Five Habits of Effective Managers

What can an employee who isn’t in a leadership position tell you about what makes for an effective manager?

Surprisingly or not, more than you might think.

There are a great many books out there that are catered to the latest managerial theories, to motivating employees and to dealing with challenges presented by your subordinates, your co-workers and your bosses. And yes, business schools make millions of dollars a year churning out people with newly minted degrees that teach them many of the newest and oldest theories in the books.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to disparage a business degree. They can help immensely. However, lessons of management can also be learned on the job, and by observing others. When I was the managing editor of a weekly newspaper in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I had precious little managerial experience. However, what I did have was listening to stories from my father and my stepfather about how they approached situations. I also had years of observing different managers and their styles. I also had a colleague who was a mentor to me in some ways, but many times, he simply provided validation for my thoughts and actions, telling me that what I was doing was smart.

Now, I work at an inbound call center for a manager whom I consider the best manager I’ve ever had. Some of the lessons I’ve gleaned from observing him and from recalling my own tenure as a manager are included below:

1. If you care about the people who report to you, it will show.
I had a few occasions when a student writer whom I’d assigned a story couldn’t do the story, but notified me right away when he or she found out the story couldn’t happen. Those stories the students wrote were to get credit for publishing stories for a class, and the stories weren’t front page headline news. In one case, a student writer had a medical condition that flared up. In another case, it was a problem at his apartment. I made it clear that health or a leaking ceiling were more important than their story and told them to take care of what they needed to take care of. They ended up being reliable writers.

Marshall Goldsmith, who was ranked as one of his field’s 15 most influential business thinkers in November 2009, wrote in a March 25, 2008 article for Bloomberg Businessweek that managers should show appreciation for their employees, particularly the ones who could very easily get a raise if they were to leave your company.

2. The way you say something makes a huge difference.
I’ve worked for managers who have brusque ways of dealing with people, or who habitually put people down. The way my current manager works is what I try to do: Say something positive to start with, then outline areas of concern in such a way that you’re providing someone the tools to improve their work, for now and for the future. Explaining what someone’s doing wrong and why it’s wrong can go a long way toward fixing the problem with many employees.

3. Set expectations, and ensure that people who meet them are rewarded and those who don’t are corrected.
My manager sends constant reminders of what our expectations are for something we call compliance. He makes it clear repeatedly that we are expected to meet a certain threshold, and will send e-mails to us if we’re falling short of the threshold. He also singles out employees for praise who exceed the expectations. When he evaluated one of my calls and I’d earned a perfect score of 100, he gave me a fist bump and then announced my score to the entire team. One of the veterans on the team then consciously went the extra mile on a subsequent call I overheard in an effort to earn the same score.

When people who reported to me didn’t meet expectations, I sent an e-mail outlining what my expectations were and how to meet them. In one case, I sent a strongly-worded e-mail to someone who didn’t comply. When she still didn’t comply, I sent her an e-mail with a carbon copy to my boss, which was essentially the same as entering a written reprimand into her personnel file. When I approached my mentor colleague, that was the exact tactic I had in mind and felt validated when he said that was the best course of action.

4. If you want your employees to work hard, set the right tone.
Managers can fall into the trap of expecting much from their employees, but then not delivering the goods in return. The manager who tells others what to do and literally does nothing to help out is someone who can cause morale at her workplace to plummet. On the other hand, a manager who works hard for her employees often gets the same back from them.

Ever see a grocery store manager who starts working the cash register when there are long lines? Ever work for a manager at an inbound call center who starts answering phones when call volume is high? Those are a couple of signs that your manager is a good one. During my tenure at the newspaper, I frequently put in long hours, to the point when one of my employees told me “don’t stay too late” when she was leaving for the evening.

5. Don’t try to be something you’re not.
“This above all: To thine own self be true.” Hamlet, Act I, Scene III.
It’s not very often that someone writing about business will include a quote from Shakespeare, but so many of his texts carry wisdom that we — sometimes unknowingly — apply to other facets of our lives. If you work with smart employees and you try to do something that’s beyond your abilities, or you try to be something you’re not, they will pick up on it and you will find it much harder to earn the respect you should have as a manager. Following the quote, spoken by Lord Polonius, he added, “And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

In short, be yourself, show interest in those who work for you, and be ready to work as hard as you expect your employees to, and you’ll go a long way toward getting the results you want from your employees.