Staffing in Management Positions: Skills for Managers

A new manager takes notes as she discusses the quarter's plans with her superiors.

If you’ve recently been hired as a manager, you know that staffing in management comes with surprisingly little guidance for new managers. Whether you were promoted internally or brought in from outside, you were probably expected to hit the ground running, toward only the vaguest of goals.

Many of the problems new managers experience stem from this dilemma. They’re faced with an ill-defined job and equally intense pressure from above (and below). It’s easy to see why capable, well-meaning managers resort to micromanagement, detachment, grandstanding, or sheer block-headedness in an effort to find some sort of stability for themselves and their employees.

How can you avoid these pitfalls? Staffing in management doesn’t have to be such a shot in the dark, as long as the most important skills for managers are identified and cultivated. The following five steps will help you develop these important skills and define your purpose as a manager:

  1. Understand the purpose of your job
  2. Define your group’s output
  3. Seek momentary clarity, not permanent answers
  4. Become an expert in communicating expectations
  5. Keep the focus on your team’s output

1. Understand the Purpose of Your Job

If you’re a new manager, this is your first and most important step. You need a memorable, meaningful definition of your sole professional purpose, something that you can figuratively (or literally) write across your bathroom mirror so that you see it every morning.

You want it to be simple, such as “engender useful output.” Your primary responsibility as a manager is to maximize the likelihood that your employees will be productive. To do this, you need to create an environment in which employee output is:

  • Clearly defined
  • Realistically achievable

The key to successful staffing in management is really that simple. If you’re not doing that, then it doesn’t matter what data you’re gathering or which employees you’re monitoring. You may be busy, you may be stressed, and you may look managerial, but you’re not doing your job.

2. Define Your Group’s Output

To engender output you must first define (and be able to measure) it. This task is easier said than done. Today’s workplace changes quickly, and managers at all levels are expected to turn the work of their groups on a dime. Your own manager may not be terribly clear on long range company plans, so neither of you may fully understand how the work of your group will change in the next quarter.

Still, uncertainty about the future is not an excuse for lack of productivity in the present. If your plan is to wait around until everything is known before doing anything, you might as well lock the doors and go home for good.

Change is a given, and only by delivering on current plans will you and your company learn what works, and what changes to make next. Besides, the definition of your group’s required output is the definition of your required output as manager. Defining it is one part good management practice and one part career survival.

3. Seek Momentary Clarity, Not Permanent Answers

Speak with your leaders about what your group can reasonably produce right now and then agree to task your group with producing it immediately. Make it clear that unless you hear otherwise, you will follow the current plan. Then, verbally summarize the output you are committing to engender in about 90 seconds.

During follow-on discussions with your management, use that mini-commercial as a way to gently remind them what you are working on, so that they can edit your understanding if needed. Even if they haven’t quite mastered the complexities of staffing in management themselves, this approach can help you “manage up” and avoid unrealistic expectations.

When changes do come, don’t fight them. Welcome the new information, openly revise your understanding of what you need to produce, and clearly explain the time and resources you need to accomplish the change. Be honest in terms of what you can achieve; it’s far better to be up front when something isn’t possible than to agree to it under duress but fail to deliver.

4. Become an Expert in Communicating Expectations

To successfully engender output from your group, you need to convert from the commitment you made to your superiors as manager into what each of your employees must do individually.

This doesn’t mean telling your employees what to do. Instead, teach them how to discuss what they are doing themselves (to create their own 90 second mini-commercials) and then work with them on a shared understanding of what’s needed. You haven’t successfully taught an employee their expected output until you hear that person say it to you spontaneously, in a way that matches your own understanding.

This also means your employees must be in the habit of speaking openly about what they’re doing. To get honest feedback, avoid using discussions about current objectives as “pop quizzes.” When you need to adjust an employee’s understanding of their work, frame your conversation in terms of expectations for the future and defining how to succeed.

Don’t let it degrade into how the employee should already know these things. Successful staffing in management positions requires hiring professionals who understand their role in clearly explaining goals, expectations, and strategies to employees.

5. Keep the Focus on Your Team’s Output

Get in the habit of having conversations with superiors about the output needed from your group and discussions with your employees about their individual contributions to that output. Then remind yourself that your job is to maximize the chances that your employees will produce. This won’t make management easy, but it’s the first step in making you better at it.

Put together a mini-commercial in which you state the output you’re trying to deliver at the moment. It should take about 90 seconds, and should list about 5-7 output goals that together cover about 80 percent of what you’re working on. It’s yours to change, adjust, and modify whenever you see fit. It’s also yours to use as your introduction whenever you’re talking to people in or about your workplace.

This summary will help you train people as to what to expect—and not expect—from you. It provides an avenue for a manager to edit an employee’s understanding of the job, and a basis for you to accept or decline requests for additional work. As time goes by, and you deliver on your commitments, you also increase your credibility within the organization.

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