How to Not Suck at Managing a Team
A sizable chunk of the frustration I’ve felt throughout my professional life can be attributed to being stuck on a team that wasn’t being run efficiently. From pointless meetings to cryptic instructions, to broken communication channels: to work on a team whose productivity is being throttled from the top down is to know pain.
Having suffered through many adventures on such teams in the past, I’ve unearthed nine rules that will keep any team running smoothly if applied consistently.
1. Send emails
“Oh but my team doesn’t work that way, we always communicate in Teams/Slack”
Then you’re not doing it right.
Slack is for messages you’ll never need to reference again.
Teams is great when you’re collaborating with a group on a presentation or brainstorming ideas for a proposal.
But anytime you need to communicate something that might need to be referenced again in the future, a good old fashioned email is the tool you need.
Emails shouldn’t look like text messages. Drop the shorthand vernacular. Write clear, coherent sentences. Ask yourself how any given line might be misinterpreted before hitting send.
The act of structuring written communication has significant downstream benefits.
In the course of writing, you’ll occasionally pause and experience frustration at not being able to form sentences the way you want. Working through that frustration and getting the words right serves the function of organizing your thoughts and makes you a better manager, speaker, and presenter in the process.
Write emails and simultaneously become better at your other core job functions.
And on that note….
2. You haven’t asked anything of your team until you’ve written it down
Subordinates need precise, written direction to be able to deliver to your expectations. No one can memorize the instructions you bark at them on a call. If you leave it to others to make note of what you want from them, you risk mistranslation, redos, and wasted time.
Many lazy managers will object to this. “I have too many people! There’s no way I could write out everything I need them to do!”
You can summarize it and discuss details during checkpoints and ask them to email their questions if they don’t understand. This exercise has a lot of value as the act of writing out questions helps people get a clearer picture of what they’re doing as they dig deeper into the subject matter so they can phrase their questions correctly.
Team leaders should stay in a regular cadence of communicating big picture plans to their subordinates and writing out what they need from each one to make it happen. When managers complain their team isn’t delivering as expected, my first question is: did you write down what you wanted them to do? No? Then it’s your fault.
3. Communicate as to not be misunderstood
“Don’t communicate to be understood, communicate so that you can’t be misunderstood” is sage and timeliness advice. Look around you and stand in awe at how many exchanges would have gone better if this rule had been followed.
A message is more valuable if it can be forwarded and still make sense to the next few people it reaches without requiring extra context every step of the way. Every time you write something, pause and ask yourself which parts are susceptible to mistranslation, then clarify them.
4. Always have an example ready
The most powerful phrase in business is “For example…”
Every time you say it, lightning flashes, thunder rolls, and dots are connected in the minds of silent listeners who you need to do good work.
Each day, meetings are plagued with leaders who forget that half their team has gotten lost in their monologic word salad. Taking time to pause and give examples draws listeners back into the fold.
5. Assign tasks with deadlines
Here’s a dirty little secret that everyone knows but few talk about: very few people put in eight full hours of work day in and day out.
Human beings are inherently lazy. They get comfortable quickly and settle into productivity purgatory, comfortably doing enough to get by and little else.
It is your job to know this and to drive that laziness out of them.
“When can you have that done?” should be constantly on the tip of your tongue. If they don’t know, tell them. And then hold feet to the fire.
6. Plan meetings
Every meeting must have a description, agenda, and desired outcomes. You have reached a heightened state of business nirvana when your eyes automatically start to bleed every time you see a meeting invite with an empty body.
“But this meeting is just between me and a close co-worker and we know exactly what it’s for!”
Doesn’t matter. Write it out anyway. Reinforce the habit. Drive the lazy desire to skimp out of yourself.
This will help you…
7. Keep meetings as short as possible (and don’t go over)
There are a few meetings where you practically might not be able to cut it off at the planned time. Namely, those with your superiors. Keep a buffer after any such meeting to plan foryour inability to step away.
Otherwise, respect the meeting end time every time. When the clock strikes zero, end the meeting and schedule a follow-up if necessary. The break between sessions will help everyone digest the discussion and re-organize their thoughts. The strict cutoff sets expectations that meetings end on time and trains attendees to work within allotted schedules.
8. “Working sessions” are for rubes
Teams need to meet to communicate progress, discuss issues, strategize on big decisions, and brainstorm ideas. But to productively get work done, they need time alone.
People work far more efficiently individually than in groups. Too often managers abuse “working sessions” to dictate instructions while subordinates get their hands dirty. Having multiple people on a call for an hour while the senior person thinks out loud and underlings try to translate his thoughts into pictures on a slide is a cardinal business sin and an incredible waste of time.
It is much better for leaders to set the direction, assign tasks, and set a time for everyone to reconvene to show progress. An appropriate working session involves multiple teams coming together to collaborate. Within the scope of a single team, you should train yourself to feel a little nauseous every time the phrase “working session” is spoken.
9. Insist that your team adheres to these principles as strictly as you do
When all nodes in the system are firing optimally, productivity skyrockets. Hold yourself to these rules so that you can credibly hold your team to them as well, and have no shame in doing it.
“Oh but I don’t do these things because it’s not my style and I’m still successful in my job!”
That’s great. I believe you. But you’re leaving a lot on the table.
Communication and leadership styles largely vary by personality, background, and personal preference. Some managers are cheerleaders, some nurturers, some hardasses. There are plenty of examples of highly successful managers across each category. Yet these guidelines work for everyone, regardless. They are not personality-dependent or open to interpretation. They just work.
Make them work for your team.