Underfunded Managers

Features - Professional Development

Managers often draw the short straw in terms of training opportunities. Here are one dozen ways to invest in yourself.

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May 1, 2019

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We all know managers do crucial work. They shape culture, improve employee performance, drive creativity and innovation. And yet, fewer training dollars are typically earmarked for managers than for people at other levels. You're right: This makes little sense. But don't despair. There's a lot you, the individual manager, can do to improve your impact on those you lead and on the company as a whole. While you may not get to choose the training your company invests in, you can choose your attitude and your intention. In this way, you invest in yourself. The cornerstones of becoming a self-determined manager – one who constantly and intentionally creates environments of over-achievement, where people thrive and produce great work.

Bad managers are so focused on their own needs, or their own fears, or their own performance that they lose sight of the negative, unproductive, demotivating, or destructive environment they are creating. It's like they think it happens accidentally. On the other hand, the best managers intentionally choose the environment they hope to create."

Making this deliberate and intentional choice is the most powerful thing you can do to become an exceptional manager. Everything else will flow from this decision, and, without question, you'll be a better manager regardless of any skills training your company may offer. That said, here are a few pieces of advice.

Get hyper-focused on amplification

By virtue of being a manager, your words and actions are amplified. You cannot stop this, because it is inherent in the way organizations are shaped. Every pronouncement you make may be repeated many times by your direct reports, every action you take may be emulated many times, and every expectation you set will be reflected in the work of your team. Amplification can be good or bad, so make sure you remain aware of how anything you are "putting out there" is being received and interpreted.

Set your own standards

Self-determined managers never look outside themselves for the standards of their work. So, set your own very high standards and strive to live up to them. You are the one who defines professionalism and sets benchmarks – and when you do this, you will be recognized as a role model for others. Remember, however, that recognition is a by-product, not a goal. Your intention should be to do a great job because that is the point.

If you need training, ask for it

There are certain things managers need to do: give feedback, coach employees, hold tough conversations, communicate clearly, manage time and tasks, and so forth. If you're lacking in a critical area, then ask for training. If your company can't or won't provide it, you must seek it out yourself. Be proactive about developing the skills that will help you create the best environment possible for your team.

Treating employees like adults

Adults do their best work when they are treated as adults. Great managers don't bully, shout, patronize, belittle, name-call, or condescend. To generate trust and respect, you must create an environment where adults can do great things.

Stop playing favorites

Some managers give certain people time and attention, but offer little contact or guidance to others, based on personal preferences rather than business or project reasons. Those in favor can do no wrong regardless of how much – or little – they do or the quality of their work. Those out of favor learn to moderate their efforts and simply do enough to stay out of trouble. The result? People direct their efforts toward staying in favor; there is no focus on performing well. Resist any urge to have favorites among your team.

Be more restless

Each week ask yourself and your team: What can we do better? The best managers have impatience (if something is worth doing, why wait?), an instinct for continuous improvement (good enough is never good enough), and a lingering sense of constructive dissatisfaction (how can we do this better next time?). They set themselves and others very high standards of performance and conduct.

This demanding impatience for greater impact and higher standards can make self-determined managers very difficult to work for, just be sure to balance the high expectations with encouragement and a positive approach.

Have a plan

The best managers have a good sense of where they believe each of their people should be headed. For each employee, look forward and ponder three thoughts:

  1. Where might they be in a few years: a bigger job, a different role, or a larger team?
  2. Do you have a clear view of what your employees need to learn now and what they need to learn next that will support their future growth?
  3. Do you have a sense of responsibility and accountability for helping your team make that progress?

With great managers, the plan is mainly in their heads, and they can tell you instantly what it is. Not in the language of career frameworks and competency models, but in words that show what they appreciate and worry about for each of their people.

Manage your own energy

Self-determined managers know that maintaining their energy and enthusiasm is their own responsibility. Pay attention to your energy levels and develop habits that help you sustain them. Focus on fitness, nutrition, and stress management and be alert to signs of burnout, to taking on too much (or too little), and to giving yourself breaks.

Remember, one of the most powerful outcomes of maintaining your energy is how it enables you to be positive. If you feel good, you will show it and transmit it.

Learn something new

Take a class, master a new skill, even take up a new hobby outside work. The best managers are interested, curious, open, and alert. They are forever seeking knowledge. This extends far beyond their professional work and reflects their interests, passions, pastimes, and preoccupations.

First, thinking 'widely' opens possibilities by helping you foster connections, recognize new opportunities, and find better ways to do things.

Secondly, knowledge and curiosity make you adaptable; a key part of career success is about applying what you have learned in new situations.

Like the people you work with, even the unlikable ones

If you deal with someone who is unlikable, find something to appreciate about them. First, it changes the nature of all interactions and maximizes the chance that you'll be successful. You get a less cooperative, less inventive, and less engaged relationship with someone you do not like. Secondly, it furthers the chance that your team members will overlook your unlikable qualities and focus on your best traits as well. Finally, everyone responds well to being treated well.

Articulate the sense of purpose

Without this sense of purpose, it's hard for people to make a greater effort, direct their energies, and self-correct. Further, they will struggle to relate their actions to their employer's performance, substituting instead other purposes, such as pleasing their boss or doing only work that interests them.

Don't expect perfection, but keep working toward it

It's virtually impossible to be self-determined 24/7, especially when you lose your focus when other things get in the way. Maybe your boss makes an unreasonable request or creates a fire storm you must pay attention to, or you have a problem in your personal life. These things happen to everyone. During these times, it's important to stay determined, catch people doing things right, articulate, and find meaning and purpose to pass on to your people.

Until you believe you are worth investing in, you can't be a self-determined manager. Decide now that you not only deserve to become the best manager you can possibly be, but you are capable of reaching this achievement on your own. Once you do this, you'll be unstoppable.

David Deacon has been a human-resources professional for over 30 years and passionate about how managers manage for almost as long.