You Can’t be a Great Manager Without Empathy

Empathy gets a lot of attention from a Management perspective. Many people will tell you it’s critical to being a successful leader, others think it’s over-rated. I’m here to tell you that you cannot be a consistently leader without a strong empathetic core.

A blog post from First Round Capital took on this subject – there were some amazing nuggets of info in there that I’d like to highlight.

(1) “When you become successful is when you should be especially wary you’re going to turn into an idiot. There’s a lot of evidence to support that.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the change that occurs when somebody moves into management. The skills that make you great at your current level are almost never the skills you need to be great at the next level. Yet, how many companies actually train employees on the skills of their next level before they get there? We’ve seen it so many times – the rock star sales guy who is a horrible sales manager, because they’re used to doing their own thing. Or the superstar software engineer that wants a raise, so they become an Engineering Manager – and lose the respect that they had gained because they can’t interact and motivate their team – that’s not their strength.

I’m not sure that people turn into idiots, I simply think they get moved into a role that they’ve never done before and are expected to perform at the same high level as the role they did for years and were outstanding. Perhaps they got promoted because they learned how to “yes” their boss and always be the one who said something could be done, even though their team wasn’t in agreement.

How do you prevent this Peter Principle from occurring? Most importantly, you need to train your people for the job they are about to step into – and it needs to be over months, not weeks. If you believe (as I do) that Malcolm Gladwell is right and you need close to 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, you should at least let your top performers spend hundreds of hours practicing to be good managers.

(2) “ After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it’s doing.”

The issue of micro-management has always fascinated me. When you think of this logically, how much sense does it make to take highly educated and motivated professionals and simply tell them what to do? Yet, that happens with regularly, especially at larger companies where the company hierarchy seems more important than team building or empowerment.

The most effective leadership skill is to ask a direct report what they can do and when they can do it by. There may be some negotiation on the amount of work or delivery date, but if you let the person own the result, it’s theirs and they’ll work their ass off to make it happen. If you give somebody a result they must achieve (and worse yet manage out of fear so your subordinate doesn’t feel comfortable saying no), then they won’t own it and will instead come up with excuses when the deliverable fails to meet expectations. Empowerment is a wonderful management feature, and at the end of the day, you have to be a very confident manager to implement it.

(3) “Fight as if you’re right. Listen as if you’re wrong.”

I’ve always been known as an extreme advocate for my customers. I have employed this motto since the beginning of my career.  I do believe that the customer is always right – which means I fight for them – in fact, I work to find the commonalities of my customers and fight hardest for those – since they are the things that lead to repeatable sales.

At the same time, I also believe the sales motto “You were given 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason”. Understanding where your customers and your co-workers and employees are coming from is the biggest way to move an issue forward. You don’t always have to agree, but you must always strive to understand.

(4) “In the workplace, when you have a bad encounter with someone, it packs five times more emotional wallop than a positive encounter.”

I have no idea if this is scientifically true or not, but I’ve always acted as if it is. It’s also the reason you have to fire your worst customers and prune bad performers as well as superstars who feel entitled. This is a no-negotiation and no-nonsense policy. Just do it. Nothing kills a company faster than bad vibes. Particularly at a startup – everyone must be rowing in the same direction. You can voice dissent, and fight like you’re right, but at the end of the day, when a decision is made, everyone lines up behind that decision. If you have people that can’t or won’t do that, send them packing.

(5) “After people talk to you, do they come away with more or less energy?”

This one is key. Are you a giver or a taker? Another way to look at this is “Do people want to come and speak with you?”  In the spirit of working “for” your team, you want to provide your team with all the tools necessary to win. This needs to include handling emotional and psychological stress on top of the regular workplace stress. If you leverage fear-based management, then your team will be afraid to even bring up controversial issues, and the times that they must, you will leave them emotionally drained. Then they will go back and do substandard work, and so the vicious cycle begins. Your job is not a therapist; however it’s important that your team feels they can tell you anything that is impacting them to do the best job they can. And clearing away the obstacles is your most important skill as a great manager.

Being a great manager or leader is a skill just like sales, programming, or marketing. We don’t put enough effort and training behind it within a company, and we should. 

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