I’m a Manager, and So Can You

Jan 24, 2019

By Karen Phelan

There is no shortage of management models and techniques. There are lots of management consultants and, with them, lots of management theories and models. I still have a handy-dandy envelope of quick reference cards that I helped develop years ago that show a variety of models:

  • Coaching for behavior change (5 steps)
  • Giving effective feedback (7 components)
  • Receiving feedback as a gift (6 steps)
  • PACR (paraphrase, ask, check, respond) listening technique
  • AIR (acknowledge, investigate, reinforce) model for dealing with resistance
  • Trust formula
  • Partners chart
  • Stages of team development
  • Plus, many more (thirty-six in total)

Here’s what I’ve discovered:
Being a good manager isn’t all that different from being a good person.

I had my greatest success as a manager before I learned any management models. The following management lessons are the ones I’ve learned over the years, through actually managing people. They also apply to other areas of my life:

  1. Show you care. I want my direct reports (and my peers and my family and my friends) to succeed. I really do. I don’t understand frenemies. When my employees succeed, I succeed. I feel great. Because I care about my team, I like to get to know them. I want to know about their home lives, their interests, and their dislikes, not so that I can manage them better, but so that I can have better relationships. I get to know people because I want to get to know people, not as a “technique.” This is what makes my life interesting—having relationships with interesting people.
  2. Communicate. No one knows what is in your head—not your spouse, not your kids, and certainly not your employees. This was an important lesson I learned with Frank, one of my direct reports. At the beginning, I would communicate clearly and specifically what I expected, and he would give me something different. Then I would review it again, and again he gave me something different. I was exasperated. However, I am an intelligent person and realize that if something isn’t working, you must try something else. Even though I thought I was being very clear and specific, obviously I wasn’t to him. That’s when I had my own “aha” moment. It was not in my power to make Frank understand me. There was no way I could get inside his mind and change it. However, it was in my power to make sure Frank understood me. I could always ask him what was in his head. I changed my approach. It is one I still use today, and it goes like this: “I just gave you a list of instructions that was probably not as clear as it could have been. What do you think you should be doing?” Aha! Now I know what’s in the other person’s head, and I can try again!
  3. Be flexible/adaptable/responsive. I’m not sure what the right label is for this rule, but this reflects my number one complaint about the universe. Basically, if something is not working, try something different. Do not keep trying the same method over and over and over and expect that one day it will magically work when it has failed every other time. If coaching doesn’t work, try coaching again but in a different way. Perhaps obtain feedback from someone else. Talk with the employee about the causes of the behavior. If that doesn’t work, try setting up an experience, like I did with Frank. But don’t try the same thing repeatedly and expect it to work!
  4. Think and plan ahead. This one isn’t so much about managing people as it is about managing work and workloads. Map out what needs to be accomplished and by when and share the information with your team. Meet with stakeholders and find out what they need you to do. Develop a final work plan with your team. This sounds very simple, but I know managers who delegate work without getting input from their team and some who keep their employees in the dark about future projects. They don’t want them to worry about what’s coming. Put all the work out there, let the whole team see what it is so they know what everyone is working on, and so people can volunteer to take on new tasks and share the workload.

This is my point: good management technique is not rocket science, people. Why are we overcomplicating this? To be a good manager, first, you have to be able to manage yourself and get things done, and second, you need to be able to have good relationships with those around you. You should also think about the future, yours and your team’s, but that’s a lower priority. Good management skills are good relationship skills. That’s it. End of story. No need to overthink this. It’s not a technique or a science at all. It is knowing how to have good relationships.

My own experience is that when you have a boss you love, you do anything for her. You do this because you know that she would do anything for you. I’ve been lucky to have that kind of relationship both upward and downward. I’ve often had to beg my team to go home and warn them that they were taking their jobs much too seriously. If I got too involved in their work, they told me nicely to back off, and if they needed help, they came into my office looking for it. This is what people do. This is how people naturally act with other people. The reason some managers don’t behave this way is because they’ve been taught by experts that management is a science or set of rules or a methodology whereby you must act unnaturally and follow guidelines instead of your own judgment.

The world does not need any more management models or methods. The ones we have work just fine, or don’t work just fine, because the models are not what have the real value. The conversations with our employees about how to work together are what have value. So does gaining the wisdom that there is more than one right way to work with people. The more time we spend figuring out how to deal with people, the less time we spend actually dealing with people. And if I’m at a loss with how to work with you, I can seek advice from all sorts of places and books and classes, but the most effective method is to seek that advice from you.

© 2013 by Karen Phelan. Adapted from I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company: When Management Consultants Are the Problem, Not the Solution, by Karen Phelan (Berrett-Koehler, 2013). Used by permission of the publisher.

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About the Author(s)

Karen Phelan is a cofounder of Operating Principals, a consulting firm that replaces bad business practices with ones that work. This article is adapted from her new book I’m Sorry I Broke Your Company: When Management Consultants Are the Problem, Not the Solution, by Karen Phelan (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).