How Could You be a Better Manager?

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With the IT industry on the upswing, budgets are growing again, employees are being hired and upgrades are being planned. This all means IT managers have a new host of pressures on them.

And most of the managers dealing with all of this have had very little real management training. That could be making a hard situation even harder -- for both the manager and the employees, says Pam Butterfield, president of Business Success Tools, LLC, a consulting and management coaching company based in Manchester, Conn.

In a one-on-one interview with Datamation, Butterfield talks about the biggest mistakes that managers make, how to tell if employees are challenged or anxious, and how to help workers better handle all the change that's coming down the road.

Q: Are most managers trained or otherwise prepared to manage people?
No, not at all. I know when I first started out, I didn't have a clue that there were things I could learn to do that would allow me to be a good manager. I was technical and I had pretty good people skills. That didn't make me a good manager. I didn't know how to give feedback to people. I didn't know how to manage conflict. I didn't know how to build teams. I didn't know the difference between being a leader and a manager. I didn't know how to evaluate people. Fortunately, I worked for a company where I got excellent training.
I don't see a lot of companies giving people that kind of training and, actually, that's why the individual clients I have who are getting coaching are paying for it themselves. These people failing in their roles as managers.

Q: What's the biggest mistake that you see managers making on a regular basis?
I think one of the biggest mistakes managers make is that they're not setting aside time to be a manager. When you're not a manager, you're being paid to get work done. When you're a manager, you're getting paid to define the work, to make assignments, to monitor the progress and quality of what's being done, to help people who aren't performing address what the gaps are. A lot of managers are not comfortable giving feedback and receiving feedback. It's easier to ignore those things.

Q: What's the main thing that people could do to make themselves better managers?
People need to focus on the area of goal setting and then assigning resources to work on the things that are most important. You have limited resources today so you need to use them judiciously. Very often there's a gap between what people are doing and what they need to be doing to actually be successful. Managers have a hard time closing that gap. Very often people are good at solving technical problems but not at solving people problems. That goes back to the lack of training and the lack of experience. There's also a lack of good managers to learn from.
People also need to seek to understand before jumping to conclusions. I've learned to become a good question asker. It's amazing what you find out when you listen to people. Often the thing you thought it was, it's not at all.

Q: With the economic and industry slump seemingly behind us and hiring and budgets both picking up, is this an easier time to be a manager?
There's an awful lot of pressure on managers these days. The rate of change is so great right now. You're trying to get people who are bombarded by change to get today's work done, while you're trying to get people in a position to handle the change that's coming down the pike tomorrow.
Part of the challenge for managers is there's not enough time in the day... They may have the best intentions but they just don't have time. One of the ways to do this is to look at everything that has to be done, including the people management stuff, and prioritize. Another thing is to learn how to delegate. Every time you don't delegate a task, you're losing an opportunity to take someone else in the organization and teach them something.

Q: Since the industry is picking up, are workers happier and more confident or is there anxiety still left over from the slump?
Absolutely, people are still anxious... There's a reason they are nervous. This goes in cycles. Downturns. Upturns. It will all happen again at some point.

Q: What's the best way to handle these anxious employees?
If I'm an IT manager, I'm going to help my people be able to be very comfortable with change. There are various programs that companies provide. It's change management for the individual. People are afraid of change because they're afraid the change will hurt them and they won't be able to make the transition successfully. Feeling like you'll be able to land on your feet means understanding what your skills and abilities are and how you can use them in a new setting. As a manager, I'll help my people understand their strengths and talents so as change comes along they'll be able to adapt and still be able to add value.

Q: Sounds like you might be setting them up to think they should be looking for a new job. Is that a concern?
There's a little danger there. The other part of that is I treat them very well so they won't want to look for that next job. I'll look for opportunities to give them new and different projects. I'll give them stretch assignments -- neat projects. I'll spread the wealth a little bit and let the good and the great employees have good projects to work on. I'll give them a chance to be creative.
They won't all want that. There are certain highly technical people who are able to adapt to change pretty quickly and then others who resist it. As a manager, when I'm looking at a workforce, I might lead with people who are more able to tolerate the risks of doing something new and different. There are certain people who are really happy to go out and try new technologies. There are others who would be happy to write Cobol the rest of their lives.

Q: How do you tell the difference?
There are assessments that I use that will measure a person's stress in the workplace and indicate whether they change quickly or slowly. The one that I use is a behavioral assessment put out by Target Training, Inc... If I don't have money for that, what do I look for? I'm going to look for what people are reading. What are they learning about? Do they learn? Are they interested in the latest and the greatest? People who tend to be innovative and creative are interested in the next best thing to come along. Are they good problem solvers? Are they curious?

Q: How do you tell if someone is anxious?
There are specific behaviors that I look at. There are different degrees of resistance. If people are resistant to change, they tend to be overly critical. They'll be silent. They'll find reasons why it won't work. They'll agree very easily. 'Yah, that's a great idea.' 'Yah, do it.' But they'll fade into the background and never help you do it. These are all signs of different degrees of resistance... I need to start communicating with people fairly early in the process and sell the problem, not the solution. Very often when we're implementing a change, top management works behind closed doors because they've identified a problem. Then they spring the solution on people. You need to educate people that there is a problem and you need to do something about it. It's a communication plan, really.

Q: What communication mistakes are managers making?
If you keep introducing change after change after change, you nickel and dime people. They start waiting for the next shoe to fall. You've got to bundle changes so it's not that constant drip, drip, drip where they never get a moments rest.
It's really tempting to want to avoid being in an uncomfortable situation so you send out an email or a memo. You think, 'Well, I told them. It's off my plate.' You need to sit down face to face with people and talk with them. Become comfortable with the discomfort. That has to be part of the communication plan. If that's the way you communicate with people -- in a consistent, compassionate, believable way -- it can do amazing things. It can develop trust. It can rebuild it. Memos can't do that.

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