The 3 Pillars of Management
Since my very first job, I have always judged my managers and supervisors by two simple metrics.
The first: their people skills. This is one of the most visible traits of a good (or bad) manager, as it impacts how they deal with their workers, their superiors, workplace challenges, distributing benefits and advancement opportunities…and so much more.
The second: performance. Basically, do they seem competent? I quickly learned that regardless of my expertise or novice status in a new job, I could tell how well-equipped my managers were to do their own jobs well.
One of my favorite managers, a chef, was obviously brilliant at what he did, and knew it; but he was also impressively self-aware and outspoken about his lack of baking skills. He hired me as a baker because he knew he couldn’t bake consistently, quickly, and at a high enough quality on his own. Pride never drove him to overextend himself beyond his expertise, and he never missed an opportunity to thank me, praise my ability, and listen to my advice and perspective when it came to matters of baking.
The Right Tool for the Job
Of course, working in a kitchen insulated me from a third, emerging metric of evaluating managers that I have since come to view as being at least equal in importance to my two old standards: digital relationship management, or how managers lead people to work with technology.
The technology of the food service industry has effectively changed very little, compared to most of the rest of the economy: basically, cooking still just involves applying heat and following directions, and there are few tools that can substitute effectively for hands and experience.
Almost everywhere else, technology has been disruptive, transformative, and generally integrated ever more deeply to the work done at every level of the organizational totem pole.
I, like many, am always fascinated to learn the tools of any new trade, and tend to assume that tech serves only to make systems more efficient, people more productive, and generally advance how business is conducted. But that isn’t so much the rule, as it is the result of effective management.
Great managers must shepherd the relationships their organizations have with shiny new tools and toys to ensure that they are actually used to maximum effect—and don’t become a hindrance, or worse.
One of my worst managers was actually the one who taught me the importance of this third, tech-centered metric. She had recently come into her position at the head of a marketing firm where I had been working, and most of us were happy for her success. She had definitely mastered my first metric, the people skills side.
I wish I could say she had mastered the second metric: basic competence. For a while, I thought it was obvious that she had, until I noticed her unsettling habit of breaking our company computers.
We did a lot of work on computers—drafting, design, taking orders and submitting samples for customer review. Our computers also connected us to a whole host of state-of-the-art printers, scanners, and other expensive tools we made use of pretty regularly.
When these tools functioned, my manager could get a lot of quality work done. But at the first sign of something unexpected, our whole workflow would come to a grinding halt, and she would simply wave a white flag and wait for tech support to come fix the problem.
Deus Ex Machina
What compounded this issue was that she refused to learn any of the simple trouble-shooting skills our support team provided. They were paid by the hour, yet dispensed countless tips and tricks that would reduce our dependence on them—and my manager ignored every single one. She went even further, ordering the rest of our team not to follow support’s advice, or engage in any troubleshooting on our own.
The problem wasn’t that she was incompetent—she just didn’t know how to engage with technology when it didn’t perform as expected. She held us all back, because she didn’t focus on managing our relationships with technology. Whatever our individual levels of comfort with these tools, she set the tone for our relationships and work habits; and she taught us to fear our own tech.
Part of that relationship involves constant learning, just to keep up with how the world is changing. Adult education is not just a hobby for the retired or a gateway for stay-at-home parents to get back into the workforce: it is a modern necessity, that, sooner or later, we all need to embrace to stay relevant.
There are many ways a leader can succeed at his or her job, win the hearts and minds of an organization, yet utterly fail to account for how that organization interacts with technology. That is a critical and too often overlooked aspect of modern management. A manager, to be effective, must stay current with changes in technology as well as helping the entire team to keep up as well.
For my part, I’ve long since learned to withhold judgment when it comes to how managers interact with their teams. After all, there is no single right way to lead, motivation, challenge, and develop a diverse set of individuals within an organization. I have seen a lot of styles that work, and some that didn’t, and they all looked different—and I often mistook which was which at first.
Competence is harder to mistake. By far, the most nuanced management skills are those dealing with technology. Leaders can set the tone for how an organization copes with changing technology, takes advantage of emerging tools, and inspires individuals to learn independently.
When I am getting to know a manager, the most important thing for me to find out is how that person works with technology personally, and how he or she coaches the rest of the organization to manage their digital relationships.