Be a Good (People) Manager

A while ago, I asked a few of my ex-colleagues, teammates, and employees one question: "What makes me a good people manager?"

Yep, I said it. People like me as a manager. Not a leading question at all.

The goal isn't to boast, though. It's to understand what makes a good manager using a sample size of one: myself.

I'll keep this first-person. If this comes off as cocky, I'll take it.

Let's get boastin'!

I pull my own weight

There's nothing worse than managers who just boss others around.

"You work together with the team." This was one of the first and most common answers to my completely non-leading question that I got. People like managers who are in the trenches with them. Who'da thunk?

Being a manager isn't just about delegating, it's also about doing. This doesn't necessarily mean doing whatever everyone else is doing (you're a manager for a reason), but it means pulling your own weight, working hard, and being ready to get your hands dirty.

This comes naturally to me thanks to my entrepreneurship experience. As a solopreneur, you're used to doing everything that needs to be done yourself. If anything, learning to delegate was a bigger problem for me in my early years. So, I just took that experience with me when transitioning to a product management role. Besides, doing is fun.

If you want your team to appreciate you, don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves.

I trust, not micromanage

There's nothing worse than micromanagers.

Micromanagement sucks. It wastes time and kills morale. Learned this lesson the hard way during my entrepreneurial times.

When I first transitioned from being a developer to being a startup founder, I knew nothing about management. I was used to doing everything my way, and hiring my first employees didn't change that.

That meant making sure every single line of code is written the way I think it should be written. Making sure the design looks exactly the way I think it should look, down to the last pixel. Et cetera.

Incredibly annoying. It drove the whole team insane, including myself, because I had little time left for meaningful work.

It took me a few years to completely let go of the notion that I have to be involved in every single activity within my company. It made everyone so much happier and more productive back then, and it came in handy to me as a product manager.

Jim Collins popularized the idea of getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. It's a great concept that lacks one final ingredient: let them do their job.

It doesn't matter if you hire the most talented people and place them in the most suitable roles if you're the one controlling their every move. You'll micromanage them into mediocrity.

Hire great people, and trust them to be great.

I'm friendly, not bossy

There's nothing worse than managers who are stern, dry, and bureaucratic.

I don't differentiate between work relationships and personal relationships, between friends and work friends. It might sound cheesy, but that's the way it is.

My friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and everyone else I know are all part of the same social circle. They might be located on different levels, sure. But there's only one circle. Picture Rutherford's atomic model or our Solar System. You get the idea.

This doesn't mean dirty jokes, gossip, and getting blackout drunk on Fridays together with the developers. (Psh, I don't even do that with my regular friends. I'll take my productivity, thank you.) It just means caring about those I work with and treating them as humans, not resources. And they value it.

I want to make sure my teammates (hate the word reports) are comfortable working with me, and I want them to be able to talk to me like a friend. A human environment means a psychologically safe environment.

To those of you worried about productivity: studies show that psychological safety correlates with productivity and performance. Humans perform better when you treat them as humans.

This is why I try to keep my meetings informal where possible, especially the 1:1's, the daily standups, and the weekly syncs. It's not just about tasks, roadmaps, velocity. It's also about life, family, dogs, memes. I want people to look forward to our meetings, not dread them. It takes the edge off, makes everyone at ease, motivated, and willing to do a better job.

I stay in touch with many of my past colleagues, teammates, and employees to this day. We still discuss life, and if there's one thing that proves I'm right it's hearing stories about management that just doesn't care.

Some may prefer a more formal attitude from their managers, but to my knowledge, no one likes to be treated as a resource.

Keep in mind that being friendly doesn't mean being a pushover and allowing to walk over you. Speak softly and carry a big stick if you're concerned about that.

I don't rule by decree, I listen and explain

There's nothing worse than managers who demand without listening.

I don't like to give marching orders. Instead, I prefer to ask, listen, explain, and discuss. (On a related note, I don't like to blindly follow orders either. I wouldn't do well in the military.)

A few problems with ruling by decree:

  • Not listening to others makes you more prone to egocentric and confirmation biases, which leads to you being wrong.
  • When you're wrong and there's no one to tell you that you're wrong, you have few opportunities to course-correct.
  • You also can't bully people into being productive, being creative, and performing better.

We've seen how this plays out in history, and I've seen how this plays out in business first-hand. Not only was I a micromanager early in my journey, but I was also opposed to discussions within my team. When I said that something is to be done a certain way, I meant it. That's how Steve Jobs built Apple, right? Turns out I'm not Steve Jobs, and a good part of my decree decisions were garbage. Time wasted, morale destroyed.

You don't get people excited about the job at hand by telling them to "just do it asap because it needs to be done". That's how you make them hate you even if you end up being right. (Product) management, just like leadership, is about communication, negotiation, and influence, not bullying.

Explain your reasons. Be willing to listen and discuss. Be open to having your mind changed. That's how you grow, and that's how you grow your team.

I help, not hinder

There's nothing worse than managers who actively make others' lives worse.

My goal as a product manager is to provide value to users, and my goal as a manager is to make sure the way we do things makes sense.

This means:

  • Creating processes that make people's lives easier.
  • Improving the ones that can be better.
  • Getting rid of garbage.

If something is done the way it's done only because it's always been done this way, let's review to make sure there's a good reason for this. If a process has been introduced five managers ago, there's a good chance it's a zombie process. Zombie processes waste time and motivation. If you come across a zombie process, kill it.

Killing zombies is a huge morale and productivity boost.

But I don't just go in and break things built by others to create something new and take credit for it. Apparently, that's what managers do. I admit I got an ego, but I don't care about credit, I care about efficiency. I also don't create processes for the sake of creating processes. I don't schedule meetings because it's expected.

If something works, embrace it! If something doesn't work, fix it! Make people's lives easier.

I speak the language of the people

There's nothing worse than managers who are clueless about what they do.

As a manager, I deal with diverse problems. And I like to know what I'm talking about.

Coming from a technical background, I don't have a problem discussing technical details with engineers. And I've worked closely with designers, marketers, and support people as a founder. But I like to take this approach no matter what I do.

Whether it's addressing supply chain issues with manufacturing, identifying product risks with compliance, or putting together a policy document with legal, you want to understand what you're dealing with.

It's also a good way to approach life in general.

I'm protective of my team

There's nothing worse than managers who blame and pull down.

You can take credit for your team's work when it's a success, and lay blame on them when it's a failure. But why?

It's easy to distribute blame and criticism when something isn't working out and your team falls from grace. Instead, I follow the "success is yours, failure is mine" principle, and try to be protective of my developers, designers, and whoever else I'm in charge of.

And vice versa, if someone from my team does a great job, I make sure to credit them for it.

That's how you earn your team's trust, and you're a much more effective manager when you have your team's trust.

Well, this turned out to be just a little more boastful than I expected.

There are other factors that make good managers, but these are mine.

What are yours?