The Art, Craft, and Science of Great Management

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By Janet Choi

When you meet management consultant Anne Libby, you can’t help but notice her passion and clarity in talking about how to bring workplaces to their senses.

Great management, according to Anne, is a “mixture of art, craft and science” — which can be a foggy path to navigate. Throughout our interview, Anne offers both practical tips and food for thought to help managers and the people around them do their best and become great managers.

Tell me about a common problem managers encounter.

People think they should already know how to manage — that it’s a natural thing that happens and therefore, they should be good at it. It’s as likely that you would be good at managing as you would be at playing the violin. It’s a complex skill. Just because you’re an awesome developer doesn’t mean that you’re awesome at managing other devs.

How do you learn to be a great manager?

When things don’t turn out the way you want — for example, when you tell someone to do something and three weeks later you find out they didn’t do it — if your first reaction is to be mad at the person, that’s probably not going to work.

Instead it’s always an opportunity to ask yourself: “what could I have done differently?” Sometimes the answer is nothing, but often you really weren’t communicating what you think you were.

There’s also how you’re getting feedback. Does your organization value giving and receiving feedback so this practice is built into the ordinary course of business? Or do you have to figure out how to gather it for yourself? It depends on the cultural context of your organization.

Understanding context is part of appreciating the human element of management. How important is that personal aspect?

You’re not managing tasks, you’re managing the whole person, and you need to honor that.

Another common management issue is failing to understand how complex the context is. Your family, your workplace, and your peer relationships are complicated, so it’s just as important to honor the complexity of the people that work for you as it is to honor the complexity of the people that are in the rest of your life.

What’s one way to introduce that personal element at work?

Sometimes things get too personal at work and that can become problematic. If you want to get to know your people better, get to know some of their career goals. This is both personal and professional.

Veronika Sonsev, CEO and cofounder of InSparq, told me about a great way she leads. First, she finds out the top three goals you want to have on your resume when you leave the company, and then the top two things you want her to say about you in a recommendation. Then every week, she does a planning session to figure out how to get you one step closer to those bullet points.

Understanding what people’s goals are and what is incentivizing them is really important. Like right now, if I had a boss, they’d want to know that I’m trying to figure out how to spend more time with family in Chicago. One week a month you can work remotely in Chicago? That would be a really powerful thing to give to me that’s both personal and work.

And just like I’m saying the great manager should know what their team members’ goals are, people should know some of their manager’s personal goals too. The more transparency you have over goals, the more people can reach out and help one another. 

Communication is often at the root of management difficulties. What one thing would you recommend managers do to improve communication?

For teachers, there’s a saying:  “Tell them what you told them. Tell them again.” Thinking that you told someone something is not enough. How do you know if the person and you understood the same thing? There are so many levels of complexity in that.

If you think you’re communicating something, it’s your job to make sure that the message was both given and received. That’s true of all of us. Think about how you manage your personal life: you can’t just tell someone something and expect that it’s going to happen. It happens in the context of everything else, and life is complicated.

That seems to be an especially challenging part of email.

People think it’s easier. The most common problem I see with this is people trying to work out a relationship or performance issue by email. You should never ever ever do that. You think you’re writing it down so you’re communicating it really well. It never works.

If you have a problem with someone, you need to look at their face. FaceTime or Skype them. At a minimum, talk to them on the phone. The best is to sit down in a room with them where you’re seeing their body language and facial expression, unmediated by technology. Writing it down is good but write it down for yourself so you have a script. But if you email somebody because you’re nervous about saying something, it’s probably not going to work out well.

Being thoughtful about what you do and don’t want to use email for is the best thing you could do for your company’s communication.  When is it important to be together? What are the things we need to be together for? What are the things that are okay to use technology to mediate? The companies that ask those questions will be more scalable.

Say hi to Anne on Twitter at @annelibby and on her blog.

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