Be a great boss

Most organizations, especially federal agencies, suffer from undermanagement

Since 1993, I have studied the experiences of thousands of managers at all levels in a wide range of industries, including those of federal managers. My colleagues and I have conducted research and management training at many federal agencies, including the CIA and the Education, Defense, Labor and Treasury departments.

Our research confirms that across America, and certainly in the federal government, there is a shocking and profound lack of daily guidance, direction, feedback and support for employees from those who are their immediate supervisors. Too many leaders, managers and supervisors simply do not spend enough time attending to the basics of managing staff. This is what I call undermanagement. Its opposite is micromanagement.

Show me just about any problem in any workplace, and I’ll show you a case of undermanagement. Follow the trail into the workplace and behind the scenes and almost always I can show you a manager who is to blame. I’ve spent so much time behind the scenes in so many organizations that I can tell you this: Undermanagement is costing U.S. taxpayers a fortune every day.

It robs many federal government employees of the chance to have positive experiences in the workplace, reach greater success, and earn more of what they need and want. It causes many managers and leaders in the federal government to struggle, suffer and ultimately deliver suboptimal results. It sours dealings with vendors and customers. And it costs society in many ways.

Undermanagement is not a household word like micromanagement, but it should be because its effects make micromanagement look like a molehill. Undermanagement is an epidemic in today’s workplace, hiding in plain sight.

Managing people
It’s always been hard to manage people, and nowadays it’s a whole lot harder. The workplace is becoming high pressure, and the workforce is becoming high maintenance. Employees look to their immediate supervisors to meet their basic needs and expectations and freely make demands of their managers. Meanwhile, most managers, like everybody else, have more tasks and responsibilities of their own, along with more administrative duties.

Managers must deal with the hard realities of managing people today. You cannot always hire superstars. You have to hire the best person available, and often that person is in the middle of the talent spectrum, not at the top.

When you do hire superstars, they can be even harder to manage because employees do not have the power to do things their own way in the workplace, and they are not free to ignore tasks they don’t like.

Furthermore, employees don’t always earn praise, and those who do usually want tangible rewards, not just praise. And even if you set clear expectations, employees don’t always meet them. Somebody must be in charge, and employees must be held accountable, which makes dealing with failure a big part of managing.

Managing people is extremely difficult, and there are no easy solutions. In today’s high-pressure workplace, employees need bosses who prepare them for success every step of the way and help them earn what they need. To do that, managers need to practice the art of empowerment using guidance, direction and support.
In my seminars, I teach frustrated managers to copy what the most effective managers do every day. I’ve trained tens of thousands of managers in the techniques of strong, highly engaged, hands-on management.

Here is an executive summary of what I teach — eight steps that take managers back to the basics.

Make managing a habit
I tell managers they must get in the habit of managing every day.

Step 1: Start by setting aside one hour every day as dedicated time for managing. Decide which four or five people you are going to focus on each day. The goal is to have routine, brief, straight and simple one-on-one sessions with those employees. Fifteen minutes each should be all you need.

Step 2: Learn to talk like a coach. The best way to build rapport with your employees is by talking about their work. The most effective managers have a way of talking that is both authoritative and sympathetic, demanding and supportive, disciplined and patient. Don’t wait for problems to arise before you begin coaching. Here’s how to talk like a coach: Tune in to the employee you are coaching, focus on specific instances of that employee’s performance, describe the employee’s performance honestly and vividly, and suggest next steps for the employee to take.

Step 3: Take it one person at a time. As you talk with each employee, tune in to that person and adjust your approach as you would adjust the dial on a radio. The best way to tune in and keep fine-tuning your approach to each employee is to continually ask yourself six questions: Who is this employee? What do I need to talk about with this person? When should I talk to this person? Where should I talk with this person? Why do I need to manage this person? How should I talk with this person?

Step 4: 
Make accountability a real process. Accountability works as a management tool only if employees know in advance that they will have to answer for their actions. Employees must trust and believe that managers have a fair and accurate process for tracking their employees’ actions and holding them accountable. Here are eight steps managers must take to achieve that trust.
1. Make sure your employees know that they will have to explain their actions to you.
2. Focus on concrete actions within the direct control of the employee.
3. Be a boss who is known for holding people accountable.
4. Raise your standards.
5. Take charge on Day One, keeping in mind that today is always Day One.
6. Separate your role as boss from your personal relationships.
7. If you have no authority, use
8. If you don’t have the expertise, behave like a shrewd client.

Step 5: Tell people what to do and how to do it. Managers should outline expectations every step of the way. The best way to encourage employees to adopt best practices is to convert those practices into standard operating procedures and then require employees to follow them.

Give employees step-by-step checklists whenever possible, then follow up, follow up and follow up some more. Ask employees to think out loud about how they might approach their assignments, and jump in with questions: Can you do this? Are you sure? What do you need from me? How are you going to do that? How are you going to start? What steps will you follow? How long will each step take? What does your checklist look like?

Step 6: Track performance at each step. You must be able to refer to a written record of the expectations, goals, deadlines and requirements that you outlined. How did each employee’s concrete actions match up with those expectations? The more closely you keep track, the easier the process will be. The greater your reputation for being in command of all the details, the more people will share information with you and answer your questions fully and honestly. Monitor, measure and document performance with every employee every step of the way.

Step 7:
Solve small problems before they turn into big problems. Without daily or weekly conversations, a manager has no natural venue in which to provide employees with ongoing evaluation and feedback. In that situation, dealing with problems becomes a difficult conversation to be avoided. Addressing one small problem after another in the course of recurring conversations with employees is what continuous performance improvement looks like.

Step 8: Do more for some people and less for others. You can’t do everything for everybody — why would you want to? Give every employee a chance to meet the basic expectations of their jobs and then the chance to go above and beyond — and be rewarded accordingly. Be generous and flexible.

Expand your repertoire of rewards and start using every resource you have to improve employee performance. Make special deals and small accommodations in exchange for extra performance. Make expectations explicit, and help people earn what they need.

It’s OK to be the boss. Be a great one.

Tulgan is the founder of RainmakerThinking, a management training firm, and author of numerous books, including “Managing Generation X” and “Winning the Talent Wars.” He can be reached at
[email protected].
Management mythsMost managers move into positions of supervisory responsibility because they are  good at something but not usually because they are good at managing people. Yet, once promoted, most new managers receive little in the way of effective management training. The training they do receive is usually dominated by the prevailing management approach, which I call the myth of empowerment. It’s the No. 1 management myth today. It goes something like this: The way to empower people is to leave them alone and let them manage themselves.

According to that myth, managers should not closely monitor employees, and they certainly should not focus on failures. Employees should be made to feel they own their work and are free to make decisions. Managers are merely facilitators, there to align the talents and desires of employees with the appropriate roles in the workplace. Rather than telling employees how to do their jobs, managers should let them develop their own methods. The idea is that managers should make employees feel good, and results will take care of themselves.

However, the reality is that almost everybody performs better with guidance, direction and support from a more experienced person. If you want to truly empower people, you must define the terrain on which they have power. That terrain consists of goals with clear guidelines and concrete deadlines.

Consistently articulating the appropriate standards and expectations — what to do and how to do it — is the hard work of leading, managing and supervising. Within clear parameters, an employee has power. True, that power is limited, but it has the virtue of being real power.
Several other myths contribute to the undermanagement epidemic.

The Myth of Fairness

“The way to be fair is to treat everybody the same.” What’s truly fair is doing more for some people and less for others based on their performance and what they deserve.

The Myth of the Nice Guy
“The only way to be strong is to act like a jerk, but I want to be a nice guy.” Nice-guy managers do what it takes to help employees succeed so those employees can deliver great service for customers and earn more rewards.

The Myth of the Difficult Conversation
 “If I’m a hands-off manager, I can avoid confrontations with employees.” Being a weak manager makes confrontations inevitable, whereas being a strong manager means such confrontations will rarely occur, and when they do happen, they won’t be as painful.

The Myth of Red Tape
“Factors beyond my control — such as red tape, the corporate culture, senior management and limited resources — prevent me from being a strong manager.” Focusing on the many factors that are within your control is the way to make yourself a stronger manager. Meanwhile, learn the rules and red tape so you know how to work within and around them.

The Myth of the Natural Leader

 “I am not good at managing.” The best managers are people who learn proven techniques, practice those techniques until they become skills and continue practicing them until they become habits.

The Myth of Time
“There’s isn’t enough time to manage people.” You definitely don’t have time to deal with all the things that go wrong when you don’t spend enough time managing people. When you spend your time managing, you engage the productive capacity of your employees and improve the quality and output of their work. That’s a good return on investment and what I call high-leverage time.

— Bruce Tulgan


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