What Great Managers Do

What do great managers do? Just about the opposite of what great leaders do, according to Marcus Buckingham, a consultant on leadership and management and author of several books, including First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999). Buckingham draws on years of research to show how great managers get their people to perform beyond expectations. He told Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka that it all comes down to chess vs. checkers.

Managers get so little respect. They're treated like leader wannabes who haven't made the grade. What's the real difference between those roles?

Both are really important roles and really, really different. The job of the leader is to rally people toward a better future. It's externally focused, optimistic, ego-driven. Leaders see the present, but the future is even more vivid to them. The key skill is to cut through individual differences and tap into those things all of us share: fear of the future and the need for clarity.

The role of the manager is very internally focused: to turn one person's talent into performance; to ask, "Who is the person? What is his or her unique style of learning? What unique trigger must I squeeze to get the best out of him?" The challenge is to find what's unique and capitalise on it. It's really different but hugely important in a company. It's a role that's been undervalued.

People think of managers as leaders in waiting, but these are two very different abilities. The manager's role is catalytic. A great manager speeds up the reaction between the talent of people and the goals of the company. When that role is not valued, reactions are slowed down. If you want to know the future of a company, look at the quality of the managers.

"Average managers play checkers while great managers play chess." What do you mean by that?

In chess, all the pieces move differently; in checkers, they all move the same. Many IT managers would love it if all programmers thought alike, but a great manager knows that's absolute bunkum. A great manager figures out who's the knight, the queen, the pawn. He coordinates all those very different abilities and contributions into the service of the overall plan. He builds a team out of individuals.

Can you give me an example of how an IT manager might play chess with his staff?

Great managers talk about strengths -not things you can do well, but things that strengthen you. They're appetites as much as abilities - things you're drawn toward. A weakness isn't something you're bad at; it's something that drains, bores or frustrates you. An IT manager ought to be able to find out, for example, that this person loves to pull together and stay till midnight to meet that deadline. That urgency, passion, camaraderie makes him feel alive. Others need to go step by step and see the timeline and stick to it very religiously - never get behind the eight ball.

In the IT world, where it's "Do it for me yesterday," it's pretty important to know which of your people love that pressure and which are drained by it. If crunch time weakens you, you can't learn to love it. You can do it once or twice and then you'll quit -- psychologically or physically.

You say this kind of management introduces a good kind of disruption into the workplace. Can you explain?

When you don't think of a pawn as waiting to become a queen, but as someone with a unique way of looking at the world, then you can be open to the insight a pawn has. You can think of each job as having a certain expertise and help people extend their contribution. Take someone on a help desk. The insights that can come from a really expert help desk pro -- about what clients are really looking for, how the system works, where the bugs are -- are the most valuable intelligence a company can collect.

A healthy amount of disruption also means new areas of prestige. Most companies have very little prestige, and a few at the top have it and lots at the bottom don't. Much better to have many alternative avenues toward respect and prestige.

How might an IT manager learn a staff person's strengths?

Many ways. The most direct is to ask people: "What was your best day at work in the last three months? What were you doing, and why did you love it? What have you learned quickly?" Strengths are almost always picked up fast; it's as if you already had it in your head. Strengths are satisfying. "What's your greatest satisfaction at work? What do you love to do?" Watch to see what people are drawn to. Managers more often focus on weaknesses, but great managers know that will get you incremental improvement. If you invest in strengths, you get exponential improvement -- a much better return on investment.

A manager also needs to be able to trigger a person's best performance. How do you find that trigger?

Observe and ask, "What was the best manager relationship you ever had, and what made it so good?" Let them ramble for a bit, and you'll find out a lot. One of the best triggers is recognition, but people like different kinds: public, private, peers, customers. Ask, "What was the best recognition you've had?" Few managers bother to ask that question, so there's an endless giving of plaques to people.

Finally, you write that a manager needs to understand a person's learning style. How do you do that?

Ask them, "When in your career have you learned the most, and why did you learn so much? In which classes did you learn the most and why? Which did you enjoy the most and why?" It's so much easier to do than to talk abstractly. Then take those three dominant learning styles and say, "Do you think you're a doer, an analyser, a watcher?" Use those three as keys. For most of us, one will dominate. Once you know their strengths, triggers and learning styles, you've got enough to start playing chess.

This is the latest in a series of monthly discussions with Harvard Business Review authors on topics of interest to IT managers.

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