How to be a good manager

July 22, 2004
Whenever I see an advertisement for a book on corporate management, I write it off as just another load of malarkey.
View other Ron
Khol editorials

Dozens of these tomes are published every year and snapped up at outrageous prices by gullible Jack-Welch wannabes.

Personally, I don't believe “management” can be taught from a book, or that it can even be learned in college courses leading to the exalted MBA degree. If you find yourself promoted to management and don't instinctively know what to do, you never will know. Management is like parenting. If you have to learn it from a book, you will never be good at it.

During summers when I was a student, I worked as a laborer on construction sites. That gave me an opportunity to see men with no more than an eighth-grade education walk onto a job site, hire a bunch of semiliterate tradesmen, and run a profitable operation simply by relying on their own sharp instincts and the power of their personalities. Seeing that, I became convinced that an ability to “manage” is something that is in your bones, or it isn't. And you certainly aren't going to pick it up from a book or courses in college.

At the opposite extreme, in the corporate world, I have seen my share of college graduates who were abominable managers. So that brings us to the question: What are the characteristics of a good manager? To answer that, we first have to turn the question around and talk a bit about what you can reasonably expect from a subordinate.

When you hire someone, you have a right to expect a reasonable amount of commitment to the job and to the company. This means (and get ready to gasp) that sometimes the family can't come first. For example, if a customer is screaming because a delivery is late, somebody — and sometimes it is a whole department — has to perform above and beyond the call of duty. If an employee walks out the door at quitting time in the middle of a crisis, you have a right to put him on your brown list immediately. There is no room for a “shop-steward” clock-watching mentality in a professional environment.

If you are lucky enough to have subordinates with the right attitude, it is your job as a manager to keep their dedication and gung-ho spirit alive. That means you have to think of yourself as their advocate. When it is time for performance evaluations and raises, you have an obligation to argue for decent raises even when the top brass wants to be miserly. Sometimes you just can't meekly accept the salary dictates handed down by Mahogany Row. Of course, you don't want to get the reputation of being a troublemaker, and you must be careful not to cross that ill-defined line in the sand. But you still have to be a cheerleader for the people who work for you.

Another thing you have to do is actually accomplish some work yourself. It is highly demoralizing when a subordinate has to keep his nose to the grindstone while the boss just ambles around the office all day shooting the breeze with pals. On that topic, as a boss you have an obligation not to get too chummy with a select few of the people who report to you. That can evolve into the worst sort of cronyism. In the most extreme case, everyone will see that brownnosing is the best way to impress you, and that can make your best workers form an underground that will work against you.

One of the big myths about management is that an open-door policy is a good thing. That isn't true when you are in upper management and your open door simply gives malcontents an opportunity to come into your office and undercut their bosses.

In short, managers have an obligation to play fair. Difficult as it may be, your system of rewards must be based on merit. If promotions and raises are determined by who goes to lunch with you or whom you socialize with after hours, you don't have a team, you have a clique. And that is one of the most destructive things you can have in a corporation.


-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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