Let’s face it: managing people is a complex task, especially in a high-stakes environment. Whether your organization is small, mid-sized or large, politics, varying social skills, nuanced personalities, and individual learning styles all play pivotal roles in the equation. You’re placed center stage in a whirlwind evaluating your leadership style and your ability to foster development in others. Not to mention that you still have work product to produce, clients to satisfy and senior leadership to impress. In agencies, it’s been my experience that the more senior you move in the organization, one of the performance metrics you inherit is the responsibility to manage talent; however, unlike tasks associated with client work, there’s no clear one-size-fits-all model for teaching you how to be a good manager. So, how do you manage effectively and share constructive feedback to guide direct reports to operating as a strong link on a strong team?
Interestingly, a former colleague called me recently with this very challenge. She inherited a new member to her team that’s had a long tenure in her organization but has worked primarily in a different role. She’s challenged by how to develop this person and move past the day-to-day hand-holding currently in play. She shared anxiety around delivering constructive criticism to correct consistently inefficient/ineffective work style and being labeled as a “mean manager” because there’s currently more behavior to correct than encourage. In her mind, she’s been given an impossible task, and fears disrupting her own internal reputation if she can’t figure this out.
To help, I shared the following thoughts for consideration:
- Deliver clear performance expectations – Part of the reason direct reports “fail” to meet performance metrics is that managers don’t take the time to articulate expectations. We assume our teammates know these things intrinsically and unfairly follow that lack of communications with “gotchas” at review time. It’s important that you meet to define expectations for the role, projects and tasks, and your preferences for engagement. When are updates expected, how frequently and when to raise red flags, are all critical pieces of information that empower your teammates to do their jobs well.
- Share clear metrics for evaluating performance – Along with sharing performance expectations, your direct report needs to understand how you’re evaluating if they’ve met the mark or missed it altogether. It’s a LOT harder to hit a target wearing a blindfold than when it’s positioned squarely in your sites.
- Establish a cadence for regular 1:1 meetings – Connecting weekly or bi-weekly with your direct report allows a few critical things to happen: 1) You’re afforded the opportunity to share real-time counseling and encouragement on any growth opportunities (NOTE: Pay close attention to my phrasing there. That’s not by accident. Performance “gaps” are in fact growth opportunities that aid learning and development. Those “gaps” are NOT to be used as a weapon to deflate confidence thereby creating further ineffectiveness), 2) You’re empowered to develop a deeper relationship which opens the door to true mentoring and professional development and 3) You initiate a critical two-way dialogue which in turn helps YOU mature as a manager.
- Deliver fair performance reviews – A fundamental pet peeve: managers who deliver new, disparaging performance feedback at review time. Friends, it’s called a performance REVIEW. If you’ve taken the time to facilitate regular check-ins and discussions with your direct report throughout the year, the REVIEW should simply highlight previously merchandised accomplishments, encourage a continued focus on previously addressed growth opportunities AND share exciting challenges to reach for in the months to come. The experience should be positive and stress-free for you both.
- Encourage along the way – No one wants to exist in a relationship where feedback is largely critical. While I don’t think you have to deliver a “gold star” for every single performance metric met, a quick pat on the back, an “attagirl/boy” email to senior leaders with the direct report on copy or some form of acknowledgment for good work goes a long way in fostering an environment that makes people want to show up every day giving their best.
- Don’t micromanage – I know it’s tough. I’ve struggled with this myself over the years (especially as a new manager). My fear of teams dropping the ball and having egg on my face led me to manage with a heavy hand. Trust your people. Let them test and learn around their style to execute. It’s not your job to create a duplicate of yourself, but rather build their professional confidence to get the job done. It doesn’t matter if the journey they took to the destination is different than the one you would have personally chosen. It matters that they arrived and that the result is strong, on time and on budget. Besides, moving from junior to middle to senior management requires a mental shift from being a doer to a thinker. Start the task of massaging that muscle early to build their confidence in tackling that complex transition.
- Be a service leader – Invest in your people. Show them you care. Let them know that their development matters to you and that they aren’t in the process alone. Be open to hearing feedback about their needs and lend yourself as a partner in making sure they reach performance goals.
I’m not a perfect manager, but I’ve learned quite a bit from suffering terrible managers over the years (before PN). My personal playbook isn’t rocket science, but you’d be surprised how many people struggle with piecing these considerations together. My hypothesis: It’s likely based on the more prevailing desire to be a boss rather than a manager (a topic for another day).
In the end, when you set this type of clearly defined, collaborative and empowering environment in motion, the result is an incredibly strong team. And, more importantly, you become a torch lighting the path to a positive managerial experience that will undoubtedly be adopted by your direct reports when it’s their turn to pay it forward in the future.