A computer and post-it notes on a desk

How to: Be a Better Manager

When I first became a manager, I spent all my time feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing, wasn’t qualified to make high-level decisions, and basically shouldn’t “order around” the people who only a month or two ago had been peers. When seeking reassurance from my own superiors and mentors, the general feedback I got was, essentially, “fake it till you make it”. Which may work for some people, but for a perfectionist-at-work personality like mine, just didn’t click. I wanted concrete, simple ways to be a better manager for my team, and I didn’t want to jump through hoops or pay thousands of dollars to build the foundation I needed to start my journey as a leader and manager.

So here are 5 things I learned, tested and failed at over the first ~12 months after I became a manager, for those people out there who are scouring the internet for a simple, clear plan to being a better (or even great) leader for their team.

#1 – Become a better listener.  

Before I became a manager, I found the most success at work by speaking up and having an opinion about the way things worked. That didn’t go away once I started managing a team, but I quickly realized that, especially in a 1:1 environment, my job was to stop talking almost completely and just listen. I made mental notes about people’s personal lives, the projects they really enjoyed at work, where they thrived and struggled, and even memorized their coffee orders so I could have it ready for them when they met me at a coffee shop. 

#2 – Expect mistakes to happen. 

And be ok with them when they do. Don’t go into crisis mode when mistakes are made. Instead, figure out a solution and what the team can learn from the mistake to move forward. Offer to be the point of contact or be in the room when the mistake is reported or discussed, to mediate and be a strong advocate for your team. Teams that are terrified of making mistakes can NOT do their best work. Fear kills creativity and really, almost no mistake is catastrophic. 

#3 – Find out about what your team loves doing, both at work and outside of it. 

When opportunities arise for you to put them on projects that play to these strengths, make it happen. Then celebrate when they succeed.

#4 – Be as transparent as you can possibly be. 

What does it take for them to move up to the next position? Is there feedback from other team members and departments? Share this with them continuously. Their annual review feedback should not be a surprise to you, or them.

Create a career-tracking spreadsheet for you both, to discuss the places they are strong, and the areas where they need more experience or extra work. This is a great way to keep track of what they’re working on in their role, and is a concrete view of the progress they make toward attaining new responsibility or a promotion.

Are there leadership discussions of a re-org happening? New staff? Raises or, even more importantly, raise freezes? Let your team know what you know, even if you don’t have all the answers. Trust them to handle the hard stuff, and bring them along for the ride when a windfall is coming. 

#5 – Take time off. 

I think I should say it again: TAKE TIME OFF. Your team is looking to you to set the tone for what’s ok. No one can do their best work when they are burnt out. Make time to recharge, and encourage them to do the same, as much as possible. 

Schedule time during your workday to do something you love, and help your colleagues find pockets of “free” time in their days, too. Spending 15 minutes (or 30 or…gasp…60) giving your brain and stress levels a chance to reset is worth more than any hour spent grinding at a computer screen. Take more vacation than you think you should and book them “forced” time off when you notice them working late for more than a few weeks at a time.

Of course, this isn’t everything I learned, and it didn’t all work right away. Not to mention that these tactics may not work in your industry or workplace. But I think what I ultimately saw, outside of the specifics, was that people want to be trusted, rewarded and supported as much as possible at work and in life. Sure, sometimes people struggle, don’t get along, or have trouble grasping something that’s crucial to their success at work. That’s ok: it’s an opportunity to work together to come to a solution – even if sometimes, the solution is that you coach them out of their role or even out of the company. Even though that can be a difficult process, in my experience there was still a whole lot I could do to usher people forward, helping them land somewhere that they were ultimately much happier and more fulfilled. 

Being a manager is a difficult job, but if you love working with people, like I do, and love helping them to succeed, listen to your gut (and maybe a few leadership podcasts) and you’ll be on your way to being a better manager. And hey, maybe some of these tips will even help you in your life outside of work, too.