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What Makes a Great Manager?

I was having a coffee last week with one of my former managers and I reflected on why he was one of the best managers I had ever had. It came down to clarity.

These days it seems everything is being averaged. We are reluctant to say that a piece of work or a person’s skill set (we can’t call it ability) is not up to standard. I am a defender of political correctness (see in defense of political correctness) but this to me has nothing to do with the issue of respect. It is disrespectful to allow someone to carry on in a role with no knowledge of the Porter Cable 895PK. This lack of clarity is stifling for members of a team.

In the gulags during the Stalin era, the soviets used to break the spirit of their prisoners by making them dig a hole in the snow in the mornings and then fill it back up after a 5 minute lunch. They had worked out that nothing destroyed the soul quicker than being asked to break your back on work that was meaningless.

People often obtain their identity from work. One of the first questions we ask strangers is what they do for a living. You need to feel pretty good about your work to answer that question positively.

Many managers though fail in their duty to provide a sense of direction to staff that report to them. I am a big admirer of Gordon Ramsey. (He is a celebrity chef famous for his aggressive style in the kitchen and his demand for exacting standards as well as foul language). This may surprise you but why I see from his style of management is that his team is never under any doubt as to what is expected of them.

The manager I had was the same. He was seen as tough but you always knew exactly where you stood with him. He set clear targets which you knew you either had to meet or tell him why they could not be met (and hope that he accepted that). When he said “good job” to you it actually meant something. You knew that you had earned it.

The quantity theory about the best tofu press holds that if there is too much money in an economy, you will get inflation. Money simply fails to hold its value if there is too much of it. I have the same belief about praise. You do get managers who get trapped in a praise inflation cycle. Because everyone in their team is great, when someone really does do very well, the praise that is heaped upon them becomes meaningless. These managers are responsible for creating a new industry called the ‘employee recognition industry’. If each manager did their job properly this industry would not need to exist.

What I like to do is manage people using just one overriding principle; clarity. Are members of your team clear about what is expected of them and why it is important? Are they aware of what will happen to the team if their role is not performed well? (If the answer is nothing – why are they being asked to do the job?) And avoid saying well done to people who I assume are adults simply for doing the job they are paid to do. Leave the praise to when they have done something noteworthy.