This is a topic that I have been asked to talk about quite a bit recently and I thought that it would be worth writing a brief article on the subject. There are many different approaches to management that can be successful and here I am not looking to present best practice, just to outline what has worked for me over the years. We are all individuals, as are the people we manage, and different things will work for different people at different times.
I first started managing people in 1992 at the tender age of 26. My preparation for this elevation was being a team leader for the previous three years. At the time I was working in a software house, having joined as a trainee analyst/programmer in 1988. As is typical in such organisations (and indeed in most other types of organisations) I had progressed thusfar by being good at design and programming, not by virtue of my amazing people skills.
As a new manager, I had little personal experience or training to fall back on. However I was lucky enough to have some one working for me who had had a long career in management. The gentleman was in his mid-50s, had previously been the IT Director of a major food company, but had decided that he had had enough of the stress of managing and gone back to programming for the last few years of his career. While having someone twice my age and many times my experience working for me might have been difficult for both of us, I guess I was at least smart enough to realise that here was someone I could learn from. In fact throughout my career I have often been lucky enough to find such people to provide advice and act as my mentor.
The person in question taught me that management was – unlike design and programming – messy and complicated and that there were no hard-and-fast rules to guarantee success. However, he did instil in me a respect for the people who work for me, a willingness to listen to them and the idea that it was my role to help them be successful and thereby help the company to be successful. The idea of achieving success through people is something that has stayed with me ever since.
Later in my career at the same company, when I was responsible for running development with 30 people working for me, I was lucky enough to have a great role-model as my manager. This person was integrity and unflappability personified. While he never shied away from addressing difficult issues, he did so in a calm and humane manner. He always gave people room to explain their views and listened to them. When it was time for him to set out his own position, he did so carefully, but clearly. More often than not, this approach brought people with him without the need to pull any of the command and control levers that he had at his disposal.
In my final two positions at the same organisation, I reported directly to the Managing Director (and owner). I had worked closely with this remarkable man throughout my time at the company, but now being his right-hand-man gave me a great opportunity to learn from how he operated. The MD was probably the most intelligent person that I ever had the pleasure to come across in a work-related environment. He was obviously very confident in his own abilities and in making assessments of complicated situations. He also would ask probing questions about areas that were of importance and had a nose for detecting any attempts to pull the wool over his eyes. The flip-side of this almost academic approach was that, if you did know your stuff and provided credible answers based in fact, then he began to trust your judgement and to allow you increasing levels of autonomy. Also, as is common with some of the smartest people, he never felt that he had a monopoly on knowledge or that he could not learn from other people’s perspectives. He was much better at admitting to mistakes, or acknowledging that some one else’s opinion had been correct than many senior managers that I have met since.
Of course there have been many other people that I have learnt from over the course of my 20 years in the IT business and I hope that I continue to learn for the rest of my career. However, the three people I have just mentioned all had a big hand in shaping my general approach to management and I doubt that the basic framework of this will alter too much in the future. Having provided this background, what does my management framework look like?
First I like to give people a good degree of autonomy, within parameters that I have set. I like to give my people assurance that one of my main roles is to be there to help when they need it. When the inevitable problems occur, I try to work with people to establish why they have happened and help people to learn from setbacks. I have found that many people respond well to being treated in this way and I think that this approach has helped me in developing managers who have gone on to greater things in their own right.
Second I have a broadly collegiate approach. This is not just to be nice, but because I believe that it is often a very effective way to work. Of course there will always be situations when decisive leadership is required and I am comfortable that this is part of my role. However in these circumstances, I think that it helps enormously if you have already built up a mutual respect between yourself and your team. Something that might sometimes be overlooked is that when you take other people’s opinions into account they can sometimes save you from making a complete fool of yourself!
Third I like to give my managers a very clear idea of what we are trying to do and why (a vision that I would also expect them to help me form), but then give them the space to achieve these objectives in their own way. Particularly coming from a technical background, as many IT managers do, it can be very tempting to think that you know best. However taking this approach can be demotivating for the people working for you, it can deprive them of a chance to learn and of course it is just possible that you don’t know best after all and that someone else will come up with a novel and superior approach.
Fourth one of my prime responsibilities is to grow talent for the organisation where I work. This means challenging your people to take on new things, delegating tasks to them even if it may be a stretch for them to carry these out in the first instance. This is the main way that people grow and the occasional false-step is a reasonable price to pay for increasing people’s experience and broadening their horizons.
Fifth is maybe the less pleasant side of management and to do with dealing with under performance. When some one working for me struggles, my first duty is to help them to be more successful. This can often require a long-term commitment to coaching and some difficult conversations about where improvement is required. In these situations I have two guiding principles: a) be as open and direct as you can be as it is much fairer on everyone and b) act sooner rather than later, the longer a problem persists the more difficult it will be to address. Taking this approach has often led to problems either being overcome, or to a mutual recognition that things are not going to work out. This latter outcome, while not exactly great, is vastly superior for all concerned to a more dictatorial approach (and also has less of a negative impact on the rest of the team).
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned that I had learnt respect for people from my first management mentor. I think that this principle underpins my entire approach. I suppose a simple summary is that I try to manage people the way that I would like to be managed myself. Of course sometimes I fall short of this ideal, but it is not a bad thing to aim for and I believe that this approach has been a significant contributor to the successes that I have enjoyed in different roles and different organisations.