Manager Toolkit: Manage The Person In Front Of You

I struggle to define my management philosophy or approach because I don’t really have just one philosophy or approach. I prefer transparency, but it isn’t always helpful. I try to presume competence, but sometimes, that causes me to miss when people need extra support. Ultimately, my management style is flexible and guided by three sayings: manage the person in front of you, manage the team in front of you, and manage adults.

Manage the person in front of you

For me, “manage the person in front of you” means several things. First, it reminds me that everyone needs a different management approach or style. It also reminds me that what worked last month, last week, or even three hours ago won’t always work right now. I need to be able to adapt quickly to what an individual needs at this moment.

There are some simple ways you can adapt your management style, like being extra patient and respectful of someone struggling with things in their personal life. But you may need to change other aspects of your management approach to meet your team members where they are at. Perhaps they usually prefer a collaborative coaching approach, but right now, they just want someone to tell them what to do. Maybe they typically want to be left alone to do their thing, but this week, they need regular check-ins and reassurance. I rely a lot on people reading, asking questions, and listening to what is not being said to figure out what to try next. And I’m still learning.

Managing the person in front of you is also a reminder that my direct report is not me. Our personalities, backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses are different. I have to remember that the techniques, methods, or tricks that have worked for me may not work for them. When that happens, I need to suggest different ways to get things done or set them up with a mentor or coach who better understands their perspective.

Finally, managing the person in front of you reminds me to be realistic in my expectations. Everyone is capable of learning and growing, but that doesn’t happen for anyone overnight. I need to recognize and respect where someone is today and work from there, even if where they are today is backward from where they were last week. Sometimes, managing the person in front of me means I recognize that they can’t reach their goals on my team, and it is time for me to help find them a new place where they can be successful.

Manage the team in front of you

The next step from “manage the person in front of you” is “manage the team in front of you.” Unless I have a genuinely stellar manager, my preferred management and team structure is “loosely structured benevolent neglect.” Basically, leave me alone to figure out how to solve my problems and how to work with others to do so. I don’t like meetings for the sake of meetings. I’m not a fan of the many forms of team togetherness that companies do. I hate paperwork for the sake of paperwork.

But my team is not me. My team gave me feedback that they wanted more team connection and identity, so we have regular team meetings and a mascot. We also spent a day hacking on some code together earlier this year. I admit that doing all that was uncomfortable for me. But it was what they needed and wanted.

About 4 years ago, my team asked if we could have team OKRs like the software engineering teams, so I wrote team OKRs. At the time, few of my peers had team OKRs, but that’s okay. Their teams didn’t need them. My team did. So, I managed the team I had.

Managing the team you have also means being realistic about what the team can actually get done in a day, a week, or a quarter. Stretch goals are fine, but overestimating or underestimating your team’s bandwidth because it is easier or because you wish it were true doesn’t work. You need to manage the team you actually have, not the team you wish you had.

We manage adults

This seems trite, but especially as I’ve moved up, this phrase has helped me a lot. I manage adults. Adults take care of themselves. I don’t need to remind them that conference centers can be chilly. Adults can get their work done with minimal oversight. I don’t need to hover over them to ensure they complete their work. Adults are capable of asking for help. I don’t need to force my help on them before they ask.

Also, adults get to make bad decisions, and adults get to have unpleasant feelings. I do. My team does. It is part of being human. We turn down opportunities that would be great for our careers for various good and bad reasons. We misspeak. We show up for work grumpy. We get disappointed or sad or angry sometimes. As long as we treat others respectfully and do our best to fix things we break, it is okay if we’re disappointed that our project slipped again. I’m content to sit with a report while they’re frustrated and just hear them out. I’ll empathize or commiserate with a report who’s mad about something. I’ll share stories of my mistakes with someone upset or embarrassed by something they did incorrectly. Adults (and children) get to feel the full range of human emotions. Trying to protect them from disappointment, discomfort, frustration, or anger is disrespectful. I’ll be clear: I don’t purposefully upset my team, but I also don’t protect them from taking risks on things that may not work out. And when things don’t go to plan, I’ll be there to help them figure out what’s next.