most of my family has worked with my dad at some point, and most are still working for him. Even those who aren’t related by blood seem almost like an extended family. Everyone respects my dad and the effort he has done to create the company. But what I most like about my dad, is the management.
Now, I’m not an expert in my dad’s management practices. I only worked for him for a few short weeks in between school and university. What I do know, is that he was always friendly with the staff. I never saw him talk down to someone. He could hang out with the labourers as well as with the office staff. Even with me, being a nobody at the company, I saw how his management trickled down.
My next manager(s) was one of many. I worked briefly in what I thought would be a dream-come-true job (at the time). I was working at a local cinema. But, it was a somewhat impersonal job. It was not a career. During my time there, I learnt how the real world works.
We had some basic training. Work at the till, scoop some ice cream, clean the machines, clean the cinemas, check the tickets. It was a hectic job with lots of downtime between showings. The strongest memory I have of my managers was when I had to deal with misbehaving customers.
I stick to the rules. You won’t find me breaking any because my parents brought me up that way. Now, to paint you a picture, the managers at the cinema, usually kept to a small office (unless it was super busy) and let the frontline staff deal with most of the work. So, how does this relate to management?
A film had just come out (I forgot which), but it was R16 — which in New Zealand means you have to be 16 or older to see it. No ID, no entry. A father had brought his son along to this film. We are taught to ask for ID. So I did. Now, the father said his son had no ID, but he’s given his son permission to watch it. I said no. That’s illegal. You can go back to the till and ask for a refund.
The father started acting aggressively. Why can’t his son see this film? He’d paid for it. It’s his right. Again, I remained calm. No, I insisted. At this point, I got on my walkie-talkie and called for my manager. I didn’t know how to deal with this, so I escalated. My manager did not come to my rescue. They waited at the till and I pointed out to the father that my manager is over there if they want to talk about the rules. The father huffed and puffed but eventually gave in and stormed over to the manager.
My point in this story is that the manager was not proactive, but reactive. Sure, if it had gone further, they probably would’ve intervened. But luckily it didn’t. A proactive manager would’ve seen I was like a deer in front of headlights and walked over to offer support. So, I’ve learnt a lesson for my future self, if you see your people in trouble — don’t wait until they call for help — help them as soon as possible.
If we skip ahead a few years, I can tell a story more relevant to my current expertise, software engineering. This story left me wounded for some time. I lost my voice, my character, my passion. But, because of my manager at the time, I came out not completely broken.
The entire story is a bit of a blur to me. However, I’ll give you the events as I remember them. I was a graduate engineer at the time with a lot of energy. We all know the type. The ones who are fresh out of university and think they know everything. Let me tell you; I didn’t. But I did have a voice, and at my company, even graduates were heard.
We, as the development team, had a meeting about some architectural decision. The seniors spoke first and presented their ideas. And here comes my mistake, I interrupted a senior engineer as I couldn’t hold mine in.
“Shut the fuck up. It’s my turn to speak.”
I was shocked. I shut up and didn’t say a word more in the meeting. No one had ever talked to me that way before. I wasn’t expecting it at work at all. I walked out of the meeting a mute. I’m pretty sure I was almost shaking. My manager was present and pulled me aside.
“Alex, that never should’ve happened. I’m sorry.”
My heart warmed a little. I didn’t feel so alone in that situation. All I needed was that bit of empathy to put me through the day. I nodded to my manager and went back to work, still feeling utterly destroyed.
Later in the day, the senior developer popped around and asked if we could chat. He apologised to me and mentioned that it was nothing to do with me at all, he has just had a bad day. I felt better, but it still took me months to recover my previous voice.
The moral of this story is that a manager needs empathy and should be able to feel when something isn’t right. A good manager needs to help facilitate the healing when something is broken, but they should also know the right time to talk to people.
The next experience I want to talk about is how not to treat your employees. Again, a different company and a different time. If the following is your management style, please stop what you’re doing. I can tell you what happens in the end. No one is happy.
So, I was in a well-established team. We were working fast on our product and producing new features all the time. There was never any word from above that things were moving slow or that there were problems. There was just one small thing — mobile.
The company had decided that mobile was the way forward and wanted to move to the mobile web as soon as possible. Can you guess what happened to my team?
“Tomorrow, you’ll be working with team B and C together on the mobile website. DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING.”
The company was not a “startup”, but a company that had been around for a few years and had almost 1000 employees. As a developer, I can tell you that being told to drop everything you’re doing and start working with people you’ve never worked with is not great.
Plans like this shouldn’t be kept from the team that you’re managing. You should have transparency. Even our team leads didn’t know! With such drastic changes, you lose the trust of your team. How can they trust anything promises you make when you could at any point do a complete 360?
For me, as a developer, I was shocked at first, but then I’m a pretty calm person, so it didn’t completely rock me. Other members of my team had heated discussions with management and each other. Why would they do this to us? It caused complete chaos, and I’m not sure if we moved faster to mobile because of it.
It was a harsh lesson learned for management, and I think they lost a lot of respect from the move. Later on, they admitted it was a mistake, but I guess it was too little too late. You’d have thought that they would learn from this, right?
Just before I left that company, my team was disbanded and scattered to other teams in the business. Management gave them a couple of weeks notice. Why the move? Because they wanted to move the development of that product to another office. Again, there was no transparency from management and communication was pretty poor.
Transparency is important. People like to know what’s going to happen in a couple of months. They don’t like surprises. Especially when it comes to your job. That’s a skill that I now know I need to have. Communicate early and often.
Managers need to be able to train their staff. They need to be a mentor as well as a manager. Your power as a manager comes from how your team (or teams) perform. This next story is how I felt disconnected from my manager and in turn, the company.
I’m ambitious. I’m not going to lie. I will tell you day one where I want to be in your company and ask how to get there. I know not everyone likes ambitious people. They may feel insecure, or you may have ruffled their feathers. I don’t know.
In a company that I’ve worked for, I told my manager during the interview and during our one-on-ones that I want to be a manager. I set my goals high and asked for guidance on how to get there because I had no idea on what I needed to do to make that jump.
In the second one-on-one, I pushed my manager. How can I make the jump to become a manager? What do I need to do?
“Are you looking for a pay rise or do you really (emphasis on really) want to become a manager?”
That was like a punch in the gut for me. I felt like a balloon that had just deflated. My manager is questioning my motives. I had previously told him that in my last company I found leading a team a refreshing change from development and that I’d like to move more in that direction.
Being a mentor means that you should support your employees’ lofty goals and let them know what they need to do to reach that within the confines of your company’s development framework.
When you question your employee’s motives, they will feel disconnected as I did. We’re supposed to build trust during one-on-ones, and it is so easy to break. I felt like my manager was not a mentor to me then and it was clear that he probably wouldn’t push me towards my goals.
“I really want to be a manager. I don’t need a pay rise.”
Over the next year, I persisted with my goal. “What can I do to get there?” I would ask him. Vague responses returned. “Lead your team more.” I realised then that I probably wouldn’t reach my goal at this company.
My manager was not a mentor to me. Don’t be that guy/gal. Listen to what your employee needs or wants and help them get there. If you don’t know, then ask someone who does.
To be a good manager doesn’t mean you need to be perfect. You’re human; no one expects you to be. But you do need to be there for your employees. They’re human too; not just resources ready to be used. Be friendly and kind.
Don’t just sit and wait for a fire to happen. Be proactive and prevent the fires in the first place. When you see someone struggling, go and ask if they need help. Ask what you can do for them. Don’t wait until they come to you with problems.
Have a little empathy. When you see or hear about a bad/toxic situation, please see if there’s anything you can do or say. Sometimes just listening helps. But don’t try to step in the middle — you might lose trust from both sides.
Be transparent and open with your communication. Communicate your decisions as early as possible, especially big decisions that affect someone’s job. People need time to prepare, and as long as your decision is well thought out and justified, we will understand.
Lastly, be a mentor. Help your employees reach their potential. It’ll pay you back ten-fold and the company. You want to hire and keep stars. You want people who want to grow.
It’s not an easy job to manage people. Everyone has different expectations of what a manager should or should not be. Every company has different expectations for managers. Be a people-first manager. I think you’ll find your team will shine.
Originally published at www.alexaitken.nz on September 3, 2018.