What makes a good manager?

I am at the point in my career where I am starting to take on more managerial responsibilities. I know, there are oodles of books and websites devoted to establishing good managerial techniques, but I thought I would throw it out here anyway:

What - apart from relevant industry expertise - makes a good manager? What do they do? What traits, characteristics and behaviour are necessary to successfully lead a team?

Thanks in advance :slight_smile:

I spent quite a few years in lower level management positions. I think that not taking things personnal and remaining objective at all times are two very important qualities.

I’ve had a bunch of bosses at my current job. Either they’ve gotten promoted or they’ve retired. It’s been interesting to compare and contrast their styles.

The worse one ended up retiring prematurely after one year. Good scientist, but bad manager. He wanted to be friends with everyone–and this made it hard for him to tell folks what to do. He’d come into my office and chit-chat about his family drama, the weather, yoga, chakras, etc. But if I brought up anything work-related in these conversations, he’d put his hands over his face and say something like, “No bad news please!” So to spare him stress, I’d try to fix problems on my own and only share with him superficial stuff or the fires I’d already put out. He’d be so relieved that I had handled whatever it was, but he’d never say, “Next time, let’s talk about first.” He didn’t seem to realize that he was responsible for his staff’s decisions.

The manager I have now is the opposite. She wants to be involved with the decision-making, even if she doesn’t have the expertise to actually make a particular decision (and she’ll readily admit asmuch). Whereas before I worried about overwhelming my old boss with issues and concerns, now I feel comfortable sharing what’s going on. I like that now I can be the one who worries and frets over small stuff–I don’t have to act like everyone’s okay just to keep my boss on an even keel.

So I think if your employees feel comfortable being completely honest with you, you’re doing a good job as a manager.

I always felt that far too many decisions had to be made. 95% of what I did could have easily had simple criteria applied to it that would basicaly eliminate the need to make a decsion. So I would say establish firm criteria, it can be flexable and evolve but establish criteria for making decisions.

Remember that your success depends on the success of those who report to you. You need to make sure they have the tools they need to be successful. If they lack some expertise or ability, YOU need to help them get it. Coach them, encourage them, guide them… whatever it takes. Make sure you and your subordinate are aware of what’s needed, and that you’re both working together to make it happen.

If you’re not firing the person, you’re developing that person for success. Give and get regular feedback. Listen, listen, listen. And then listen some more!

Set clear and measurable goals. Keep your or office/cubicle open. When I was doing this, I kept a bowl of candy near the entrance of my cubicle to encourage people to pop in periodically. Yeah, it was bait, but it worked!!

Crush your employees, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.

The two pieces of management advice I’ve gotten that have worked out well for me are these:

  1. A manager’s job is to make it easier for his team members to do *their *jobs.

  2. Manage employees as if they are volunteers: give them work assignments that they are excited about, and can feel a sense of accomplishment when they are successful.

Make sure your team is happy.

One of the best things good managers have done for me is run interference. If you’ve got decent people working for you, you need to make sure they’re free to do the real work. That means keeping other layers of management off their backs, interfacing with other departments for them when they need stuff, and holding the bureaucracy at bay. You won’t be able to shelter them from everything, but keeping the most useless bits from frittering away their time will go a long way.

Oh, and keep meetings that you’re involved in small and short. Work rarely gets done in large meetings; it’s usually better to get a small working group together, get them started, then butt out unless they need a managerial decision.

I used to hold weekly staff meetings at 11 am on Monday mornings. I had a few people who loved to hear themselves speak and would drone on for hours. But when you only had one hour until lunch, nobody wanted to waste any time getting the meeting over with.

Empower people to make their own decisions whenever possible, they usually know better. When this isn’t possible, try to involve them in the decision making process.

In addition to John Mace’s excellent advice, I’d say that one of your primary roles is to insulate your team from interference by upper management, including unreasonably frequent demands for status updates, demands to go to some useless corporate training that has nothing to do with their jobs, requests to “take this person just for a few days” for some proposal effort (my own personal bugaboo), and so forth. That probably means that you’ll have to take on much of those efforts because your upper management isn’t going to give a shit about how important it is for your people to remain forcused on their tasks to meet deadline; they just want to show their bosses that they’re hitting their numbers on whatever, e.g. status is 75% (of something), providing support for pointless bizdev efforts, number of people who are Six Sigma green belts, et cetera. So, you’ll end up writing status reports for your entire team. Since nobody actually reads those fucking things in any detail, you can just put in the approrpriate front matter and Gantt charts and fill up the rest with chapters from Catch-22 quoted verbatim and see whether anyone is paying attention.

You also need to find creative ways to get your people the tools and training they need to do their jobs, and insulate them from criticism even when they make (honest) mistakes; in other words, you bear the brunt of criticism so that your team isn’t disrupted by übermanagers trying to “get to the root of the problem”, and have to take responsibly for correcting the problem (which is, after all, your job). It’s not the role of your upper management to be sympathetic with your team’s failings regardless of how reasonable it may be, which means you need to start out pushing back against unreasonable expectations at every turn and build a “management reserve” into every estimate of effort or cost to buffer against the unknowables that you are still expected to anticipate.

However, if you have someone who is genuinely underperforming and you’ve made a reasonable effort to demonstrate your expectations and give them the opportunity to improve, you need to move them off of your team, or at least into a role that not only minimizes their ability to damage work performance and morale but shows everyone else that you recognize that said employee isn’t performing. If you can, you should put such people through the formal performance improvement process and then show them the door if they don’t shape up, but my experience has been that neither management nor human resources will support you in this if there is any question whatsoever of legal action or other blowback regardless of how poorly the employee is performing. In fact, I would argue that human resources exists almost exclusively to protect the company from liability,not to support line managers or discipline underperforming employees, and they will only do so when forced by harassment or hostile work environment statements in writing or if senior management steps in and orders it to be so. Do not expect human resources to support you in any respect, and be pleasantly surprised when they do.

And it should go without saying, but do not enter into any kind of intimate relationship with any employees under your supervision, and in general, with the employees they interact with on a regular basis. This can go sideways in so many different ways that if you find yourself in this position you should just find a new job or otherwise remove yourself from the situation. And even in just casual social relationships, you should strive to be friendly but not friends, which can be awkward when you’ve been promoted from within and are already friends with some of the workers you are now supervising; in that case, you need to make it clear to all, but especially the friends, that they will not receive preferential treatment and that your expectations for performance are in accordance with role and experience regardless of outside social relationships.


That’s probably too much to ask for, especially if they are tasked with working on a thankless or ultimately unfeasible project. However, you should definitely make sure they feel that their genuine effort is being valued, even if the work itself is not valuable. This isn’t just handing out complements; it is also providing constructive criticism in a firm but benevolent fashion. If often helps to provide examples of your own early failings so that they understand that when you are critiquing them, it isn’t coming from some position of innate superiority but rather the experience of being in a similar position and wanting them to avoid making the mistakes that you made.

I would have meetings in the late afternoon for the same reasons. However, there is always some buffoon who wants to ballyhoo about whatever and doesn’t care that other people have real work or outside lives. When I was a manager I tried to institute the policy that said that the person who called the meeting had to chair it (or assign a chair), come with an agenda and expected products, and keep the meeting on topic. I also tried to encourage people to limit meetings to 30 minutes unless there was some special reason that required extensive discussion, especially in response to a program engineer who insisted on having twice weekly “status meetings” that typically went well beyond their allotted two hours for no reason or value whatsoever other than that the project engineer was an avowed enthusiast of meetings.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, and no moreso than in hiring or bringing in new team members. There is nothing worse than being stuck mentoring some turd that you had no input in hiring and can see right away was not a good fit for the job. What is especially aggravating as a manager is to have people assigned to you (or in some cases, hired for your team) without any input from you or an opportunity to see how they work with your team. My experience with upper management is that it is often populated by people who don’t remember or never worked as line managers, have no idea how to vet candidates for a role, and view employees as fungible assets to be shuffled around regardless of actual competence or personality as long as they meet the ostensible skill and experience requirements.


Create a “core team” of about 20% of your reports, meet with them regularly, and only talk to these people about anything that’s actually important.

Have weekly group meetings where you go around the table and bully each employee about their weeks efforts.

Find an “Alpha Geek” and ask him to comment after your junior employees in this weekly meeting.

Ask for weekly time sheets by 8:30 AM Friday morning.

Remind them of professional dress code every month or so.

Make sure you have a better computer and bigger monitor than any of your reports.

Review your company’s policy on keeping personal appliances in their cube.

That should whip them into shape…

Five things:
Put right people in right job - and this changes over time and includes growing a person to move from the job they are in to the job they want.
Communicate the goals - everyone should know what they, the group and ideally the company are striving for
Tools to do the job - training, resources count too
A way to check progress on those goals - to the extent it is automated/visible to them without you having to pass it out even better, but there are still softer things you’ll always want to communicate.
Opportunity to fail - here’s the tricky one. If they have all that, then get out of their way. And if they make an honest mistake, protect them. If they have all that and continually fail then see #1.

Firing someone can be one of the most difficult things to do, especially if you are in a large, publicly owned corporation. I only had to do it once, and it was a nightmare. Months and months and months of documentation and meeting after meeting with My boss and HR. So much work, but it had to be done. I inherited this person who had been passed form manager to manager by people who were too timid to fire him. I decided to end the merry go round.

Now, for everyone else, keep in mind that if they fail, the first thing to ask yourself is what did YOU do to allow the failure to happen. Figure out what you need to differently next time.

I am a group leader where I work. Four full-time and five part-time employees report to me. (The latter are all retirees, and are “double-dipping” by coming back part-time.)

With the exception of one who was a technician already working in the lab when I joined, I personally hired each employee over the past nine years. And in each case, I had absolutely no fucking say and no fucking choice on whom to hire. I was told to hire “Bill,” despite the fact Bill is completely incompetent. I was told to hire “Steve,” despite the fact Steve is a narcissist and has perfected the technique of taking credit for other people’s work. I was told to hire “John,” despite the fact John socializes all day and produces absolutely nothing. I think you get the picture.

Of the nine people who report to me, only one is competent - the technician already working in the lab when I joined.

It is very very aggravating being the group leader for a bunch of people you would never have hired, given the choice. If it were up to me, I would fire eight of the nine people “working” for me, and look for three or four competent replacements.

As for “managing” them, there’s not much I can do. If John decides to do zero work for a month, and I make a fuss about it, my management and my customer will get mad at me. “Oh, but we love John! He’s such a nice guy. And a great golfer.” :mad:

I hear you guys loud and clear. This is one of several reasons I am no longer a manager, nor have any interest in going back into that role, even though I’ve been offered and encouraged to do so on multiple occasions. Truth be told, I never wanted to be a manager but took the role because it seemed like a better option than dealing with the vacuum not taking the job would have left (and because I would not have continued working for the manager that I would have been reporting to). I put an enormous amount of effort into trying to be what I thought was a good manager even though I didn’t personally think I was all that temperamentally suited to the position. Most of my employees seemed to think I was doing a good job, and my customers were happy that they were getting prompt responses to questions and work was getting done, but the management above me was not in any way supportive when I had requests for training or tools, actively blocked me from taking effective disciplinary action until the employee in question outright threatened someone, and the general feedback was that I was taking my employees’ side too much (i.e. defending and insulating them from ridiculous requests and demands) rather than just repeating verbatim the corporate buzzspeak demands that was ejaculated into my ears on a daily basis. The guy I recommended to take my place lasted even less time than I did.

Anyway, most of the “books and websites devoted to establishing good managerial techniques” are largely crap. If you want to lead a team, you have to be a leader, which means making decisions, giving clear direction and expectations, providing honest critical feedback without being an authoritative dick about it, and shielding your team against extraneous demands, all of which is a mostly thankless job. The best book I’ve read on the topic of actual leadership is probably MSG Paul Howe’s Leadership and Training for the Fight, because it comes from the standpoint of someone for whom leadership isn’t about climbing the corporate ladder but rather surviving actual combat and building a well-coordinated team that will look out for the author and each other. It’s a very simple, relatively short book peppered with anecdotes that you can skip unless you like reading war stories, focused on the basic elements of leadership, e.g. communication, making decisions, assessing strengths and putting people in the appropriate roles, and protecting your team.


There are many different styles of good management but I work closely with one that is embodiment of one effective style now. He is an Operations manager at a mega-corp that is so large that he has over 700 direct and indirect reports. That would be at least a VP at most companies but he doesn’t even concern himself with rank at all and he is so well respected that even true executives know that they better listen to him and not try to pull any rank because he is the authority over his domain.

He knows every single one of his reports personally if they have been on the job for any time at all and usually their family history as well because he makes it a point to ask casually over time and he remembers it. I am not officially one of his reports because I am a Senior Consultant but the reality is that anyone that works in one of his facilities works for him no matter how they got there.

His office is two doors down from mine and he is always happy to walk in unannounced any time he wants to know what is going on the systems side. He is not a techie person at all but still knows and understands a surprising amount about it without me even having to dumb it down that much. The same thing applies to every other position from scientists in the labs to electricians to truck drivers.

However, he is not a dictator. He knows exactly which subject matter experts to go to for any particular problem or question, he randomly rewards people even at the lowest levels for good any good performance with things like sports or concert tickets and he keeps an open door and ear for problems. For the latter, if anyone brings up a reasonable complaint, he may just ask ‘Who do you want me to yell at?’ and he means it. He won’t truly yell at people under him but he will lay into someone above him when it is justified and they always listen.

That combination is a very rare set of skills that most people cannot match but good managers at any level should be able to implement parts of his mastery of the art.

Warehouse situation. Ours seem good at getting our best work out of us without us really sensing/realizing that that is what they are doing. They have this bizarre talent for making working hard a lot of fun.