Note: This article is updated at 10 Things Great Managers Do.
What do great managers do? To put it simply, they bring out your best. Whether it’s fire you up or get on your path or help you overcome your personal challenges, they help you flourish.
Aside from all the managers I’ve had before Microsoft, I’ve had 14 managers at Microsoft. I also regularly mentor people from different teams, so I get exposed to a lot of different management styles and patterns. If I take a look from the balcony, what ten things do the best of the best managers do? Here’s the list …
- Know the priorities. The best managers know what’s important. They make priorities clear and trade-offs make sense. They help you and the team know what counts. They focus on the vital few. When the priorities are clear, a lot of things fall into place, and the work becomes meaningful. The opposite is when everything is a priority. The worst is when the priorities aren’t clear. Without clear priorities, you don’t know what to optimize for or what success looks like. You don’t even know whether you are even on track. It leads to confusion, churn, and waste.
- Focus on goals. Focusing on the goals sets the stage for collaboration, focus, and priorities. When the team knows the goals, it’s easier to know what success looks like. It’s also easier to stay motivated. It’s also easier to focus on the bigger picture and see the forest for the trees. The opposite is “The How Trap.” The How Trap is when a manager focuses on how people do their jobs. Whether you call it micro-management, or too many cooks in the kitchen, or “my hands are tied”, it gets in the way of people playing their best game. The best managers pair with you on setting the goals and give you the room to do what you do best.
- Know the capacity. The best managers know the capacity. They don’t overload you or the team beyond capacity. They plan and design for smart work, rather than heroic efforts. If all the work is dependent on long hours and going above and beyond, then it’s a risk to the business. It’s not smart or effective execution.
- Focus on learning and growth. The best managers are great coaches. They coach for growth. They know when to provide direction, and when to back off. They provide actionable feedback. They don’t make things permanent, personal, or pervasive. They focus on the challenges or the goals and they provide specific and actionable recommendations to bring out your best. Call it “tough love”, but the best of the best managers here, tackle the tough stuff. They do it with your best intentions. They do it in a way that makes it safe to be vulnerable. They use a language that’s empowering. When something goes wrong, it’s not about blame, it’s what’s the learning and how to move forward. The opposite is a critic that is only good at finding the flaws.
- Acknowledge the wins. The best managers acknowledge the wins. They catch you doing something right. The best managers are aware of the tough stuff and the key challenges. They know when you make progress, jump a hurdle, or scale a wall. The opposite is a manager that only pays attention when something is wrong.
- Champion the work. The best managers evangelize the work. They are your champ. They tell and sell your work so that it’s recognized and rewarded. They amplify the impact by spreading the word. They get the charter and defend the work so you don’t have to. The opposite is when your work lacks any meaningful visibility or acknowledgement.
- Build vulnerability-based trust. The best managers make it safe to fail. It’s OK to bring your problems and challenges to them, and get open and honest feedback, without it being thrown back in your face. It’s OK to go out on a limb, as part of driving for stretch goals and learning the ropes, and growing your skills. In a nutshell, the best managers have your back. The opposite is when a manager is waiting for you to step out of line or do something wrong. Anything you share with them gets used against you. Rather than go out on a limb or go the extra mile, you spend more energy defending or protecting yourself.
- Focus on strengths. The best managers have you spend more time in your strengths. They find the work that challenges you and grows your strengths. The opposite is a manager that has you spend more time in your weaknesses or doing things outside your passions or strengths. The secret that great managers know is that when people do what they love and they do what they’re great at, they do great work. And it’s doing more great work that creates an arena of high-performance teams.
- Lead with principles. Rather than have a bunch of rules, great managers have a set of principles that establish the working environment. The beauty of establishing principles is that people are empowered, but are governed with principles. The principles help find the way forward within boundaries, while embracing and enforcing the values. The opposite is chaos where there are no rules, or the other extreme where there is a rule for every little thing, and sometimes the rules aren’t shared. A principle-driven leader helps create a work context where people are empowered and share a set of operating principles to guide and shape the way forward.
- Inspire action. Great managers don’t use a bunch of carrots and sticks. They inspire action. There is a lot to say here. Sometimes this means having a compelling vision that you connect with and want to be a part of. Great managers know what fires you up and how to connect the work you do, with your unique talents and passions. The best managers help you connect the work to your values. The best managers help you internalize the rewards so that you are driving from your values and your passions and your strengths. The best managers fan your flames by helping your see meaningful progress and they make the journey as rewarding as the destination. They find a way to make the work something you would do for free. The opposite is a manager who drives from fear, uses threats, or relies on extrinsic rewards and penalties.
Now it’s your turn … In your experience, what are the best principles, patterns, and practices that great managers do?