Managing is hard work for so many reasons. From the challenges of dealing with people and personalities to the never-ending, ever-growing lists of things to do, often with conflicting priorities, it’s a tough job.

Yet, when I explore the stress points with struggling managers and ask some questions, I often discover they are attempting to execute their role without the benefit of a clear, well-described Manager Operating System. This is like trying to operate your laptop or mobile device with a critical set of low-level instructions missing. The device might power up and operate sort-of, but when programs and apps keep crashing, it becomes useless.

Successful managers work hard to ensure their Manager Operating System is complete, visible, and tangible to everyone on their teams.

The Six Programs Essential for an Effective Manager Operating System

1. Shared Rules for Success

Yes, your organization has a set of values somewhere that define the desired behaviors. If they are solid and visible values, great; however, you need a bit more specificity at your group’s level.

Work with your team members to define what it means to be a part of the group. Use these starter thoughts to invite discussion and then codify your Shared Rules for Success.

  • What does accountability mean for everyone in this group, including you as a manager?
  • What are the expectations for respect between members?
  • How will group members disagree, problem-solve, and collaborate?
  • What does commitment mean?
  • How will people communicate with each other?
  • What are the expectations for experimentation and learning?

…and so forth.

2. Manager and Group Member Role Clarity

Role clarity across a group is fundamental for high performance. In too many situations, it is missing in action.

Clarity starts with the manager. Ask your team what they need from you. (Their needs vary based on the organization’s situation and the makeup of the individuals.) Use Angela’s Question as a prompter: “At the end of our time working together, when we’re, and you’re successful, what will you say I did?

Use the output from Angela’s Question to create your role charter. It starts with, My role in this group is to… . Grow it from there.

Have each member of your team collaborate with the group to define their role at the same level of clarity. I’ve worked with groups that have had each member create and share a Personal Role Charter.

3. Context to Create Focus

It’s the manager’s job to ensure that everyone has clear context for their work and priorities and understands how they fit into the bigger picture of strategy and organizational goals.

It’s this critical context for what’s important and how their work matters that fuels performance. Context on goals and strategies facilitates easier prioritization and encourages creativity and innovation.

You, as the manager, own ensuring organizational goals and strategies are reflected in everyone’s priorities. You also own ensuring alignment with your boss (boss-clarity) for priorities and goals.

Strategies, goals, and conditions change, so ensuring current context is an always-on initiative for you as the manager.

4. Clear Communication Protocol

Communicating is everyone’s job. While much of daily communication is ad hoc and focused on operational issues, there are circumstances and events where expectations and processes must be clear. A few of these include:

  • A working plan for proper coaching and development-focused one-on-ones.
  • A process for team meetings that promotes transparency and idea-sharing.
  • A 911-process so that team members understand when to engage each other and you as problems emerge.
  • An unwavering commitment to a “Seek first to understand” approach between group members.

5. Decision Protocol

Nothing happens without a decision. Your Manager Operating System must include:

  • Your commitment to never holding people and initiatives hostage to a decision
  • A process for getting to the real problem when issues are swirling. (What problem are we trying to solve here?)
  • Training and a process for reframing situations that promotes creative solution development.
  • Focus on separating facts from noise.
  • A decision-journal/log process that captures critical decisions and offers data to support subsequent analysis and continuous improvement.

6. Career Development Processes

The best managers embed the process of professional development in their daily work. They work with group members to identify and seize opportunities in real-time for learning and growth.

Career development discussions must take place frequently—not just during performance reviews.

The individual owns their career, but it’s your job as a manager to encourage exploration, support learning, and open up new opportunities.

The Manager Operating Systems Eliminates Flail and Fail

Let’s distill down what the base instructions or routines are in this Manager Operating System.

  1. Shared operating principles
  2. Role Clarity
  3. Clear context on what matters
  4. Communication norms
  5. Decision processes
  6. Career development protocol

The presence of these base-level instructions enables the manager and individuals to execute their roles efficiently. The operating system clarifies the right issues and provides the basis for prioritization. It offers essential guidelines and guardrails for dealing with both routine work and the exceptions and outliers. The absence of any of those programs or protocols invites friction and inefficiency to the party. If the Manager Operating System is incomplete or outdated, clashes and crashes become the norm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s more to the job of managing, but this is a darned good start. At the beginning of my management career, I wish I had understood these were the areas I had to work on first to begin building a healthy, productive working environment for everyone. If you’re new to managing or even if you’ve been at it for some time, you and your group members will be well served by creating or upgrading your Manager Operating System.

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