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5 Things I Learned From Managing People

2017 January 22
by Greg Satell

Henry Mintzberg once observed, “The great myth is the manager as orchestra conductor. It’s this idea of standing on a pedestal and you wave your baton and accounting comes in, and you wave it somewhere else and marketing chimes in with accounting, and they all sound very glorious.”

“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.” In other words, leading people never turns out like you think it will. People, events and other factors often surprise you. That’s why the most important thing you do as a manager is to learn.

I first began managing people two decades ago, when I was in my mid -20s, and I probably wasn’t quite ready for it. But then again, you’re never quite ready to lead until you actually do it. Management is not about building and executing plans but, as Mintzberg suggests, the art of guiding teams through plans going awry. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do that.

1. Hire For Curiosity And Temperament

One of the most crucial things a business leader does is hire people. So when I started out as a manager, I sought out candidates with impressive credentials, hard working people who went to top schools, scored high on aptitude tests and had impressive resumes. I also designed compensation schemes and retention practices to motivate individual performance.

However, recent studies show that high value work is increasingly done not by individuals, but teams and those teams are increasing in size. Moreover, other research demonstrates that diverse teams outperform those that are more homogenous even if the more uniform units are made up of people with higher ability.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA commissioned a study to determine what attributes made for the most effective analyst teams. What they found was surprising. As it turned out, what made for the most effective teams was not the individual attributes of their members, or even the coaching they got from their leaders, but the interactions within the team itself.

The truth is, you don’t need the best people, you need the best teams. That’s why I eventually realized that the best attributes to look for are curiosity and temperament. A curious person can learn just about anything they set their minds to and if they have the temperament to work within a team, they can achieve far more than a high powered arrogant jerk.

2. You Need To Fire Nasty People

Once you begin to understand that performance relies on teams rather than individuals, it becomes clear that you need to change not only how you hire, but how you fire. After about five years of managing people I began to suspect that I should fire nasty people, even if they seemed to be high performers.

The first time I tried it was with a sales director I had inherited, who accounted for 90% of her department’s revenues. It was a highly controversial move. But when the dust settled, something amazing happened. Sales shot up! As it turned out, she wasn’t really great at selling, she was great at getting sales attributed to herself.

After that, I never looked back. Firing nasty people became a mantra. In fact, it became so ingrained in our company’s culture that it was even included in orientation training, so that employees knew from day one how important we believed a collaborative environment to be.

Some time after instituting the policy, Bob Sutton published his book, The No Asshole Rule outlining a wealth of research showing the hidden costs of holding on to nasty people in your organization. So if you are wondering if that high performing jerk on your team is worth the trouble, rest assured, he (or she) is not.

3. Your Mission Needs To Drive Your Strategy

Another primary management responsibility is to formulate strategy. In order for your team to perform at the highest possible level, they need to have clear goals and a concrete plan to accomplish them. That’s what a strategy is, a coherent and substantiated logic for making one set of choices rather than another.

Strategy has long been considered a rational exercise. You comb through the data, build Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint charts in order to seek out a competitive advantage. Analytical skill, not emotional motivations, is what’s supposed to determine your course.

Yet in reality things don’t work that way. The truth is that your mission drives your strategy. That’s what motivates your employees, customers and partners. You can add up the numbers anyway you want, but if your organization isn’t aligned with your stated strategy, it is very unlikely to be effective.

Great businesses, in the final analysis, are built by passion. Strategies can come and go, but the mission of the enterprise is fundamental to directing action. Unless your people are committed to the purpose of the enterprise, they will not perform at their highest level.

4. Money Isn’t The Prime Motivator

Many managers spend a lot of time and energy designing compensation schemes to incentivize performance. Yet as Daniel Pink explains in Drive, decades of studies show incentive pay often decreases productivity, especially for tasks that require creative thinking. He argues that the best way to motivate them is to give them opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed strongly in the notion of dignity, which he defined as treating people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. I’ve found that Kant’s ideas about dignity are essential to managing employees, customers and partners. Nobody wants to be a cog in somebody else’s machine.

When you treat people as ends in themselves you make their goals your own. You want employees to do more than perform tasks, but to attain their potential. You see customers as more than a way to pay the bills, but as central to the mission of the enterprise. You want communities to be invested in your success, rather than just tolerate your existence.

Some very successful companies have put dignity at the center of how they run their business.  Zappos pays its employees a bonus to leave after a training period, because the firm realizes how important it is that people actually want to work there. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman suggests that managers treat staff as allies, rather than underlings.

5. Being Wrong Isn’t The End Of The World

Probably the most important thing a manager does is make decisions. When I was leading an organization of 800 people, I routinely had to make decisions that not one of those 800 people — many of whom were extremely talented and intelligent — could answer on their own. I didn’t necessarily know any better than they did, but it was my job to make the decision.

I like to think that I got it right more than I got it wrong, but the truth is that when you have to make tough decisions about complex issues, you are going to come up short a certain percentage of the time. When that happens, you are going to get a lot of blame and you’re going to have to clean up the mess.

What makes these mistakes even more painful is that, whatever choice you make, there will always be people who were pushing for another course of action. In fact, the lack of consensus about what to do is often the reason you had to make the decision in the first place. Making mistakes with substantial consequences is simply part of your job.

And that is probably the most important thing I learned as a manager. Being put in a position of responsibility doesn’t make you clairvoyant or endow you with any special wisdom, it just means that the consequences of your actions will be much greater than for anyone else. Once you are able to accept that, everything else becomes easier.

– Greg

This article first appeared in Fast Company

5 Responses leave one →
  1. January 22, 2017

    Greg, the most powerful voices in a decision making process are those which listen to everyone else before they speak.

    Nelson Mandela was the son of a chief. He asked his father what secrets he had to being a chief.

    If I remember the story correctly, the reply amounted to this:

    Everyone sits in a circle.

    Everyone speaks before the chief speaks.

    If the chief does not understand anyone’s point of view he asks them why they have that point of view.

    Armed with all of this information the chief is then in a good position to make the necessary decisions and to explain to the gathering why he has made them.

  2. January 22, 2017

    Sounds like good advice. Thanks Edward.

    – Greg

  3. January 23, 2017

    …if they have the temperament to work within a team, they can achieve far more than a high powered arrogant jerk…

    I don’t think we are arrogant jerks but I don’t think we (Greg, you and I) are team players. We are unhirables.


  4. daniel c celestino permalink
    January 24, 2017

    Another fundamental text, filled with so good links and extra references (how not get lost the focus and keep reading the main text?).
    Thank you a lot Greg.
    Good new year.

  5. January 24, 2017

    Thanks Daniel!

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