Imagine you’re playing a video game. You’ve spent hours and hours learning the lay of the land, where the obstacles are, where your goal is, and how to fight the various baddies who attack you. Finally, you’ve made it. You’ve beaten this level—and now you have to go on to the next level and learn a whole new set of skills.
You have to level up.
-From the manuscript for Level-Up—A Manager’s Manual for Surviving and Thriving in Today’s Workplace, by Art Petty
While we spend most of our time commiserating over bad managers and thinking and writing about seemingly super-human leaders, it’s most often the quiet, hard-working managers operating below the top-levels who make our organizations go and grow.
A good manager helps an organization go.
A great manager helps an organization and its people grow.
As the quote at the top of this article suggests, the job of managing isn’t something easily mastered. Succeed at one level, and there’s a whole new set of challenges steeped in ambiguity and uncertainty in front of you. Given our increasingly uncertain world where according to management thinker, Gary Hamel, “Even change is changing,” developing as a manager is a perpetual exercise in leveling up.
Getting Beyond Supervising and Delegating:
Success in this role transcends the reductionist view of management as one comprised of supervisory and compliance tasks. While this work is present, particularly on front-lines of organizations, it pales in comparison to the vital work of growing talent, serving customers, identifying and enabling change, and carrying out the work of strategy while spurring innovation. Managers own this stuff. If they don’t do it, no one will, including those at the top.
In Search of Great Managers in Our Organizations.
While the work of the manager is critical to today’s and tomorrow’s success, not all managers are created equal. We can all point to those who bide time, protect turf, revel in the political muck and fiercely guard the status quo. Those individuals give the label of “manager” a black eye.
Others, the ones I write for, find their sustenance and energy in surfing on the edge of chaos in pursuit of creating value for themselves, their teams and organizations.
The Six Areas of Focus of Great Managers:
Through my work with organizations and managers as an organizational leader as well as coach and management educator, I’ve identified six major areas effective managers focus their energy, time, and gray matter. These six categories define what I term the Level-Up Manager framework. They include:
1. Leading—setting the direction.
Great managers lead. It’s that simple. They’re either in the challenging role of translating ideas and strategies into success through and with others, or, they’re accountable for tackling and solving wicked problems.
Market-facing managers in sales and product are navigators responsible for setting sail into waters where competitors and disruptors lie in wait. They translate ambiguity and uncertainty into product, sales, and marketing strategies. “We’ll go this way,” is the battle cry of these managers as leaders.
Leveling up as a manager demands that you function as a leader where your primary job is to form and frame an environment for others to apply their gifts. The best managers lead with empathy, vulnerability, and humanity. And they back these values and behaviors with an unrelenting commitment to finding a way to succeed, regardless of the complexity.
2. Grinding—getting the work done.
You don’t get to manage if you don’t create the right results. While an organization’s senior leaders provide the framework and high-level rules of engagement, the managers own everything about turning ideas into actions and outcomes. And, they do this by guiding, inspiring, and helping others.
This job would be easy if it weren’t for the people. Great managers understand trust is the foundation of high performance. They continuously focus on growing trust and supporting others as this trust turns into actions and ultimately high-performance.
These managers create operating and communication routines that surface issues and obstacles and promote reinforcement of what works. And they do this with an emphasis on accountability, continuous learning steeped in constant coaching.
3. Teaming—creating exponential outcomes
Effective managers understand the potential for a multiplier effect from teams. And while most of us toss around the term and label “team” sloppily, these managers understand that creating high-performance teams is 100-percent an outcome of hard work.
They create the arenas for groups to coalesce into teams, and they enforce the rules—the values—fairly and relentlessly. And then they let people run at their imperfect best in an interpretative dance of collaboration that includes twists, tumbles, and ultimately, success.
4. Adapting—owning change
Human reaction to change is well-documented. Whether it’s a mountain lion that springs at us on a jogging trail (a good reason not to jog!) or the sudden pronouncement by top management that something new is happening, change breeds fear.
Great managers like great gamers relish the excitement and challenge of sensing and responding to something new in the environment. They see opportunity where others see fear. They teach their teams to revel in the ambiguity and then to create. These managers and their teams are chronic learners, experimenters, and innovators.
And while a sense-and-respond approach is essential, these managers also scan and see patterns in the noise and fog of the future. They understand intuitively that innovations such as autonomous driving will impact the obvious and non-obvious. They ask themselves and their teams questions such as: Why will autonomous vehicles lead to massive demand for artificial organs? (McKinsey: Fewer organs for transplantation from a predictable reduction in fatalities in intersections.) And then they and their teams seize opportunities or develop counter-measures.
5. Influencing—effecting positive outcomes
All managers operate in environments where policies, procedures, and bureaucracy reward compliance and maintenance of the status quo. Effective managers—great managers—understand the need for change for all of the reasons cited above. And they know that the human nature of their peers and bosses is working against them.
Great managers are master persuaders—not manipulators. They hone and apply their negotiation skills daily, in search of workplace solutions that benefit all involved.
6. Elevating—leveling up individual/team/firm
Elevating is my favorite component of the Level-Up Manager framework. This is where great managers engage in that most positive of behaviors—raising those around them. I’ve long believed it’s our job to create heroes out of the people we work with (and for).
Great managers strive to succeed in every encounter. And when they succeed, they help elevate those who created success without the expectation of anything for themselves in return.
To them, creating heroes is a measuring stick of managerial success. Whether it’s the team or individual that delivered something remarkable, these managers shine the spotlight brightly on everyone but themselves. In the process, they gain the loyalty and trust essential to leading and managing at a higher level.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
There are few positions in the emerging world of work more critical and more exciting than the new role of manager. While not often referenced as such, managing is a creative role where you work with people of all types in pursuit of designing something that works—a team, a function, a strategy, or a project. And for you as the manager, it’s a daily challenge to level-up, often based on what you learned the hard way yesterday.