That’s the advice from Carter Cast, a clinical professor of entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School. “We talk about inspirational leadership and brave leadership, and I’m all for it,” he says. “But the power and strength of good management doesn’t always get enough attention.”
After all, strong managers coax high productivity out of their teams; they also free the executive team from much of the day-to-day operations so they can focus on more tactical issues.
“Within a company, leaders create a vision, and managers create goals and lead their group toward common objectives related to that vision,” Cast says. “You can make a strong case that the real pulse of a company is its management layer.”
So what does it take to become a strong manager? Cast offers five tips.
As the lynchpin and catalyst between the company’s senior leadership and its frontline workers, the manager must be able to communicate directions, expectations, and the company leadership’s position. Managers need to be clear about what they are asking people to do and why.
First and foremost, managers need to help their team members envision what success looks like for their group. Cast says, “If I were to ask a manager’s various team members to name 1) their department’s top two objectives for the quarter and 2) the metrics by which they are measuring those objectives’ success, would they all say the same thing to me? If the answers I’d get back are different, then that manager isn’t communicating their priorities clearly.
“You need to know that your team members are all aligned on what’s critical to accomplish for the good of the team,” Cast says.
As for communicating with individual team members, Cast sees this as an essential part of coaching and development and suggests organizing each one-on-one meeting into three parts: performance indicators, progress on initiatives, and people.
So, in an hour-long meeting, the first 20 minutes might include a review of the performance dashboard agreed upon at the beginning of the quarter or year. The second 20 minutes would be a conversation about progress on key initiatives, focusing on resource needs and any barriers the manager may need to help lower in order to complete the initiative on time. The final 20 minutes would then be dedicated to personnel moves, opportunities, and issues, including the team member’s own career development.
Cast suggests that managers ask direct reports to come prepared to each meeting with a one-page summary of updates from these discussion topics. “I always write all over that piece of paper in the meetings as we talk,” he says. “Then, I later I pull those sheets out when I am working on performance reviews. They are a good way to remind myself of what was accomplished over the course of the year. I’m able to see things that they did really well, as well as things they weren’t able to accomplish.”
Take Ownership of the Process
As the people responsible for goal setting within the organization, managers should always be thinking about how they will measure success—and how they will hold their teams accountable for those metrics and timelines. This requires collaboration between the manager and the team members on identifying the best route to those goals.
“Average managers think their job is to stay in their lane and facilitate the execution of initiatives. Great managers do that, but they also scratch their heads and say, ‘Is there a better way to do this? I’m going to look into that,’” Cast says.
For a manager, simply stating that sales goal isn’t going to help you or your team reach it. Holding people accountable starts with outlining all the steps you will take to get there, including clearly defining both the critical “leading” and “lagging” measures of that goal. Cast notes that while both types of measures are important, leading measures tend to be more actionable.
“If a team’s goal is $50 million in sales, a lagging measure of that goal might be the number of new customers you acquired that quarter,” Cast says. “A leading measure would be anything that impacts that customer acquisition, for instance, the number of software demos that each sales person executes. Then the whole team can be accountable by, say, working to run five demos per salesperson per week.”
Get Involved and Add Value
Of course, strong managers are not simply process facilitators. Most have technical expertise within the area their team is operating. So to get the most out of their teams, they have to know when to get directly involved. This might mean stepping in at a time when the team is struggling, or taking the lead on an important initiative related to their personal area of expertise.
“Great managers roll up their sleeves and work alongside the team when necessary,” Cast says. “The more you understand your team’s work, the better you’ll be at analyzing and improving it. And the best way to understand it is by diving in and doing it.”
When he was the president of a division of Walmart, Cast arrived early to a national meeting of store managers. Employees were busy setting up displays in a full-scale store that was being assembled inside the Kansas City convention center. When he walked through the simulated Walmart store, he noticed that the merchandising team had fallen behind in assembling a set of display racks for new products.
“The more you understand your team’s work, the better you’ll be at analyzing and improving it. And the best way to understand it is by diving in and doing it.”
— Carter Cast