Everything I have to say about the differences between a good manager and a bad one can be summed up with this simple distinction: “A bad manager makes you work, a good manager lets you work.”

Throughout my career I have towed the fine line between being an individual contributor and being a manager. In tech and especially in startup environments, this line can be especially blurry. This is true for two reasons: first, such environments are typically woefully understaffed. A startup cannot hire for all the functions it really needs because it would expend its budget far too rapidly. This creates an organizational need for people to wear multiple hats, crossing disciplines as well as traditional organizational functions. Thus, IC and Manager may intersect in various ways. The second reason is that when hiring lean, you attempt to attract people who will fit into this organizational culture by being talented and interested enough in crossing such lines. You want people who will think ‘above their pay grade’, and that means blurring the lines between manager and IC. But in large companies there can be ample room to cross the line as well, it depends on a number of factors—your skills, the skills of the team, and the needs of the business.

What is a manager?

With the lines so blurred nowadays, perhaps we should spend a little bit of time defining what it is that management really means. The traditional archetypal definition dates back to the Industrial Age where you had workers and owners. In a factory, for example, there is a large factory floor filled with machines and the workers who tend to them, and a small well-upholstered air-conditioned office upstairs filled with cigar smoke and oak desks where the owners count their money and find ways to break strikes. Over the course of the last 150 or so years, this simplistic portrait has evolved somewhat but vestiges of the bourgeoisie v. proletariat ideal types do remain. Now, of course, workers may themselves be owners, at least in part. But at some point along the way, the ownership class created the management class to delegate the strike-breaking aspect of their work, so as to be able to devote themselves full time to the more enjoyable money-counting aspect of their work. Thus, for a long time, it hasn’t really been the owners telling the workers what to do, but rather the managers. Today we have the caricature in the form of the PHB, a clueless manager who presents obstacles in front of the well-meaning employees who are simply trying to get the job done.

Despite what your actual title says, whether you are or aren’t really a manager is more the result of whether you are entrusted with certain tasks that characterize a managerial role:

  • Can you make hiring decisions?
  • Can you fire someone?
  • Do you give performance reviews and/or compensation adjustments?
  • Do your direct reports have direct reports?
  • Do you make decisions that involve telling other people what they should do?

If you can answer yes to some of these questions, then you may be a manager.

Some bad definitions of good management

Is right most of the time. Amazon has a list of about 15 different principles for evaluating managers and defining the ideals to which good managers should aspire. One of these is that a good manager “is right most of the time”. This one always struck me as a dangerous assertion. There is far too much ambiguity here and room for political machinations. What exactly does it mean to be “right”? The matter-of-factness in which this goal is bluntly stated without qualification assuming everyone can immediately recognize and agree upon what is right is disturbing. For one thing, how long do you wait before you decide if a manager’s decision or intuition was right or wrong? A week? Six months? Three years? The business world is riddled with examples of seemingly good decisions that led to abject failure in a short duration of time. Likewise, it often occurs that hard unpopular decisions, those that for months people may point to as being absolutely wrong, turn out over time to have been the most prescient decision that saved the entire company. Secondly, who is defining right or wrong? Peers? Upper management? Direct reports? Shareholders? Customers? Journalists? All these constituents may have wildly competing visions and what is right for one group could be disastrously wrong for another. To make managers beholden to an equivocal standard of rightness and without further qualification as to who even has the authority to make the determination is, I think, a gross mistake that could reward many bad managers and fail to recognize many good ones.

A good manager is one who ‘gets results’. This is another example of common sense evaluation of manager performance. ‘Results’ is another term devoid of substance that can too easily be perverted by political gamers who can weasel their own agendas into the conversation. What kind of results are we talking about? Everyone assumes it is something we can evaluate at face value. Defenders of this mantra are quick to surface specific examples of the results they are talking about, but ask them to come up with a definition and you’ll find they quickly hedge and retreat into the same territory that clouds popular and legal conceptions of profanity: “I can’t tell you what it is but I know it when I see it.” Question anyone who holds this as a qualification for good management. It is in my experience not correlated with other measures of successful management.

So what are those other correlates of successful management? It’s actually not very easy to come up with a solid list. The function that managers serve is essentially one of enablement: they are not direct producers themselves, but their throughput is measured by the extent to which they enable those who report to them to produce. Thus, any evaluation of the success of a manager must involve the performance of the team which they manage. However, this too may be flawed and not entirely comparable across different managers. Some teams, some projects, will require a great deal more management than others, while others will have an intrinsic synergy working so well together that they will practically manage themselves. The range in variation of skills, teamwork ability, and project complexity, is so diverse that it is a wonder that anyone even bothers attempting to evaluate the performance of managers. But of course, HR insists that we do exactly that.

The 3 Ships of Management

In defining the useful functions of management, and thus building toward a framework for evaluating managers, I find that the important aspects of management can be subsumed under one of the following three “ships”:

  • Leadership
  • Mentorship
  • Ambassadorship

Leadership. The first and perhaps most obvious function of management is to provide leadership, typically though not always in the form of command decisions. Leadership involves making decisions such as which projects to choose among competing priorities and which tasks to assign to team members. Leadership also involves setting an example, being a role model, setting standards for quality, workmanship, and culture which values you want to instill in others.

Mentorship. An equally important function of management is to cultivate talent. Although it’s somewhat common now for managers, especially in cross-functional teams, not to have the exact skill sets of the team members who they manage, a good manager can find ways to inspire direct reports even if they do not share the specialized skills and background of their team. Mentoring is such an important feature of good managers because it is the most efficient way to grow and develop your team in ways that are mutually beneficial. On one hand, effective mentorship can vastly increase the productivity of team members by pushing them to grow beyond their current level. By devoting time to mentorship, you will reap the benefits of improving skill levels without needing to hire directly at senior levels. On the other hand, by shepherding junior members in their career, this will provide them valuable experience that takes them to the next level and whether they stay on your team, are promoted within the company, or even if they eventually leave the company, you will have participated in their growth and that is an amazing benefit unto itself.

Ambassadorship. The third ship of good management relates to the way you help your team be most effective within your organization. Managers are political beings, and departments may be likened to states. Being a manager, you are a statesman, the representative of your team within the broader socio-political context of your organization. You need to represent your team to peers and to higher levels of management. A good manager is always looking for ways to improve the utility of their team, to help solve other teams’ problems, in the larger interest of the entire org. You want your team to be working toward the most important goals, and you want to avoid conflicts that may arise by other political players. If someone on your team fails or causes a problem, it is your responsibility. A bad manager will find scapegoats, a good one will defend their team, taking the blame on themselves and then sorting out the issues internally.

A bad manager makes you work

My pithy summation of the key difference between a good manager and a bad one focuses entirely on how managers are viewed by their reports, basically, whether the manager is essentially an enabler or an obstacle for getting work done. The bad manager is the typical PHB, clueless, an obstacle to getting real work done, someone who looks on their job as a means of telling other people what to do simply for the sheer effect of making people do stuff.

A good manager lets you work

My view of a good manager is the enabler, a positive mentor, someone who makes work so exciting and enticing that people actually want to work and do a good job. This means playing to team members’ strengths, covering for their weaknesses, being fair in the allocation of projects, allowing people the flexibility to get the work done the way that suits them best. This is the way to realize the best productivity from your team. This is the way to get results.