Highly Effective and Respected Managers are Playing Chess, not Checkers
Whether you’re new to managing a team or looking to improve your leadership skills, the nuances of leading others can be tricky to navigate. And the importance of being a great manager isn’t just a platitude from business books—data from Google (which conducts in-depth research on how to make teams perform as well as possible) found that teams with good managers happier and more productive. In this piece, we’ll dive deeper into three key characteristics that can help you to be a more effective manager.
Trait #1: Chess—not checkers—skills
While checkers pieces are uniform, interchangeable, and all move in the same way, each type of chess piece has its own abilities which must be known by the player in order for a game to take place. The reality of any workplace is that employees are more like chess pieces, each possessing their own unique capabilities and weaknesses. The most effective managers are thus empathetic and able to identify each team members’ strengths, as well as efficient when it comes to balancing diverse skill sets into a well-coordinated strategy.
In addition to being able to identify strengths and delegate projects accordingly, being a chess-playing manager requires more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, the best managers can tailor their communications, incentives, and coaching strategies for each team member, with the result that employees feel better understood and valued within the organization.
Trait #2: Strong technical abilities
According to this research study, employees with more technically competent managers are happier in their jobs, making this an important trait for any manager hoping to garner respect and buy-in from their team. Those working in engineering and other technical roles are often even more critical of bureaucracy and management than the average employee, so having a deep understanding of what your team does can be critical to mobilizing them.
In addition to competence in the respective discipline, a strong technical background allows you to make effective decisions and guide your team towards their goals. Regardless of your team’s role within the organization, you’ll likely be tasked with evaluating trade-offs and prioritizing the highest-value projects for them to work on—and having a solid grasp on technicalities can be key to assessing the amount of resources required for any given project.
Lastly, having a good understanding of what your team actually does on a day-to-day basis—and how to evaluate theseir skills— is important to helping them develop professionally. While soft skills are useful for creating buy-in and motivating employees, it often takes a critical eye to gauge how competent your team members are and identify which gaps they should work on filling.
Trait #3: Macro-management (in moderation)
Employees are increasingly allergic to micromanagers; as a manager, it’s important to know when to lean in to support and when to step back. On the one hand, junior employees often require a more hands-on approach and thrive when given direct guidance and consistent feedback. Those with more experience, however, often resent managers who get involved in every detail of their work, taking it as a sign they’re not trusted to do it on their own.
Whether you’ve chosen your team or inherited it, first focus on figuring out each members’ strengths (see #1)—and leverage that insight to decide when to step in. If, for example, you know that one of your direct reports struggles with a particular skill, it’s probably better to intervene when he or she is working on something that requires that skill—and to leave them alone when the work plays to their strengths.
Another tactic to avoid micromanaging is to pair team members when one person’s strength is another’s weakness. In addition to freeing up your time, having team members work together can help to build strong relationships between colleagues, as well as boost the teacher’s confidence in their own abilities.