A Few Traits of Successful Managers

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes great managers great. The craft itself is pretty nebulous to describe, because the needs and responsibilities themselves oftentimes differ from day to day, week to week, year to year. As a team grows and evolves, so does the role of the managers on the team. For a long time I wondered if it was just a you-know-it-when-you-experience-it kind of thing. But as I’ve thought about it more, I do think there are a few constants that all great managers (or future managers) have:

Great managers trust their team.

But not blindly. I’ve seen a more than a couple managers defend their teams even when it’s incredibly obvious that the work isn’t up to snuff or the team isn’t functioning well. Great managers build teams they can trust. And if trust isn’t there for some reason, it’s part of your job to build it.

That last bit is particularly tricky. Sometimes it means adjusting personnel across teams, injecting new perspectives and personalities to make things better. Other times it’s being more deeply involved in the early stages of the product to more directly guide the process. The right thing to do varies, but you should be able to sniff out what makes the most sense and execute on that.

And again, the point of all of that is to build trust and confidence, both for yourself and amongst the team you’re working with. If you can make the team feel confident in their process and decision-making, the odds are you’ll feel that way too.

Great managers say they don’t know.

They also admit that others are right. There have been so many times you won’t be looking at things the right way or will be missing some piece of information. It’s important to remain open and not completely lock down on your point of view.

However, this shouldn’t be seen as me saying you shouldn’t be decisive. I’m simply saying that you should embrace the possibility that you may be wrong. Let everyone know that you might be wrong. Everything we do - team changes, new additions to process, design ideas - has the potential to not work. At some point in the future as the team grows what we’re doing now definitely won’t work. Acknowledging that up front makes people more likely to let you know when things aren’t working, rather than silently suffering and being frustrated.

It’s also important to admit you don’t know what to do yet. It’s not your job to have an established opinion about what to do at the moment a problem arises. It’s your job to solve the problem, whatever that means. Saying “I’m not sure, but let me think about it and get back to you tomorrow,” gives you time to think and gives your team confidence that you’re not just reacting. As a small side note: always include a timetable and stick to it. If you’re still unsure the next day, or didn’t have time to think, follow up and say that. People are okay giving you time, but it’s important that they know it hasn’t slipped your mind.

Great managers do what they say they’ll do.

Not only that, but they actually do something. When I was leaving Etsy, I asked for feedback from my team about what worked well for them. Consistently, I was told that whenever they had a problem or were stuck, they knew they could talk to me and something would happen. I’d follow up, even if I didn’t have an answer or path forward yet, so that they’d know I didn’t forget.

It seems crazy to me that simply taking action on things made such an impression on the people I managed. Your job as a manager isn’t just to listen to folks vent or voice frustration. Your job is to guide them past that frustration, to offer opportunities for change, to navigate hard conversations.

Anthony Bourdain has a great quote that resonates a lot with me:

I quickly came to understand that there are two types of people in this world: There are the type of people who are going to live up to what they said they were going to do yesterday, and then there are people who are full of shit. And that’s all you really need to know. If you can’t be bothered to show up, why should anybody show up? It’s just the end of the fucking world.

Show up.

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