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August 28, 2017

My Best Manager and My Worst... And What Each Taught Me

Simon Bell

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©© GettyImages/NolteLourens

Strange but true: I had both the best and the worst managers of my career – so far – at the same company. Not only that, but they managed me one after the other.

It happened at a time of huge change, as the organization underwent a major restructure. None of this, of course, helped the situation, but, still, the contrast between the two managers was stark.

The Best Manager: How to Build a Happy Team

Let's begin with the good news.

Ken was a manager with a vision. He had a clear idea of how he wanted his team to be run, the kind of people he wanted in it, and how we should work together.

From the earliest days, it was a team built on trust. Ken trusted us to get on with our work with minimal supervision, discuss what we needed to openly, and to take a pride in what we did.

We trusted him to have our backs in a volatile environment, to be open and honest about our performance as individuals and as a team. And to keep us up to speed with what was happening in the wider company.

Our team meetings were serious, but upbeat. We met tough targets by working collaboratively and looking out for one another.

We also laughed a lot. That's not to say that we didn't take the work seriously. We did. But Ken knew when we needed to relax and was happy to let us laugh. I'll always remember Cheese Day fondly, and the time we all brought in homemade sculptures made from vegetables.

In short, we had a creative team culture all of our own. 

The Worst Manager: How to Destroy Team Spirit

Then things changed. In a corporate restructure, Ken's role was made redundant.

Our new manager was now Mark. We knew Mark: he had been Ken's line manager. He was outwardly likable, and had a solid reputation as an organizer and a systems guy. But, sadly, you can't put people in a spreadsheet.

Faced with a situation in which people were looking to him for leadership, reassurance and rapport, Mark's nerve failed him. He hid. If you know Major Major, the character from 'Catch 22,' then you know Mark. Except Mark wasn't funny, even unintentionally.

Team meetings stopped happening, and one-on-ones were forgotten. Communication dried up, apart from the occasional terse email. New systems and workflows were introduced ad hoc and without consultation. We started to feel that we no longer understood our own jobs.

Good people left and their replacements, if there were any, weren't properly trained. So, our workloads expanded, and we struggled to manage them without support. Morale plummeted.

Mark couldn't help not being Ken. But, he could have done so much more to retain the team culture that Ken had worked so hard to build. We didn't absolutely need the humor and fun that we enjoyed under Ken's management. What we did need, however, was the belief that we were valued, and that our way of doing things was productive and appreciated.

Bounce Back and Seize the Day

So what did I learn from the experience?

Well, sticking pins in a doll doesn't work, for one thing. More seriously, I came to understand that you can't treat people simply as functions in a workflow. They're people and, if you make them feel that they're valued and trusted for who they are as well as what they can do, then you will get so much more out of them.

I also discovered that resilience is essential in a difficult workplace. I survived for over a year under Mark's non-management before the creeping shadow of redundancy caught up with me, too. It wasn't entirely unwelcome, if I'm honest. But throughout that year I continued to find little wins and human connections that kept me from just bailing out. Oddly, I've now come to see it as a valuable experience.

And the most valuable lesson of all? Enjoy the good times, but never take them for granted. They might not always last for ever!

Who was your best manager? And who was your worst? Share your story in the comments section below...

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