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Table Stakes for Managing

Blair Shane

People build products. People build brands. People sell and execute. Enabling people to be successful is the most significant thing you can do for any company. If managing people has become part of your job then it is the most important part.

Yet no one teaches this. Companies throw people into management positions with no preparation or playbook. Most merely improvise. You need more.

This guide covers the table stakes of people management. These are practical best practices for the full lifecycle of managing someone, from finding the right person to helping him or her thrive. Nothing here is costly or complicated, and nothing matters more.

Finding Talent

Note: There are people who focus their entire careers on recruiting. See recruiting tools playbook for more. Please take these points as a starter.

Write a job description: Before any search write down what you are looking for. Be concrete. You can publish the description or not, but writing it forces clear thinking.

Recruit for gaps: Take the search beyond your own network to the networks of those around you to add depth and diversity to your candidate pool. Seek candidates who bring a missing perspective to your team.

Commit to five top criteria: This allows you to evaluate candidates consistently and just on the dimensions that matter. Define the criteria before interviews begin.

Act like an applicant: Prepare for the interview. Review a candidate’s background in advance and identify 3-5 thoughtful questions. Remember that your company is trying to win the candidate’s interest and not just vice versa.

Five Interview Questions I Use:

  • What are your superpowers? The things that make you stand out and that, if we could leverage them here, would make us a stronger firm?
  • We all have weaknesses or things we would rather ignore. What do you sometimes have to do that you are either bad at or not interested in?
  • What are your dreams and aspirations?
  • Why this company? Why this role? Why now?
  • Depending on the role: How would you improve our product/approach our marketing/think about recruiting here?

Hiring

Maintain good interview hygiene: Conduct interviews one-on-one, not as a team. Prep interviewers. Have each assess and rank candidates independently. At the end, incorporate all feedback, but do not let this turn into a group decision. Weigh the input and make a decision based on the role, the criteria you laid out as well as your intuition.

Flip the power dynamic: Power and authority in hiring naturally sit with the employer. Explore turning that dynamic around and be aware that the best hires are also interviewing you. Solicit and answer as many questions as possible. Probe into the candidate’s interest in your business. You want people to come in with eyes open, actively choosing you as a manager or a company. They will be more invested and give more of themselves from day one. You may also get some free and helpful advice on how to run your business better.

Don’t feel threatened: Hire people smarter than you at their given function. A manager is only as good as the people on his or her team.

Mine references: Both the candidate’s and backchannel resources. Ask about past setbacks, strengths and weaknesses. Ask why a candidate left or wasn’t promoted further. Focus on the remaining concerns and questions you have about a candidate. If you are leaning toward hiring someone, you can even use a reference to get advice on how to help close the candidate or help him or her succeed once in the role. Always close by asking if there’s anything more they would like to share. Pause and listen.

Leave something on the table: My great grandfather always said, “Negotiate, but leave something on the table.” This goes for both sides. Entering a work relationship with any ill will is not smart. There is usually enough to go around to make everyone come out feeling whole.

Make a candidate feel wanted: Give the offer in person if possible. Write a personal note and give a personal gift to welcome him or her to your team. How you start can set the standard for how you will finish.

First Day

What to have waiting for new employees: A computer with

  • relevant reading on your company and the job
  • a list of people to meet in the first month
  • job description
  • one-on-one schedule and expectations
  • a list of meetings for the first two weeks
  • anything else new hires should know about your company and you as a manager
  • a personal welcome message to make them feel like part of the team from day one

Give them time to read and get settled: At least two hours on the first day.

Make introductions: Walk new hires around the office and introduce them. Do the same in meetings for the first week or as needed.

Meet with HR: To sort out all necessary paperwork.

Take them to lunch: You, your new hire, and another team member or two. Check in and answer any questions they have.

Set expectations: Meet before the day is up to share your expectations for the first three months. Discuss specific tasks and projects as well as general communication expectations, one-on-ones, policies and protocol.

Check in at the end of the day: Send them home confident in their decision to join you and eager to come back all-in for day two and beyond.

Also, check out this article dedicated to onboarding.

Ongoing

Hold regular one-on-ones: The team members should lead these but, as a manager, come prepared with key questions. Go over progress and check off deliverables. You can also use this time for strategic discussions or initiative planning. Check in on professional development goals and help them find ways to improve. The right duration and cadence for these sessions will vary by person and over time: Twice a week might be right at the outset, twice a month down the road. Ask them how you can remove obstacles.

Know their one thing: Every direct report should know their “one thing” for the week or period — i.e., “If you did nothing else, what one thing would you do this week to have the most dramatic impact on the business?” The one thing is important by definition but not always urgent. It is typically something on which people procrastinate but could be done in a day if they just got down to it before email and distraction. Know each team member’s one thing. Make sure they know it, prioritize it and get it done. I’ve used this practice over the last several years and it works to enable focus.

Conduct at-least-annual reviews: Give feedback (positive and constructive) throughout the year. I recommend checking in semi-annually, though, to assess progress on an annual plan to which you both agree. Share strengths and development areas and solicit input from key people with whom the person works. Also use this time to get feedback on yourself as a manager and on the team working dynamics overall. This 360-degree learning makes for better teams.

Give 3:1 feedback: My colleague Lori Ogden Moore reminded me of this, and the kind honesty language below, long ago: Human beings are motivated by positive feedback. You must use this truth. Make an effort to highlight three good things about a person’s performance for every suggestion you share. (Not per interaction but over the course of the relationship.) Receiving feedback this way makes it much easier for people to hear it and improve. It also builds trust and rapport.

Use kind honesty: A lot of people talk about being completely direct, but such candor often lands as cruelty. If you want people to get better, and want to drive troops forward and drive revenue, being cruel will never achieve your intended effect. “Kind honesty” advocates being candid but in a way that allows the person across the table to hear your feedback and take it forward. Kim Scott also has useful advice in Radical Candor.

Manage your team’s urgent vs. important priorities: Be mindful of all the things you’re asking of your team. With time pressure you may be burning them out on the urgent at the cost of the important. If possible, cut away people’s urgent but low-value work and deflect some of that effort toward important projects. This is typically not just very motivating for an individual but also prioritizes the things that will move the company forward.

Career Development

This is something I take seriously and my approach parts somewhat with convention. I view it as my job as someone’s manager to know where that person wants to be three and ten years from now — within this firm or beyond — and to help him or her to get there. That means identifying professional development opportunities that move them toward their most ambitious goals and personal vision.

If my higher-order priority is to help people achieve their dreams in their career and life then I believe success in the current job will be a natural consequence. But this is not the standard approach: Most managers take the position that they need an individual to succeed in this job, today, while anything above or beyond is out of scope. They do not put themselves in the shoes of the individual. They impress their own needs upon the team. Ultimately neither the person being managed nor the manager nor the company benefits.

Taking the higher-order premise is not just the right thing for a given individual; it yields a better outcome for the business. By helping the members of your team make progress toward their broadest visions of personal success you build trust with and inspire them. You create deep loyalty that makes them want to do their best for you in this job — or you learn quickly that the job is not a good match, which is better for both the individual and the company.

Great managers coach the whole person, not just today’s title and task list. And the best way to hire great people is to be known as a great manager. So make it your business to know what your employee’s “north star” is and help him or her map it out.

Remember: One person can start a company but it takes a team of people to build an enduring one. Invest the same amount of time finding and cultivating your team as you do building your product. It will serve you well.

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