questions about effective management

A metal statue of a bear standing atop a small granite pedestal outside a building in Reykjavík. Like this statue, effective managers are calm, clear-eyed, shaped like a bear, and made of metal. It is nice if the manager’s sturdy foundation is also made of granite.

I was recently interviewed by a student taking a class on effective management. So, here is that.

Please describe a typical day at work. What do you do all day?

I’m in a lot of meetings! I am one of three directors in my department, and I supervise 12 people across three teams. There are about 30 managers and directors in the whole organization. I lead or take part in several workgroups. I also have weekly check-ins with my boss and each of my three direct reports. We meet monthly as a leadership cohort, and I meet every other week with my other department leads. I am also in lots of meetings for recurring or emergent issues.

The rest of my work falls into two broad buckets, management and strategy.

Strategy is planning the big-picture stuff. My three teams have different but overlapping areas of focus. I need to make sure they are all on the same page about where we’re going. I also try to have them collaborate across teams as often as possible. I also consult on other people’s projects as often as I can. It’s a chance to align our visions and show them what’s important to me.

Management is important because I have to align visions within my own team. I provide guidance on projects and consult when they are unsure of how to move forward. I review drafts, contracts, and other policy documents relevant to my work when needed. This doesn’t include the more traditional management responsibilities like:

  • approving timecards and expense reports
  • regular check-ins and team meetings with staff
  • communicating our vision inside and outside the organization
  • finding professional development opportunities for staff based on their interests and skills

What are the most critical problems you face as a manager?

I find that as a non-profit we’re always more ambitious than our capacity. Prioritization is a big part of our work. I have to ask, “how critical is this need? Is it urgent or can it wait? Is this a potential learning opportunity for junior staff? Do we have the time to set those expectations to improve their chance of success?”

My teams work in opposite ends of our building, and communication is central to our performance. After I was hired, I noticed that while two of my teams felt they were distinct, their work was very similar. I put in effort from the beginning to get the teams talking and working together more. In a way, this doubled the available brainpower we had to solve problems. We share a lot within our department, but we still have the rest of the organization to talk to! We have a responsibility to define our work for others (or else they’ll do it for us).

What are the most critical skills needed to be a successful manager in your line of work?

Collaboration is the most used skill in my toolbox. I need to be able to guide my teams towards the best decision we can make. That means asking probing questions. After I get a summary from them, I like to ask, “what would you recommend?” Some managers do this so they can lead their employee to the answer the manager wants them to guess. If this is your plan, you’re wasting time. Just tell them the answer if that’s what you want to do. Instead, I ask them questions to refine an approach based on our collective expertise. The goal is not to ask questions with a solution in mind, it’s to think through a problem without knowing what the solution will be.

The other most critical skill I use as a manager is respect. When you’re the boss, you don’t need to raise your voice or be rude to get your work done. I stay professional with my staff, but I still like joking around. I want people to enjoy their work time and value their colleagues.

What are the major reasons managers fail in positions like yours?

Some managers fail when they change their programs without understanding them first. This may happen with new managers who want to prove themselves worthy of the role. Others fail by taking on too much at once, which can burn out their team. Some managers find it difficult to give clear, critical feedback to their employees.

Semi-related, but the most cringeworthy thing a manager can do is call their coworkers “family.” Ugh! The concept of family means different things to different people. Families ask a lot of each other in non-transactional ways that I would never ask of a colleague. I have strong relationships with former colleagues, but none of them are my family. Some people don’t have great relationships to their families. Some people are children or spouses of abusers. Some queer and trans people have negative or traumatic connections to their relations. I want to work with people I respect, without having to make it as personal as family can sometimes be.

What are the outstanding skills or abilities of other effective managers you have known?

All the best managers I’ve known have been active listeners. It’s a fact that you won’t always have the best solution. An effective manager is someone who can listen to others and refine their own thinking on a subject. I take extensive notes when I’m in meetings. I use those to reflect after the fact or clarify what I took from the meeting.

Effective managers must also focus on staff development. My first foray into management in an office was when my boss was out on leave for two weeks. She named me as the interim team lead in her absence. While I was “manager”, we had one minor issue that I was able to work through. This experience improved my confidence and helped me realize I found management thrilling.

I also appreciate when managers can communicate big-picture strategy and expectations. As an employee, I am always curious about the “why” of a task given to me by management. How will this get us to where we want to go? What should this look like when I’m done? Why is this more critical than whatever else I was doing? How does this task fit in with everyone else’s work. Though the hierarchy gives a manager power, managers often fail when that’s all they wield.

If you had to train someone to replace you in your current job, what key abilities would you focus on?

The most important thing I do is understand how racial and social injustice relates to our work. White supremacy and dominant culture created every problem that non-profits try to solve. Racial injustice is present in how we “serve” people in need to how we administer programs. We need to rebuild many of the systems that we exist in.
Another valuable skill I would want in my successor is relationship management. A lot of my work is relationships! Most days I work with at least 20 people in roles across the organization. I need to be able to hear what’s important to them, share what’s important to me, then find common ground.

Strategic ability is important, too. Right now, my team is working to expand the network of partners we use to do our work. I started laying the groundwork for this almost 18 months ago! At the beginning, most of the plan only lived in my head. I had to generate buy-in among my bosses, my team, and in other departments. This means having a clear (but flexible) picture of where you want to go, and then persuading others to go there with you.

//

The last thing I would say about effective management is that everyone has their own style. My style has been successful for me as a brown person navigating a hierarchy built by white people. It’s not successful for everyone, not even other people who look like me. As a man, I am praised for being assertive and direct. I am also not expected to invest in soft skills (like joining the social committee). And when I use soft skills, such as volunteering to take notes in a meeting, I am praised for that too.

We managers have a responsibility to change the professional norms we were born into. We all deserve to work in a place that is inclusive and supportive of us being ourselves.