The ONE Thing Great Managers Do

Do I tell you now or do I save the punch line for the end? Should I start with the problem or the solution?
I say, the Solution.

The Solution

What is the one thing that great managers do?
In the words and research of Marcus Buckingham, great managers “discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it.”
In short, they individualize.
Ok, so if there is a solution, it must mean that there was a challenge and a problem to begin with.

The Challenge: (Great) Managing is Hard

If you’ve ever managed even one person, you know that managing people is toughI hear it so frequently—from a lawyer running a small team to a region manager at a huge medical sales organization to a nurse at a national hospital—managing people is hard.
Well, great managing, anyway.
It turns out that other people are not as easy to control as you’d like. And they definitely do not always see eye-to-eye with you (or even come from the same planet at times!). 
Perhaps as much as you cajole or command, you cannot quite get to that optimum level of performance or collaboration. Or, no matter how eloquent the email or how exciting the launch, that productivity just does not follow. 
How frustrating. And now it reflects on you. How OTHER people perform is now something YOU are responsible for because you are the Manager. Now that’s a challenge.
And, there is a problem.

The Problem: Most Can’t Manage

I recently heard the updated figure from The State of the American Manager Report (2015) that only 1 in 10 people have the talent to manage. Another 2 in 10 exhibit some characteristics of basic managerial talent.
Well, you have seen how it happens, right? You are working hard and loving your role and you are really killing it. Perhaps you are outperforming your peers or you are leading the way. And you are so successful. You are so good at what you do as an individual.
And to reward that success? You get promoted to…the manager.
So now, all the things that made you successful as an individual (maybe a sales person, maybe an engineer, maybe an administrative coordinator, maybe an account manager), are expected to help make you successful as a manager.
I heard it from my boss when I first took a management role, in much the same way. “Just…just….just go have him do what you were doing.”
So if we’ve been promoted from within because we’re awesome at what we do, but only 1 in 10 are naturally talented with management characteristics, where does that leave the rest of us?
I’d say—in need of some serious tools. At least for me, I was grasping.

A Story: A New Manager

When I was working in for-profit healthcare services and sales several years ago, I was in that exact spot. Having been promoted after killing it in sales, I was put in charge of the entire region of reps. (Which is something I wanted, by the way).
Nothing like management to magnify the differences between people.
For example…my affectionately named reps, Spreadsheet Chuck and Surfer Patrick.
Spreadsheet Chuck was meticulous, detail oriented and exacting. He approached relationships with fun but also intensity. He analyzed everything with his pristine spreadsheets and kept on top of things by his organization.
Surfer Patrick was incredibly casual, came across as very laid back, and was effective in building relationships with that approachable style. But one look in the back of his car, and you’d see organization was not his strong suit.
They. Were. So. Different.  But they BOTH had to get to the same spot, to the same outcome of success—getting more physicians to refer their patients to us.
In this situation, our natural tendencies are to A—do what has been done to us, or B—do what we wish would be done to us. But do you know what the problem is with those strategies? They focus on us! On ME, the manager.
So, after banging my head against the wall and vowing never to look in the back seat of Patrick’s car again, I (thankfully!) stumbled on a tool.
So, back to the solution.

The Solution: A Tool For Managers to Individualize

Great managers individualize.
Great managers uncover what the individual needs to be most successful.
Great managers harness the Strengths and Talents of the individuals and help them direct their Strengths toward their projects and goals.
It was about the same I was being propelled into management that I also discovered that my marriage could be saved by the language of Strengths—specifically StrengthsFinder. And as that lightbulb went off over and over at home, I decided to see how the concepts would work with my team.  
I have to pause here to say that I didn’t have the buy-in of my management team. I tried to introduce StrengthsFinder and roll it out officially, but that wasn’t the culture and they wouldn’t have it.
So, instead, I used questions and shadowing and connecting and drawing conclusions to discover—what are Spreadsheet Chuck and Surfer Patrick’s strengths? What are the natural patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that they bring to their roles?
And how could I help harness that Strength and direct it toward our common goal?
With Spreadsheet Chuck and Surfer Patrick, my inclination would have been to create a process that worked for me and have them follow it. Chuck probably could have succeeded in that way, but Patrick, it would have shackled him. If he had to be sure that his car was pristine or his spreadsheets were exact, he never would have gotten out the door to do what he did best—build the casual, trusting relationship.
Instead we had conversations about harnessing his own, individual, unique Strengths to get to the goal. And finding ways to mitigate his weaknesses.
The results were kinda mind boggling. It worked. 
They met their goals as well as anyone else during that time. And what was even more spectacular is how fired up and engaged they were during our time together and with the other employees, as a result.
It can be a scary thing to do, to individualize–to let their strengths dictate the path they take to get to success. I certainly was not always at ease that Patrick couldn’t quite nail down that stack of referral pads in the mounds of open boxes he stored in his car. 
But, it really does work.
I had stumbled upon the solution: understand their natural strengths and individualize to each one. 
It is the one thing that all great managers do. (In my case, turns out it is great, even if it is accidental!)
[I am stoked to share this infographic to help managers do that ONE thing — Individualize!  Pin it, share it, print it, post it, USE it!]
  • If you are a manager, take stock of your team.
    • Do you individualize? Or do you tend to generalize? Do you know your team member’s strengths—what they not only do well but also energizes them?
    • This week, start by recognizing strength in one of your team members and telling him/her about it —e.g. your organization is meticulous or your laid back style really helps people take down their guard.
    • Then, work together to see how he/she can use more of that uniqueness in their role.
  • If you are an individual and not a manager, can you name 3 unique things about yourself that you both love to do and do exceptionally well?
    • This week, identify at least one thing that makes you feel strong and apply it to your role. (e.g. Notice you have an innate sense of the climate of a room, and use to know if its a good time to ask for a sale. Or recognize you do your best work when you think through it quietly first, so add 15 minutes of “thinking time” to your calendar before you open up your email for the day.)
[If you’re in doubt about this whole idea, check out this stellar HBR article. It really is a manager, must-read. And if you haven’t done it yet, take the StrengthsFinder assessment as a way to easily identify your strengths and the strengths of those around you.]

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