Characteristics of great managers

Take a moment and think about the best manager that you’ve had. I’ll wait. Now, think about the worst manager you’ve had. What characteristics separate the two?

It’s said that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Sure, that happens. So if you’re a manager, how can you keep your employees from “firing” you? If you have a boss, how do you know it’s time to give them the boot?

While walking my dogs the other night, I mentally stack-ranked the managers I’ve had in my career and tried to think about what made the top managers (and bottom managers) stand out. Below you’ll find the characteristics of my favorite managers. If you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear in the comments!

Accessible. The best managers are there when you need them. They are reachable, and responsive to email/Slack/whatever. It’s a sign of respect for the team, and indicates that they manage their time well. If you can’t ever seem to get a hold of your manager, that’s a warning sign.

Provides unsolicited, genuine feedback. We all want to know that we’re on the right (or wrong!) track. I always appreciate when my manager gives me occasional, constructive feedback. In addition, we’re not robots, so unexpected “thanks!” or “good job” are appreciated.

Dependable. A good manager shows up for scheduled meetings, keeps 1:1 sessions on the calendar at all costs, and can be counted on to participate in time-sensitive conversations. In my opinion, this is table stakes for being in management. If your team can’t count on you, it’s a signal that you’re ill-equipped for the job.

Measures outcomes, not motion. “Hours worked” is a lousy measurement of value. I’m thrilled when I have a manager that doesn’t care how many hours I worked, how many meetings I had, or how many emails I sent. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is outcomes and whether I delivered something useful. Good managers get that.

Significant domain knowledge. It’s great when a manager is actually smart about the topic her team owns. I know that’s not always the case with high-level executives who get rotated through positions, but my best managers are the ones that can help me work through challenges because they know the problem space better than I do.

Demonstrates expertise and creates insightful material. This relates to “domain knowledge” above, but I really like when my manager is a producer, not just a consumer. I want my manager presenting at conferences, creating presentations, writing blog posts, etc. It sets a great example for the team and demonstrates that they care about being knowledgeable in the team’s domain.

Positive attitude. Look, I’m sarcastic and appreciate gallows humor, but I’m also a happy person and like working for people that have a realistic optimism. Good managers create a positive vibe within the team and company as a whole. Conversely, a lousy manager dwells on mistakes or unnecessarily creates uncertainty by focusing on the potential for negative outcomes.

Collaborates and trusts, doesn’t dictate. Good managers trust their team. They see their direct reports as colleagues to learn from and partner with, not underlings to boss around. These managers use a “trust but verify” approach instead of a micro-management approach.

Decisive and makes hard choices. To me, there’s almost nothing worse than a wishy-washy boss who can’t make decisions and shies away from tricky situations. Good managers know it’s their responsibility to remove uncertainty and make thoughtful decisions quickly. The opposite crushes morale and makes the manager appear incompetent.

Defines success and provides focus when needed. I’m pretty self-sufficient and abhor micro-management. But, we all like to know how we’re being measured and what matters to the company! My best managers were crystal clear about their expectations of me, and if needed, kept me focused on those objectives if I got distracted.

Takes time to understand my motivations, and provides assignments that help me grow. It can be easy for managers to pigeonhole an employee into one responsibility area. My best managers let me take on stretch assignments and pursue areas of interest, and didn’t live in fear that I’d pursue other opportunities outside the team.

Celebrates team success without stealing credit. A confident manager doesn’t feel the need to take sole credit for the work their team does. Rather, these managers pause to identify individual accomplishments, and make sure that others in the organization know who did the work.

Stands up for the team. Some of my favorite managers were those that saw themselves as coaches and advocates for their team. They didn’t badmouth their team or blame them for their own problems. Rather, they lifted them up and defended them as needed. Look at Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. This past week, his field goal kicker missed a chip shot that cost the team a win. Instead of blasting the kicker for blowing the game, Carroll praised the kicker’s overall contribution and let everyone know that “he’s our guy.” Who wouldn’t want to work for that kind of boss?

Gives more than they take. My worst manager asked me for lots of random things, and offered no value in return. It was a completely one-sided relationship. Conversely, my best managers were full of good ideas, solutions to problems, and useful advice. I actively looked forward to talking to them!

Inspires my best performance. A good manager makes it clear why my work matters, and how the company is making a difference for customers. This often requires them to be strong communicators, or at least authentic ones. I don’t want forced cheerleading; I want someone who can motivate teams through the lulls, while putting the team’s contribution into perspective.

Hopefully you work for a manager that checks all the boxes above. Life is too short to work for a lousy boss! If you’re a manager yourself, don’t take your position for granted, and make sure that you inspire your team and set them up for growth and success.

Are there other “must have” characteristics for your manager, or items below you don’t really care about? I’d love to hear.

Author: Richard Seroter

Richard Seroter is Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud. He’s also an instructor at Pluralsight, a frequent public speaker, the author of multiple books on software design and development, and a former editor plus former 12-time Microsoft MVP for cloud. As Director of Developer Relations and Outbound Product Management, Richard leads an organization of Google Cloud developer advocates, engineers, platform builders, and outbound product managers that help customers find success in their cloud journey. Richard maintains a regularly updated blog on topics of architecture and solution design and can be found on Twitter as @rseroter.

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