In a recent interview, actor Ethan Hawke encouraged aspiring directors and filmmakers to go beyond the details of cinematography and other aspects of the job and learn acting as well.
It’s a good point that deserves a bit of extrapolation.
There are all kinds of tips for how to be an effective manager and get the most out of your team. Many of them are good. Essential to achieving that goal, in my experience, is the kind of background Hawke alludes to.
The best managers, the kind of manager I’ve tried to be over the years, are those who have put in their time on the line. They know what they’re asking their team to do because they’ve done it themselves. That means requests and directions are less likely to be wholly unreasonable or unattainable. And it means that when things get tough they can jump in and lend a hand because they know how things work.
It’s not just about managing down, though. That experience they’ve had and the insights they’ve gained also inform how they manage up.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a manager placed somewhere in the middle of the organizational chart is dealing with the feedback and input from those above you. Some may have been promoted from within, but in many cases companies will bring in executives many years removed from such experience. When they offer their thoughts on what teams should be doing it is, to put the best possible spin on it, aspirational. At worst it’s irrational and unreasonable, ignorant of the realities of the job.
That’s not the best way to get results. It leads to wasted cycles as everyone has to explain once more what can or can’t be done and why. All of that winds up reflecting poorly on the worker, management or otherwise, who finds themself in an awkward situation. They may receive poor performance reviews when circumstances were largely out of their control.
Setting unrealistic expectations on workers can have long- and short-term effects, almost all of them negative, with subsequent impacts on productivity. In 2013 Gallup reported unhappy workers cost American companies between $450 and $550 million a year, at least some of which was likely because managers simply didn’t know how to lead even if they weren’t overly abusive and belittling.
“Leading by example” is a simple shorthand, but it goes beyond that. Managers should be intimately familiar with what they are asking their team members to do. And they should be acting as the first line of defense for their teams, shielding them from requests made by those higher up the food chain who don’t know that the system simply can’t produce the kind of report they’re looking for, or that the software won’t bend that way, or whatever the case may be.
The best part is that the experience someone gains travels with them, helping them as they themselves move up the ladder in that or another company. It benefits everyone because they know what they’re doing and what others are doing and has the potential to create an overall more reasonable, pleasant and productive work environment.