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An Overlooked Tool That Can Make You A Better Manager


An Overlooked Tool That Can Make You A Better Manager

A Right Recruiting White Paper

There are tons of books written about how to be a better manager. There are schools that will charge you hundreds of thousands of dollars to accomplish the same thing. I am sure all of that has value. However, they omit an important part of the equation, or they are based upon an outdated business world that is slowly evaporating. In this White Paper, I want to give the same advice that I previously gave to both the Drexel and Penn State MBA programs about an important management skill that is often ignored. But first, let’s go over the difference between leadership and management.

It’s simple.

A manager has authority because of the title on his or her business card.

A leader has authority because of their message and ability to deliver that message.

Very simple.

In today’s world, leadership has become an increasingly important part of management. Jobs often have matrixed relationships, not direct relationships. Many managers have an increasing amount of responsibility but not a corresponding amount of authority. Plus, employees have more options now. An authoritarian management style can repel a company’s best employees. Employees want to be led, not managed. Managers push. Leaders pull.

So how do you include leadership in your management tool quiver? Many people, correctly, assume that a significant part of leadership is motivation. I agree with that. People want to follow a leader. Their reasons will vary, but for most, following a leader is an act of choice by an individual. So, how do you get people to want to follow you? Is there a style – charismatic, energetic, sincere, etc. – that a person can learn to become a better manager?

The short answer is no. The longer is answer is yes. But it takes empathy.

The short answer is no, because donning a management persona is like putting on a suit that doesn’t fit. If you have 8 direct reports, each may respond to a different motivational strategy. Why? Because all 8 are different people. If you can’t alter your communications approach for each one, your leadership style will alienate at least half of them at any one time. Your leadership tool quiver needs to have more than one tool in it to address that fact that you have more than one person on your team.

You may have an 8-person team composed of:

1) Two people who have been with the company for 15+ years. They each have over 30 years of experience and have worked for you for 3 years

2) Two people who have been hired within the past year who have less than 10 years of experience

3) One person with 20 years of experience who was just moved into your department

4) One person with 5 years of experience who is moving through an informal rotational program

5) Two people at the 25-year experience level who have been chosen to compete for your job in a succession planning format

Look at it another way:

1) You have two people you know well, and they know you and the company, both in their late 50’s

2) You have two people you don’t know well and who don’t know the company well, they are around 30 years old

3) You have one person who knows the company well. They probably have friends in other departments, but they are a stranger to you. They are in in their 50’s

4) You have a 27-year-old who is passing through your department that you are supposed to mentor

5) You have two ambitious 45-year-olds who are vying for a promotion

By the way, you are 38 years old.

Every one of those people is in a different part of their life and expects different things from you and from their employer. The younger members want to move up. The more mature members want to do a good job and work with pleasant people. Your motivational tool kit must be large enough to accommodate all of them.

It takes a lot of life experience to be able to intuitively recognize and understand a diverse group of people. It takes empathy – an awareness of each individual person and how to motivate them. It is not practical for a manager to expand on their personal life experience and to channel that into increased employee awareness. We don’t live our lives to be a better manager. We live our lives in answer to a personal drumbeat.

So, how do you become more empathetic? I mean in a real way, not a fraudulent way. I used to work for a guy who had a schtick that he thought made him authentic. He would outline his problem and then say, “what would you do?” After the 10th time, everyone knew that your answer did not mean anything. He would pretend that you bought into his plan and pat himself on the back for manipulating you into “agreement.”

The real question here is simple.

How does a 38-year-old manager gain enough personal awareness of a team composed of:

  • 59-year olds who want a rewarding last 5 years or so in their career but have no interest in promotion
  • Competitive 30-year olds who are seeking to aggressively move up the ladder and who see this position as a steppingstone
  • 45-year olds who are good at their jobs but who want to add value to themselves beyond this slot

There is no single approach that will touch every person on this team. To ignore their individuality is naïve. How does our 38-year-old manager learn to understand each person well enough to effectively manage them?

Unless our manager is clairvoyant, there is only one tool that can put a person into someone else’s head. That tool has been around for hundreds of years but, to my knowledge, is conspicuously ignored in all management training classes.

Here it is.

Art. Primarily good literature, cinema and stage. If you’ve ever read Shakespeare, Henry James, Balzac, Edith Wharton or a host of other authors, you know that they can literally create people from nothing and put you inside their heads as they live their lives. You, as a reader or viewer, are shown their thought process and are connected to them in a visceral way. As a 38-year-old, you can live the mistakes made by King Lear, a 65-year-old king on his last days, as his vanity overwhelmed his judgement. You see the perils of indecision in Lily Barth in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and how each small mistake closes a door to a better life. The examples are infinite.

Good managers should be voracious readers and should be students of human nature not just spread sheet junkies. Your tools are your staff. Learn how best to use them.

Maybe there should be a new course in MBA programs – Literature as Case Study. I think that would be both fascinating and helpful. What books would you recommend?