What Makes Managers Invaluable Assets in Organizations?

In a recent job description for a Vice President position, I came across an intriguing statement: "You must be an exceptional individual contributor. Your role is not merely to delegate tasks to others." This implies that even as a Vice President, with a team of 8-10 direct reports and the responsibility of leading an organization, the focus should still be on personal projects. It begs the question: what exactly does a VP do all day? Are they simply lazing around, issuing orders from their desk?

As someone who values the significance of a thoughtful and engaged leader, I find such statements to be outdated and misguided. Unfortunately, this mindset has become quite pervasive. Mark Zuckerberg garnered attention for expressing his desire to eliminate the hierarchical management structure within his company: “I don’t think you want a management structure that’s just managers managing managers, managing managers, managing managers, managing the people who are doing the work.”

Elon Musk shared his perspective on what he considers to be the most problematic aspect of Twitter: “There seem to be 10 people ‘managing’ for every one person coding.”

It's clear that the traditional view of leadership, where executives focus solely on their own projects and delegate everything else, is being challenged. The evolving understanding is that leaders should actively participate in guiding their teams, fostering collaboration, and shaping the organization's direction. This modern approach acknowledges the importance of hands-on leadership and rejects the notion of detached management.

Effective leaders inspire and empower their teams, leading by example and actively contributing to collective efforts. They understand the value of collaboration, communication, and fostering a sense of purpose. By doing so, they create a dynamic work environment that cultivates growth and innovation.

The concept of a Vice President or any executive being primarily an individual contributor is outdated. The role of leadership has evolved, emphasizing the importance of engaged leaders who actively guide their teams and drive organizational success.

While it's true that certain companies may have overly complex management structures, some of the criticisms against managers seem to undervalue the significant contributions that effective leaders can make. These comments imply that managers are essentially useless and that we would be better off without them.

It is regrettable that many individuals fail to recognize the crucial role a great manager plays in achieving impactful outcomes. A skilled manager can make a difference in team engagement, fostering motivation, and ultimately determining whether a project thrives or languishes. They can be the linchpin in retaining talented individuals or experiencing high turnover. The presence of a competent manager can often be the deciding factor between success and failure.

Considering the value of management as an essential activity, it begs the question: what should a great manager prioritize in their role?

One of the primary responsibilities of an effective manager is to build and nurture their team. This involves establishing the framework within which the team operates: how they collaborate, prioritize tasks, communicate, and recognize individual contributions. A great manager proactively addresses these aspects and focuses on several key areas:

1. Defining mission, vision, and strategy: It's crucial for a manager to ensure that everyone on the team understands the purpose, direction, and key focus areas of the team. By clarifying the team's goals, a manager ensures that everyone is aligned and moving forward together.

2. Hiring and team composition: A great manager knows the significance of hiring individuals who not only possess intelligence and talent but also align with the team's goals and culture. Careful consideration is given to selecting team members who will contribute effectively to the collective success.

3. Creating team artifacts: To support the team's growth and success, a manager should develop essential resources such as a comprehensive onboarding plan and, when relevant, playbooks that outline the best practices for delivering excellent work within the team.

4. Fostering a positive team culture: A great manager actively works on creating an environment where team members can connect, thrive, and feel engaged. By promoting collaboration, open communication, and mutual support, a manager cultivates a culture that encourages the team's overall well-being and success.

5. Building connection opportunities: Effective managers lead interactive staff meetings, organize regular offsites (even if they have to be virtual), and facilitate conversations on team communication platforms. The goal is to create a team that is not just a collection of individuals but a tightly integrated unit where collaboration and cohesion are fostered.

Research by McKinsey has highlighted that managers have a significant impact on job satisfaction through their role in fostering positive interpersonal relationships. Considering that people spend a substantial amount of their waking hours at work, it is crucial for a manager to create an environment where team members genuinely enjoy being part of the team. By focusing on building strong relationships and a positive work atmosphere, a great manager ensures that their team becomes a place where individuals thrive and feel fulfilled.

Developing the team is a crucial aspect of a manager's role, where they go beyond the traditional managerial activities. Managers are accountable for ensuring their team consistently produces exceptional work that not only meets expectations but also contributes to the overall success of the company.

To achieve this, great managers become passionate coaches who provide meaningful and actionable feedback to help their team members grow and excel. Although coaching can be time-consuming and requires a different skill set from doing the work oneself, its value is immeasurable.

Here are some examples of how great managers coach their team:

1. Reviewing key deliverables: Take the time to review and provide input on important presentations or deliverables created by team members. Instead of nitpicking small details, focus on the big picture, key messages, and communication style. Assess whether the conclusion is logical and effective. Even if you haven't been involved in the day-to-day details, your external perspective can offer valuable insights.

2. Being a practice audience: Some team members may create excellent deliverables but struggle when it comes to presenting them. Offer a practice round where they can present to you, providing feedback and asking challenging questions. This helps them build confidence and prepares them for presenting to executives or other stakeholders.

3. Role-playing difficult conversations: Difficult conversations are inevitable in any work environment. Help your team members prepare for challenging situations such as delivering bad news, managing difficult stakeholders, or keeping the focus of distracted executives. Instead of merely giving advice, engage in role-playing scenarios, where you act as the other person to simulate real-life situations.

It cannot be emphasized enough: prioritize time with your team. Regular one-on-one meetings with your direct reports should be held weekly and should be considered sacred on your schedule. Only cancel them if your team member explicitly states that they don't need it. Otherwise, always make time for dialogue, regardless of the circumstances.

During these meetings, your team members may seek feedback or coaching as mentioned earlier, or they may need a sounding board for their ideas or simply want to connect and discuss team dynamics and their role. The subject of the conversation is their choice, but you are responsible for being available and fully present for them. This commitment to your team's growth and well-being is paramount.

Evolving the team is a crucial aspect of a manager's role, as they must constantly think ahead and plan for the growth and development of both individuals and the team as a whole. Great managers act as coaches who not only prepare for immediate challenges but also consider the long-term progression of their team.

Here's how great managers drive the evolution of individuals:

1. Feedback: Provide thoughtful and specific feedback to team members on a regular basis, at least quarterly. Leverage performance expectations to guide your feedback, helping individuals understand their strengths and areas for improvement.

2. Growth planning: Assist team members in creating development plans that outline steps to take them to the next level. Regularly check in on their progress, offering guidance and support as needed, ensuring they are making meaningful strides towards their goals.

3. Challenging work: Offer stretch opportunities to team members, allowing them to tackle more complex and demanding tasks. Be prepared to provide coaching and support as they navigate these challenges, encouraging their growth and expanding their capabilities.

In addition to individual development, great managers also focus on evolving the team as a whole:

1. Reinvent: Periodically assess whether your team's mission and current services align with the evolving needs of the company. As the company's goals and priorities shift, some initiatives may need to be reprioritized or adapted to ensure alignment.

2. Expand capabilities: Consider what new capabilities your team can contribute to the organization. Identify gaps in the organization's skill set and explore opportunities for your team to fill those gaps. Engage with leaders you support to understand their future needs and proactively work towards meeting them.

3. Deepen skills: Foster a culture of continuous growth and improvement within your team. Brainstorm ways to provide opportunities for skill development and training sessions that keep team members engaged and continuously advancing their abilities.

By actively evolving both individuals and the team as a whole, great managers ensure that their team remains adaptable, aligned with organizational goals, and equipped to meet future challenges head-on. Career Pathing and Growth Opportunities: Fostering Employee Retention and Satisfaction

Certainly, managers have a responsibility to add value to the company, and it's advantageous for them to have firsthand experience in the individual contributor work performed by their direct reports. This experience not only provides valuable insights but also enhances their credibility as leaders.

However, it's important to consider the analogy of a sports team without a coach or movies without directors. Just as a sports team relies on a coach to guide and strategize, and movies require directors to orchestrate the creative process, organizations benefit from strong managers who create conditions for their teams to thrive. They provide leadership that fosters greatness and continually pushes both individuals and the team to excel.

A great manager's role extends beyond solely doing individual contributor work. They possess the skills to inspire, motivate, and align the team towards shared goals. They create an environment that encourages collaboration, innovation, and continuous improvement. By providing guidance, support, and mentorship, they nurture the growth and development of their team members.

Ultimately, a strong manager brings value by cultivating a culture of excellence, unlocking the potential of each individual, and driving collective success. Recognizing the significance of this role is essential as it contributes to the overall success of the team and the organization.

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