Management Success: Learning to 'Get Results Through Other People'Published: January 06, 2011
Melody Skinner, like most managers, was thrown into her job with little training. She went from being one of the office gang to a leader with the responsibility for laying out goals and motivating her staff to attain them. Skinner had to write performance reviews and, in some cases, discipline or terminate her former colleagues. "Nothing really prepares you. So much is expected of you. You just have to jump in and get your feet wet," says Skinner, who worked as a manager at Burns International Security, a security firm, and Qualimetrics and Visimation, both technology firms, before returning to college and business school in mid-life.
A scholar in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program at Mills College in Oakland, Ca., Skinner is now earning an MBA and learning new tools to make her a better manager when she returns to the business world.
Combining her real-world experience with lessons from the classroom, Skinner has learned that negotiating skills are critical for successful managers. "Every interaction with a person is actually a mini-negotiation," she says. "Situations can be defused and result in better outcomes if managers pay attention not necessarily to what the person is saying, but to what his or her underlying position might be."
A Missed Opportunity
Skinner recalls sitting in on a staff meeting that disintegrated into an angry argument between an engineer and his immediate supervisor. Those at the meeting were embarrassed and frustrated because the meeting, like others, had become another negative waste of time. It turns out, Skinner later learned, that the engineer was growing resentful over the excessive amount of travel he was doing for work. The underlying subtext began to spill over into his attitude toward the company as a whole. Ultimately he left. "He took so much experience out the door," Skinner says.
Looking back, Skinner says that management failed to address his true concern -- travel -- and ultimately missed an opportunity to preserve a valuable asset. "They lost so much by not drilling down and dealing with the real issue," she notes.
Skinner has also learned how to frame her approach to employees. She says many managers identify employees' strengths and weaknesses and then expect the workers to somehow find ways to make up for the weak spots on their own. Better managers, she says, are proactive -- with specific ideas for employees on how to not only compensate for weaknesses, but enhance their strengths. The upside for the manager is that by providing opportunities for employees to develop, the team gains more capability and flexibility. A flexible team makes the manager's life easier because it provides more options in carrying out business plans.
Nancy Williams, who teaches operations management at Mills and has been a manager for 30 years, says the ability to lead is essential for managers to succeed. "When you are leading other people, you have to remember that your individual contribution to the goal is not as critical as your ability to marshal other people toward that goal," says Williams. "Your job is to get results through other people."
Williams adds that managers need to have an "inner toughness" that will inspire confidence and reassure employees as they work toward completing difficult tasks. "You are not there to be liked or to be friends," Williams continues. "Those can be important components to getting people on the same page, but you are not there for that purpose. You are there to achieve a goal, even if it's unpopular."
Williams says she has seen managers who set out to achieve a difficult goal, but back down as soon as they get some pushback from employees. "There's never a sense in their team that we've got someone tough at the helm who's going to get us through this," according to Williams. "Inner toughness is important to keep a focus in the organization, to keep an eye on the ball."
Leaving the Comfort Zone
Another crucial trait of good managers is vision, Williams adds. Vision, she notes, requires personal risk and the possibility of making a "colossal mistake." Managers who insist on diving into details and micromanaging employees are not doing their job. "Vision is difficult," she says, "but that's what managers are paid for."
Williams says she does not believe there is an inherent difference between good managers and good women managers. Throughout her career in industry and banking, Williams has had women managers who were highly effective and others who were "lulus." "I think there are people who are good managers, irrespective of their gender," she says. "In my experience, the effective managers got me out of my comfort zone. They had toughness and persuasiveness -- key behaviors that enable both men and women to be successful leaders."
Skinner says that women tend to be socialized to become nurturing, helpful, collaborative, and to "not make waves." "That's fine, and that may be who we are psychologically, but as a manager, that can work against you," she warns. Often workers believe a woman manager will be easier on them than a man would be. Skinner says some of the young women she is studying with at Mills may be in for a surprise when they become managers. "They have an expectation of equality. I know they were raised to think that way, but the reality is they will never be one of the guys."
Skinner says anyone can be a good manager -- no matter his or her personal style or gender. "You don't have to be a people person to be an effective manager, but you do have to be ... aware of what your goal is and how best to really lead the group from point A to point C without doing the work yourself."