How to be a better leader in four badly drawn charts

New managers are idiots, and I was no exception. I meant well. We all do. But tech isn’t great at setting examples for management, and so people come in with some messed up ideas.

I’ve worked with lots of managers in the years since. I’ve found that most green managers have one of two models for success. This was mine.

chart1

The great managers I worked with invested in the relationship. They built trust. Their deliberate listening meant that they could give me the feedback I needed to grow. Their empathy meant that they could deliver it in a way that I could hear. I knew that I wanted to be that kind of manager. It was clear to me that people in leadership positions who didn’t share these values were basically bad people.

Maybe you feel this way today? There’s certainly plenty of truth in it. But it’s a problematic model just the same.

Some new managers, though, have a different graph in mind. With a different set of problems.

chart2

Until I figured out what was going on, talking to these people was confusing. They care about being good managers, too. They use similar language about building strong teams, stretching, and growing. But they come to all the wrong conclusions about how to get there. Their conversations with their team are so tactical and execution-focused. Their people don’t blossom. I struggled to help them see the error of their ways, and usually failed.

Good thing, too. Because I was an idiot. But so were they.

Why are you here?

Management’s job in an organization is pretty straightforward. Chew on this framing for a second: a manager’s job is to maximize the investment the organization makes in her team.

A company hires people to do a thing. That’s an investment of time, money, and risk. The reason you’re allowed to exist is because we believe you’re going to help that investment pay off. That means we believe at least some of the following:

  • Your team will do more work with you holding them accountable
  • They’ll align their work better with other teams through stronger communication and coordination
  • They’ll do higher quality work with you managing and mentoring them
  • they’ll do more of the right work and less of the distracting work with you focusing their efforts
  • they’ll elevate the kind of work they do with you helping them grow and develop

Oh.

Relationship-oriented managers and results-oriented managers are looking at almost completely different pieces of the job. Even when they do the piece they care about brilliantly, they still fail for neglecting the rest. You can’t get to great leadership by specializing exclusively in the half of this that comes naturally.

You relationship-oriented managers do tend to be ineffectual huggybears. Your teams love you. They feel nurtured and encouraged to explore and grow. They have a strong sense of team spirit. Their communication is constructive. But your focus on relationships causes you to over-soften criticism they need to hear. You protect your team from complaints that they are ineffective. When you fail to set high and clear expectations, you build teams that don’t hold themselves accountable for their results.

I have seen teams so ineffective that other groups had to hire around them, whose management was stripped of responsibility and eventually fired. And on their way out the door, I swear to you their teams wrote love letters and blog posts and poetry. That is not leadership success.

If empathy is your strong suit, my advice is to pull yourself towards centre, but not too far. Set high standards and be clear about them.

And you results-oriented assholes aren’t off the hook, either. I don’t dispute that you get amazing output from your team. You push them, and they respond to it. Many will even report that they appreciate it, that it makes them better. But they model after you, and when you get results without empathy, they start to do the same. They are passive aggressive, or actually abusive, to others. They treat communication and empathy as weakness because they’ve seen how little you value it. They congratulate themselves for “just being honest.”

The result is that your team ruins the productivity of everyone around them. Turnover on nearby teams multiplies dramatically. Creativity and collaboration dry up. I have seen individual results-oriented leaders drive massive turnover and toxicity before being fired themselves. It should never have gotten as bad as it did, but some people will let good results excuse a lot of bad behaviour. I won’t work in that environment again, and I sure as hell wouldn’t call it a success, either.

Both of these styles fail. Neither maximizes the investment the company makes in their employees. These people are bad managers, and worse leaders.

An uninspiring compromise

Once I realized that neither end of this spectrum was a good idea, I drew the obvious conclusion:

chart3

A balance of empathy and results. Hooray for symmetry! It’s certainly true that huggybears become much better managers when they find ways to hold their teams accountable. It’s also true that the toxicity of assholes drops when they invest at all in how they present themselves and bring others along.

There are people who live right in the middle of the spectrum. Of course there are. And they’re delightful to work with. But my problem with this model is that I don’t think this state is desirable for everyone, or even most people. It grinds off our natural strengths in service of even-ness. It’s also not true that most great leaders live on that centre line, so it’s not clear to me that it should be a goal.

If you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other, striving towards the middle is righteous. But if you’re just waiting for the fourth graph, with the real punchline, here it is:

chart4

You do you. But do it well.

If empathy is your strong suit, my advice is to pull yourself towards centre, but not too far. Set high standards and be clear about them. Your natural ability to earn trust and respect gives you more permission than you think to be direct. Even when you have to deliver bad news, you’ll do it in a way people can hear and learn from.

zefrank talks about how creativity flourishes under constraint and it’s true here, too. A deeper focus on results helps your people grow faster, not slower. When you tie their growth to outcomes the whole organization can see and celebrate, it reinforces the value of their work. It creates a team climate of shared accountability. You’ll love it.

A key frustration for results-focused managers is the friction and slowness they often hit when they deal with other teams.

If you’re driven by results, my advice is to pull yourself towards the centre, but not too far. Check in with your team individually. Give them room to talk about something other than status updates. Once they realize they have room to do more than just run their list, they’ll give you insights you missed. They’ll take on extra work, improve pieces of the team that you don’t want to tackle, and drive up the whole group’s performance.

A key frustration for results-focused managers is the friction and slowness they often hit when they deal with other teams. You would be amazed how much of that disappears when you start to pay attention to how you communicate. It’s a junior notion to believe that your “honest and direct” style is the only non-bullshit way to work with others. Figure out how to be heard by other teams. Bring things back to shared goals and stop trying to score points off them. Your team’s productivity will skyrocket when you stop burning their bridges. You’ll love it.

Ugh, introspection.

Managing people is hard to do well. It asks a lot from us, and no one gets there on natural talent alone. I don’t think it’s possible to do it well without a lot of looking inward, and I know how unpleasant that can be. But I also know that if you’re a leader of people, you have figured out where you are on that graph. And you know where you ought to be next.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is the Chief Product Officer at Hubba, and co-editor of The Co-Pour. He is the former VP of Firefox for Mozilla, and knows what scale feels like for products and for organizations. He has screwed up plenty as a leader, and is trying to write it all down as fast as he can to stop you from making the same mistakes.