Managing People

What you may not learn in business school.

Posted May 18, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Today, a career counseling client told me he’d like to move from individual contributor to manager of people.

But while he's in-step with current management beliefs—Agile methodology, be collaborative and a good listener—he fears he’s too nice and that smart, strong supervisees could steamroll him.

He doesn’t want to spend the time and money on an MBA or other extensive management training. So he asked me if I could offer some streamlined advice.

Here’s a paraphrase of what I said.

You’re less likely to be steamrolled if, in the first day or two, you meet with each supervisee, one-on-one. In that meeting, make clear that you actually do care about your people, their goals, what brings out the best in them: more structure or less? More accountability or more freedom? Mentorship in some area?  Availability to answer even elementary questions? More resources?

Such understanding of course, will improve your supervisees' performance and make them more likely to support you. Even if one disagrees with you, if s/he likes you, s/he’ll want you to save face. For example, instead of trying to embarrass you in a meeting or bad-mouth or sabotage you outside of meetings, s/he'll more likely let it slide or raise the concern with you privately.

Also, it may help to keep in mind the four ways you can respond to a difficult comment:

  • Ignore it. That tactic is especially useful if the other meeting attendees likely think the comment is weak. Just listen carefully, without rolling your eyes, and perhaps paraphrase it back: "So you’d like us to reallocate more funds to process development." Sometimes, the person just needs to feel heard.
  • Offer a counter if you have a good one. If you don't but their comment requires a response, ask the attendees for their reaction. You don't need to have all the answers. Indeed if you always try, it disempowers the others.
  • Respond with a question. Sometimes, it can be as basic as “Would you flesh that out a bit for me?” Or, “I understand. How might you address (insert your concern.) Usually it’s wise to use a tactful tone but sometimes you might want to be more declarative, especially with a person who considers niceness a sign of weakness, an opportunity to gain power.
  • Buy time. Say something like, “I’d like to reflect on that. I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.”

If you too often have difficulty with a particular employee, ask yourself if it's wisest to give that person more feedback or training, put him on an improvement plan, or try to counsel her out. Many of my clients have found the latter to work well.

Here's how you might attempt to counsel-out someone: Take the person out for coffee, perhaps at a nice café near but not in your workplace. There, after a little small talk, say something like, “I appreciate (insert one thing you like about the person, perhaps even about their work performance.) But your job doesn’t seem a good fit for your strengths (insert one of their strengths.) This job places a premium on (insert the thing(s) s/he does poorly.) I’d like to try to help you find a better suited position within our organization or give you a helpful (It can still be honest) reference for outside." That can sometimes avoid a painful termination process.

Invariably, new and even experienced managers get stymied and/or have failures. That’s where your mentor(s) come in. Don’t be afraid to ask a trusted colleague or me how you might address a problem or how to prevent such problems in the future.

Of course, no few minutes of advice can convert an aspiring manager into a star. And while management is a teachable skill, fact is, some people are more likely to succeed as an individual contributor. But these few tips should help you get off to a good start.

My client said he really liked the tips, which is what motivated me to share them with you.

The 2nd edition of The Best of Marty Nemko is now available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at