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What sets a great manager apart from a good one?
A guide to identify great managers.
Hey! 👋 I’m Archie! Welcome to my newsletter - The Rougher Drafts. Every week, I write about leadership, career advice, product, and technology. Subscribe to receive new posts directly in your inbox and support my work.
As an employee, one of the biggest career decisions you’ll make is picking the right manager for you. A manager is often the sole difference between an enjoyable, fulfilling job and an unpleasant one. Over the years, I held my own fair share of okay, good, and exceptionally great managers. I have also keenly observed other managers through my interactions with peers, stakeholders, mentees, and mentors. Throughout my career, I found it reasonably easy to distinguish between a good and a not-so-good manager. However, it took me a while to build the muscle for identifying a great manager that aligns with my ambitions and aspirations.
So, what sets a great manager apart from a good one? Good managers are just good. However, great managers are a rare find and extremely special! A great manager is a career ally not just for the time that you worked together, but rather throughout your career. They will often continue to coach, mentor, and advocate for you. So, be intentional about picking the right managers. Sometimes they fall into your lap, other times, you have to seek them out. Of course, there is no absolute measure when evaluating people and relationships, however, applying thoughtful filters can improve the odds of having a fulfilling and rewarding career.
The Smell Test
Here are my top three observation-based parameters for evaluating managers,
1/ When a great leader gets promoted, people around them get promoted.
Great leaders rise along with their teams. A key part of the people management role is career development of the team. I like to see how deliberate managers were about growing people at all levels. And, that they were not just about growing the team size. Promotions are often a proxy for growth and career development. I’m wary of managers who grow without their team; a good tell is when they’re the only one to secure one or two or sometimes three promotions for themselves, without promoting members of their team. When I notice this pattern, I try to understand the context and reasoning behind it and decide accordingly.
2/ When people follow a leader
People follow great managers. Since, great managers are often rare finds, once someone finds them, they tend to stick with them. They move when the manager moves, oftentimes, with them to the new place. I have seen this happen a lot at Amazon. This shows that they built trust with their team in the past. Unsurprisingly, great managers often have great managers themselves, and they have an amazing rapport and a long-standing relationship with their own managers.
3/ When managers are also exceptional individual contributors
Some of the best managers I have worked with are exceptional individual contributors (IC) themselves. They nailed both the art and science of people management combined with hands-on skills. This helps me lean on them for blindspots and working alongside them allows me to learn from their expertise and develop my own abilities. They were able to operate at all levels of detail. They knew when to step in and when to zoom out. They are able to just as easily step into the role of their direct reports as well as at least partially in the role of their own managers in case of extended time-offs or contingency plans.
If you’ve found a great manager, express your gratitude and keep in touch with them! However, if you’re caught in a rut with your current manager, understand what you can learn from this. Ask yourself if you really understand their goals, working, and management style. Sometimes, we are too quick to come to a conclusion. It might help to have an honest conversation with them. If your manager doesn’t know about your goals, aspirations, and concerns, they cannot help you. If all else fails, don’t fall into sunk cost fallacy and move on.
Before identifying a great manager, it is imperative to have an understanding of the responsibilities and functions of a manager. Here are some of the books that helped me better understand the role of a manager,
High Output Management by Angy Grove
The Making of a manager by Julie Zhuo
If you are based in the US, you can connect your local library card with the Libby app to read or listen to these books.
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