By Mike Bushong
The transition from individual contributor to management is probably a bit selfish for almost everyone. In that moment when your responsibilities and title change, you will naturally focus your attention on you. Your mind is aflutter with how you will manage a team. What projects do you have to deliver? How will you balance those projects? Do you have to build your team? In these moments, it is almost impossible to focus on anyone else. But to be a good manager, you have to.
Early in my leadership career, a colleague told me something that changed forever how I view management. She said: When you are someone’s boss, you become a topic of conversation at the dinner table.
The words are simple, and the concept is straightforward, but when I actually internalized what she was telling me, I was somewhat floored by the idea. We have all come home and kvetched to our families and friends about our bosses. If we are lucky, we have come home and told those same people about an extraordinary experience our bosses have given us. But regardless, we have all come home and talked about our bosses.
Knowing that people talk about their bosses, as a manager, what do you imagine the conversation about you is?
We have a killer project with a tight deadline!
If, like most managers, your primary focus in the early days is on the projects more than the people, the conversation at home probably centers around tasks and deadlines. We have a killer project with a tight deadline! When the conversation at work is dominated by deadlines, so too will be the conversation at home. But how would you like that conversation to continue?
Starting the conversation with a challenging deadline is not in and of itself a bad thing. Getting to the top of a mountain is a challenge. Of course, working under extreme duress while being flogged is also a challenge. Which conversation are you encouraging?
When you delegate tasks, deadlines are inevitable. But if your conversation with your employees focuses on the purpose behind the work and the reason for the deadline, you enable your employees to have a more meaningful conversation at home than just complaining about some due date.
Note that this does not mean simply providing a Purpose wrapper around the delegation conversation at work. Engagement is not something you slap on at the end of your interactions with employees. They need to know implicitly what role they play, what purpose they fulfill, and ultimately how they contribute to the success of the team and the company. If these elements are present in natural day-to-day conversation, then the assignment of a deadline is just fulfilling an end state that is already well understood. And if the deadlines aren’t a meaningful step along the way? At least you can be honest about it, in which case the conversation at home praises the boss’s candidness and sincerity.
My boss is clueless.
In the absence of information, employees will assume the worst. When things are not getting done that seem obvious to the average worker, failure is often attributed to cluelessness. My boss is making dumb decisions. These types of conversations reflect less on the specific decision and more on the general direction.
There are usually reasons for making management decisions. That people think they are the wrong decisions is more often associated with an incomplete view of the situation than any real absolution around right and wrong answers. For instance, comments like I don’t know why we don’t just… very frequently indicate a lack of understanding of priorities and constraints. It’s not that the manager doesn’t know what needs to be done. Rather, there are competing requests, dependencies, or constraints.
The subtlety here is that the individual contributor doesn’t know what any of these competing priorities, dependencies, or constraints are. Why? Because managers frequently leave these out of the conversation. By not engaging their employees deeply enough about the landscape in which work is being done, they fail to establish a meaningful context for actions and decisions. Without this context, employees will happily invent their own, leaving you playing the part of the muddling buffoon.
There’s no career path for me here.
The sins of omission cut deeper than perhaps any other. Most of us have probably reported to people who don’t care at all about our careers. It is easy to see how well they manage up (read: cover their own behinds), but they don’t put the same rigor into managing down. These bosses are frequently jockeying for position as they manage their own career, but they don’t pay much notice to anyone but their personal favorites.
This type of sentiment leads to the types of conversation that come just before someone updates their resume and starts pinging people on LinkedIn. Is this the kind of discussion your employees have about you?
To avoid this outcome, you need to be talking to employees about them. It is more about them than even the projects and the deadlines (both of which, by the way, reflect your priorities). What motivates your employees? Is it money? Learning? Impact? Recognition? The point is that you cannot possibly know unless you ask them. If you talk to your employees regularly about their frame of reference, everything you do will be colored by a much richer understanding of your workers.
This kind of selfless inclusion of other people translates into a much different level of engagement, which drives a different conversation at home.
The bottom line
When you take on a management role, the biggest changes might be to your perspective. Whether you know it or not, you immediately take on a more meaningful spot in the lives of your employees. And if you aren’t particularly mindful of how you manage, you can quickly become the topic of some fairly painful conversations. If you think about the conversation you would like to be driving, it can lead to powerful changes in the way you manage.[Today's fun fact: The average bar of soap lasts twice as long as a bottle of body wash. This has to be because people leave almost-done bars of soap in the tray and just open a new bar.]