My first embryonic manager experience was not my strong point. Working on a research team in Mongolia, I was suddenly set in charge of two feisty local girls while our leaders were out of the country on side trips (story).

Hmm. Those two were a disaster, but I also wasn’t at all effective in leading them. I’ve come a long way, but even now (March 2013), I’m still working to be a better manager. Some key targets for me at the moment are managing my own priorities, communicating tasks more clearly, managing my workload stress so that I don’t let it out on my employees, being more confident about my vision, and keeping both myself and them directed and productive.

Good goals, at any rate.

Embassy New Zealand, on Flickr

I’m still not sure I can formally put into words what I’m learning about management at Bilim-Tilim school — it’s early yet — but I can make some notes on how to be a good manager, given my memories of earlier times when I was a non-manager looking upwards:

Stand up for your employees. My favorite memory of working at a call center, ironically, was when a phone customer started cursing and viscerally threatening one of our workers for not having a cheaper hotel room on offer. Our manager, Dan, stood up, took over the phone line, and confronted the customer. “You are never to talk to my employees that way again,” he said into his headset, chewing the man out at high volume and angrily blacklisting him from all our chain’s properties. I’ve never seen anything like this since, but it gave all of us a great sense of security in working for this manager.

Fire when the firing needs done. At the drugstore, Valerie spent every shift in the bathroom talking on the phone to her boyfriend. She avoided the heavy blue totes of tchotchkes, medicine, and candy bars that the rest of us unloaded each Wednesday, and often called in sick. Other employees despised her. Our managers put her under disciplinary action, and yet refused to fire her… and that’s when I lost all respect for them. When an employee isn’t pulling their weight, even after reprimands, it’s time to let them go. Not doing so can pull down a whole organization, as everyone else stops working as hard or as happily.

Stay positive and professional. I definitely vent to my assistant sometimes, but I realizing in looking back that I’ve had less respect for managers who always complained to me. Sympathizing with staff and being real about hard work is great, but frequently unloading personal or higher-up work stresses isn’t wise. (I also try to avoid friending managers or employees on facebook, and when I haven’t been able to avoid it, it’s always been quite awkward). I still remember a particular store manager who made it clear that life was shit sometimes, but that she chose to work hard and stay positive. I can’t say that I liked her, but we all respected her nevertheless.

Be clear on organizational goals and how employees can take part in meeting them. One old university boss of mine used to shoot down employee ideas left and right. “Just keep working on the basics first,” he’d say, but we were doing all the basics, all the time. We wanted to do something more interesting. “It’s not the time,” he said. So we sat there quietly doing projects on the side, but had to downplay the fact that we were taking initiative in addition to our existing workload. Perhaps he had a vision, but he wasn’t inviting us into it. You don’t squelch your employees’ visions, at least not without offering ways for them to participate and be rewarded for following your vision and goals.

Give employees a future. Having managers who speak well of you when introducing you to others is wonderful. Knowing that even if the organization can’t move you up, the manager will help you get another job is also great. People work best when they know their current and future work will be meaningful, challenging, rewarding, and suit their individual skills. My best managers have encouraged this. They’ve either invited me into their vision, supported me in mine, or helped me to move on when there’s no longer anything good to do in a stiff and unyielding institution.

Offer to train people in new skills. It depends on your employees’ current stress load, but once they’ve learned their job and are doing it well, many people get bored. If you want to keep them, I think it’s important to let them go for new roles and new challenges. Good for their future… and if you play it right, for your current organizational goals.

Have high expectations, but expect the same of yourself. If you want them to be punctual, you should be too ( …eep!). My best professors and managers have been kind, but with a rock-firm edge. Crossing lines gets a quick reprimand, but then they’re fully attentive and incisive when you need their help. They play fair, they control their emotions, they remain on-target, they are generous and hardworking, they offer opportunities to learn, and they have high standards for the independent work they ask you to do. This manager is pure gold. I’m not there yet.

But when I find managers like this, I stick with them as long for as I possibly can.

How to Be a Good Manager
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