As a positive counterpoint to my list of why managers become assholes, and as a counterbalance to my tendency to write cynically, here’s a list of why people become great at managing others, trying as much as possible not to just do the stupid thing and invert my other list.
- Enjoy helping people grow. Few things feel better than helping someone who is new to a role, or who has been struggling, into becoming a productive, confident person. There’s a kind of satisfaction in helping someone figure out how to be successful that doesn’t come from many other living experiences. Great mangers love seeing this happen on their teams.
- Love creating positive environments. A great manager creates a team and and office environment that makes it easy for smart people to do good things. They love that moment when they wander the halls and see all sorts of amazing things happening all on their own, with passionate, motivated people doing good work without much involvement from the manager.
- Want to correct mistakes inflicted on them. Some great managers are looking to undo the evil managers they had. Rather than take it out on their subordinates, they want to do a kind of pay it forward revenge: prove to themselves and the world that it can be better that what happened to them in the past. This can create the trap of fighting the last war: your team may not care at all about avoiding the mistakes of your previous manager. They want to avoid the mistakes you, and your blind spots, are probably making right now.
- Care deeply about the success and well being of their team. Thoroughbred horses get well cared for. Their owners see them as an expensive asset and do whatever they can to optimize their health, performance, and longevity, even if their motivations are largely selfish. A great manager cares deeply about their staff, and goes out of his way to protect, train, care for, and reward their own team, even if their primary motivation is their own success.
- Succession mentality. A successful manager eventually realizes their own leadership will end one day, but if they teach and instill the right things into people who work for them, that philosophy can live on for a long time, long after the manager is gone. This can go horribly wrong (See, history of monarchies) but the desire to have a lasting impact generally helps people think on longer term cycles and pay attention to wider trends short term managers do not notice.
- Long term sense of reward. Many of the mistakes managers make involve reaping short term rewards at the expense of long term loyalty and morale. Any leader who inverts this philosophy, and makes short term sacrifices to provide long term gains, will generally be a much better manager. They recognize the value of taking the time to explain things, to build trust, to provide training, and to build relationships, all of which results in a kind of team performance and loyalty the short term manager never believes is possible.
- Practice of the golden rule. It’s funny how well known this little gem is, and how rarely in life people follow it. But I think anyone in power who believes in it, and treats all of their employees the same way they truly would want to be treated, or even better, treats employees as they actually want to be treated, will always be a decent, above average manager. A deeply moral person can’t help but do better than most people, as treating people with respect, honesty and trust are the 3 things I suspect most people wish they could get from their bosses.
- Self aware, including weaknesses. This is the kicker. Great leaders know what they suck at, and either work on those skills or hire people they know make up for their own weaknesses, and empower them to do so. This tiny little bit of self-awareness makes them open to feedback and criticism to new areas they need to work on, and creates an example for movement in how people should be growing and learning about new things.
- Sets tone of healthy debate and criticism. If the boss gives and takes feedback well, everyone else will too. If the boss is defensive, passive-aggressive, plays favorites, or does other things that work against the best idea winning, everyone else will play these destructive games. Only a boss who sees their own behavior as a model the rest of the organization will tend to follow can ever become a truly great manager. Without this, they will always wonder why the team behaves in certain unproductive ways that are strangely familiar.
- Willing to fight, but picks their battles. Great managers are not cowards. They are willing to stake their reputation and make big bets now and then (I’d say at least once a year, as a totally random, put possibly useful stake in the ground). However they are not crazy either. They are good at doing political math and seeing which battle is worth the fight at a given time. A manager that never fights can never be great – they will never have enough skin in the game to earn the deepest level of respect of the people that work for them. But a manager that always fights is much worse. They continually put their own ego ahead of what their team is capable of.
- (Bonus!) Instinctively corrects bad behavior within their team. True story: on a new team I once saw a mid level manager make a personal attack of a junior employee in front of the VP. I looked at the VP, expecting him to jump in. He did nothing. Not a thing. Message to team? It’s ok to pick on people if you outrank them. Micromanaging is never good, but correcting destructive behavior, is always appropriate even if you have to jump levels to do it (Sure, perhaps there was an offline conversation. But something like this was so egregious it should have been corrected on the spot). Nothing builds morale and respect faster than a manager who jumps in to the fray to defend someone who is being picked on by a bully, except perhaps a manager who gets rid of the bully altogether.
Also see: Advice for new managers (A popular essay)
What did I miss? Think of the last great manager you had and what traits you’d add to the above.