Look, there in the sky! Is it a plane? Or is it … the Superhero Manager?!
While reflecting on my own personal reasons for pursuing a management path in Engineering, it can confidently be said that none of the goals included wearing a cape. It is my earnest opinion that it can be said with reasonable confidence that not many people wake up and say to themselves: ‘I am going to go out and try and be a superhero today‘.
a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers
also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person
superhero (noun) Merriam-Webster
Superheroes seem to be everywhere in pop culture these days. While there are specific definitions like the one from Merriam-Webster above, in general, superheroes are people who manifest abilities or powers and who act in a brave and self-sacrificing manner.
Through copious amounts of reading and personal interactions I have never personally been informed of nor witnessed another manager clambering around in a mask while doing their daily work. Setting aside a potentially wild Halloween company party scenario, masked vigilantes are not a sight that we associate with the workplace.
Managers do not need to wear a cape or see a spotlight in the clouds in order to be a superhero in their everyday interactions. Instead, they need to focus on making their workplace the best that it can be by stepping up and being a leader and creating strong team environments and cultures and, on occasion, fighting for their team and their shared beliefs.
While these actions from a manager might not appear at first glance to be worthy of superhero status, good managers share a belief in their teammates, make a difference in those people’s lives, and take on the outside forces who would threaten their space. These traits along with a watchful eye and an ability to inspire others are all common traits of superheros.
Yet how does a manager step up and assume this mantle or cape and become an inspiration? How does one separate the good from the evil in managers?
Like all great stories, first a determination of the protagonist is in order. Hopefully, managers will root themselves firmly on the good side of the fence.
This judgement should start with some self-evaluation of the reasons that a manager wants to be in this role:
More money? More power? The ability to control the environment? How about giving co-workers a sense of fulfillment and purpose every day? How about creating happiness in others?
Settling upon the altruistic path leads to stronger teams and better results, which, ironically, often lead to greater control and money for a manager.
Once a positive path is taken, the next element of a superhero manager is action. However, a truly good manager will take the time to stop and observe before taking action in order to better understand their team and the needs of that group of people.
Finally, leadership is the final key to being a superhero manager. Does a manager lead from the front? What about getting your own hands dirty on some of the tasks that aren’t fun, but simply need to be done?
So how does a manager navigate this minefield and take leadership action towards being a force for good in the workplace and the world?
BECOMING A SUPERHERO MANAGER STEP 1:
The first step in becoming a Superhero Manager starts by looking at a mirror at the person standing there. Who is that person and why are they in this role? What motivates them? How can they do a better job today as compared to yesterday? If you don’t understand who you are and your own strengths and weaknesses, how can you help others improve?
This is not meant to put on a mask and always present the same face and demeanor to the people you work with. This is intended to be a journey of self awareness and continuous self improvement.
- Understand Your Own Deficiencies
Begin by attempting to understand your own weaknesses. It is hard to work on improving things that you don’t understand. When I started managing other people I let many of the frustrations and conflicts get to me so much that I would mope around the office. This eventually led to my co-workers giving me a nickname of ‘Grumpy Cat‘.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized the anger and frustration that were keeping me back were a huge weakness in my ability to lead the team effectively. This self-actualization can be very difficult but is a key element in becoming a Superhero Manager
- Identify Personal Bias
Humans take in a lot of information at all times. Our brains attempt to simplify much of this information so as to not overwhelm our conscious thoughts. Cognitive biases are often a consequence of this simplification process. Because this mechanism is inherent in every human, it follows that every human is capable of bias.
Since managers are humans, they often have biases that impact how they conduct and regulate their teams. This could manifest in a subconscious bias of giving the best tasks to people that who go with their manager out to lunch. Or they may never promote someone that is left handed.
If a manager can work on identifying their own personal biases then they can work on making sure that they are providing a fair, equal, and just workplace for everyone on their team.
- Work On Self Improvement
It is one thing to identify the traits and tendencies. Working on addressing and improving on these weaknesses and biases is harder but is essential to becoming a Superhero Manager.
The biggest part of this effort is around simply practicing continuous improvement. It is hard to change behavior. It takes time and patience. Yet, it can be done because the world is full of stories of people who have accomplished this feat.
This will not be easy. There will be many days where the actions won’t be enough and the leadership will seem to be lacking. But the sun will rise tomorrow with a new opportunity to do a better job and get closer to being the superhero that you choose to be.
BECOMING A SUPERHERO MANAGER STEP 2:
Observe and Respond
The second step in becoming a superhero manager is to observe and react to your team. Who are the people that are on your team? Do you realize that they are real people with their own lives outside of work and that they have interests, hobbies, and a lot more people that they interact with besides your team of people? Do you understand that their feelings and personal fulfillment are important to both them and you as a manager?
When teammates are happier and feel more fulfilled their efforts will be more focused and their overall productivity will be higher. A superhero manager understands that the actions that they take directly contribute to these feelings of happiness and fulfillment.
- Be A Great Listener
You won’t be able to hear and understand what is going on with a team if you are always talking or if your voice is the loudest in the room. Superhero managers take the time to simply step back and listen to the conversations in the hallway, the interactions in a meeting, and the back-and-forth on messaging apps.
This skill gives the manager an ability to spot trends and hear new and vibrant ideas. It allows for observation of the morale and determination of the direction that the culture is facing. Many of the targets in this article start with listening and observing. This the first half of the challenge to being a superhero manager and someone can’t fully accomplish the second half of action without mastering this listening skill first.
- Don’t Stay Quiet
Hopefully, everyone has a voice on any team they are on. It should also be recognized that, intended or not, the voice of the manager carries more weight.
This can be used for great good in publicly promoting ideas and successes on the team. It can also be used to great effect when providing critical feedback in private.
In order to recognize successes and events that need feedback, first sit back and observe the events and interactions among your teammates. This may be as simple as someone talking over a teammate in a meeting to more complex interactions where more difficult conflicts are exposed. A superhero manager cannot stay quiet when these events occur.
Observing and then speaking up to keep communication flowing and providing feedback are important aspects for any manager. Compare this effort to a manager observing, but not doing anything about these types of interactions. While one singular event may not affect the team in any significant way, these events happen every day and over time they will build up and affect team efficient and morale. Superhero managers always need to stay vigilant and speak up.
- Promote The Quieter Voices
We don’t have computers and robots doing the jobs (yet) so every team is comprised of human beings. Humans are messy. Personalities differ. Confidence levels are different. Ideas, opinions, and the ability to promote one’s own ideas vary wildly from person to person.
It should be the goal of any superhero manager to ensure that all voices on a team have weight and an open platform for contribution to the team. It is very easy for a few louder and more confident voices to override the smaller and quieter voices in meetings and in group discussions. Everyone is there for a reason and by allowing some of the people to stay quiet you are losing out on a significant chunk of input that could be making things even better.
A superhero manager finds ways to allow each voice to be heard and get the full output of the team moving in a positive direction.
- Implement 1-on-1 Meetings
This type of meeting is amazing for communication and growth. Many companies struggle to complete performance evaluations in an effective way. At best they happen multiple times a year and at worst they are either non-existent or a once-a-year event that is easier to pay lip service to and move on instead of actually providing real, honest feedback that can help people grow.
1-on-1 meetings attack this directly by providing a two-way communications path and relationship building functions together in one place. It allows for getting and giving feedback with people and defining professional goals and growth opportunities.
These meetings provide a forum for constructive, direct feedback around conflicts and work output. It allows a superhero manager to set a tone for the team through individual interactions. It also provides a method to sample the pulse of the team and keep tabs on morale. While it can feel like a lot of work to setup and run effectively, the results greatly outweigh any inconvenience and should be a tool in every superhero manager’s toolbox.
BECOMING A SUPERHERO MANAGER STEP 3:
Be A Leader
This one might seem obvious on the surface. The problem is, implementation can be very hard to achieve. Being a leader is not simply telling others what to do:
Like true superheroes, they can turn a bigger purpose into reality, they never give up, show courage, have the ability to face fears and apply a strong cultural code of conduct. Some are even so powerful that the mere survival of their companies depends on them. When Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, the company went into decline and he had to return to save it.
From the article: Great Leaders Aren’t Superheroes: They Create Them
Being a good leader often means taking the hard road and building those up around you. It isn’t about being getting fame and fortune. It can mean putting the spotlight on someone else when success is achieved and taking over the spotlight when things fail. Great leaders are tactful, communicative, and are an integral key to the success of any project or business.
- Take Ownership
Superhero managers take ownership for their actions, the products, the output, and the end results for their team. They occasionally even go above and beyond for things that are outside the scope of their team. They believe in the goals of the organization and know that taking accountability for finding solutions to problems is a worthwhile endeavor.
One rule I set for my team is that “it may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility“. We don’t pass the buck, we step up, own it, find a solution, and move on.
- Practice Balanced Empathy
Being empathetic is a critical skill for a good manager. Putting oneself in the shoes of someone who is struggling can be a difficult task on the best of days, but it is incredibly important for building positive relationships with teammates.
However, empathy must be balanced for a manager against the necessary needs and requirements of the business. This concept of balanced empathy is very difficult to achieve. Fully understanding the challenges that a person is facing while motivating them to get past those challenges and deliver on time and on budget can be a monumental feat. This requires skill and patience to achieve and can often require many of the tools in the manager’s toolbox to achieve properly.
Depending on the magnitude of the roadblocks and also on the type (task roadblocks, interpersonal conflicts, personal issues outside of work) tools like 1-on-1s, mentoring, listening, and setting up peer pairing for work may be needed. Each scenario is different and a superhero manager knows this and works to tailor the response to the events.
- Lead From The Front
It is very difficult, as a teammate, to get tasked with something difficult that requires going above and beyond only to see the person assigning the tasking think that their job is finished and walk out the door.
Managers should follow a golden rule of: “don’t ask someone else to do something I am not prepared to do myself.” This doesn’t mean they need to go in and write the code for some difficult feature, although that may be needed on occasion.
This means that if a manager is asking someone to stay past five o’clock to work on a high priority bug for a customer then they are ready to stay with them.
This means that if the team is in crunch time for a project delivery timeline and working through the weekend then the manager is there holding the door open for them with one hand with doughnuts in the other.
While we maintain our separate roles, the team coding and manager managing, when we do something above and beyond we do it together to try and help each other out and make painful scenarios a little less painful as a team.
- Give Fame Where It Is Due
A superhero manager follows the philosophy that the people most responsible for the success (the team) should get the credit for success and the manager takes responsibility for the miscues. This philosophy encompasses more than just success and blame.
A superhero manager also understands that solutions can come from anyone on the team, not just those defined as high achievers. Some organizational charts reflect an idea that more structure and vertical layers imply that the people higher up the ladder have more answers and solutions. Other, newer, thinking leads to org charts are often flatter and celebrate input and ideas from all people on the chart, no matter where they are in the hierarchy.
This reflects a mentality that the team is stronger than the individual. Creating an open environment and culture for creativity and ideas allows the full brainpower of everyone on the team to contribute and allows the manager to lead a more successful team.
Anyone with aspirations to be a superhero manager has their work cut out for them. It requires a varied and different skill set that can change each day. This is not a plateau to achieve and then put things into cruise control going forward. It is more like a roller coaster where everyone on the team is riding along in the cars while the manager attempts to build the track in front of them as things move along.
This is a great analogy because when riding a roller coaster everyone wants the fun and exhilarating parts: the steep drops, the loop-de-loops. But those things require more effort, time, and material and we can’t always be in the middle of the fun stuff.
Sometimes we just need to connect to the chain drive and be slowly dragged along, hopefully in an upwards direction. Sometimes we need to coast for a bit and catch our breath. Sometimes we simply run out of track and crash and have to restart somewhere.
Managing a team is a never ending job. It requires constant effort and work and a sense of continuous improvement every single day.
The business world today is different than it was 50 years ago. Modern organizations call for different leadership philosophies than in the past and the skills for a Superhero Manager are much softer than they were many years ago.
These modern organizational designs call for a special breed of leadership. They require networked or distributed leadership, where vision and values overrule functional bundling of competences and skills. For example, GE and IBM dispensed with the notion that leaders only operate out of corporate headquarters by posting leaders in regional centers of excellence.
Networked leadership implies humbleness. In the ultimate network, there are many great leaders. Great leaders understand that success results from growing the power of others while letting their own power fade over time. Alfred Sloane, CEO of General Motors from 1923 to 1956, humanized his hero status, leaving his headquarters every three months and working openly as a salesman at GM dealerships across the US.
From the article: Great Leaders Aren’t Superheroes: They Create Them
Managers have an amplified impact on those around them due to the defined leadership relationship that they have with those on their team. Each has to decide if they are fighting for good or evil each and every day. Therefore, each day is a choice:
Do you choose to be a passively evil manager today, clocking in and clocking out and not working to make things better?
Or, do you choose to take the inspiring path and metaphorically wear that cape and be the superhero manager that makes the world a better place to be?
If you need more motivation, go back and stand in front of the mirror, look at the person starting back at you and in the deepest, most gravelly voice you can must say out loud: “I am Batman’s…….manager!“. Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on December 8, 2019. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.