Learning From Bad And Good Managers Of My Past

May 21, 2012


A recent Management Essentials training session at work encouraged us to reflect on our experiences rather than just gave us a bunch of management tips out of context.  I have always learned a lot by observing others and I have long said that even less than stellar managers shaped who I am today. One of the exercises was to reflect on our past managers and list what made them either good or bad. In nearly 16 years, I have had 12 past managers, only two of whom I considered as great managers. When I examined the “great” and the “bad” lists, I noticed that they were very similar – the characteristics were often opposites of each other.  Looking at the two lists, there were four points that defined the difference between the good and bad managers of my past:

1. Communication

There is a reason why every management resource tells us that communication is the key to everything.  The relationship with your manager is personal and communication is how that relationship evolves.  All but a few managers at the bottom of my list were able to establish comfortable two-way communications with me.  I easily adapted my communications to them and they did the same for me.  At important moments, the best were able show me they heard and understood my point of view and then gave me the information I needed.  It was their ability to show me that they understood me first that made it easier to accept the information that followed.  Without it, I would have felt I was following orders that didn’t fit my context.  The managers at the bottom of my list consistently practiced one-way communication, unable or unwilling to even hear what I had to say, no matter how I adapted my messages.  I was failing to customize my communications for them, but they also failed to meet me part way.

2. Straight-forward honesty

One manager once confessed to me that he had worried I would not accept the job after he told me about all the challenges with the department.  I laughed and told him that his honesty was what sold me on the job.  No one likes being lied to.  It undermines trust and it is hard to consider someone a great manager if you can’t trust them.  Honesty sometimes stings, but it’s certainly better than the alternatives.

3. Trust

Trust also needs to be two-way.  Managers who did a half-decent job with communication and honesty earned my trust.  At the same time, if I was doing a half-decent job with communication and honesty, I expected to be trusted. This was the case for most of my past managers.  However, some managers did not inherently do that, straining the relationship.  Unfortunately, these were often the same relationships where communication and honesty were a struggle.

4. Comfortable in their current role

This one is complex because it manifests itself in many ways.  All my managers had their own ambitions.  The best of them, though, were comfortable and secure in their current role, knowing that their performance in the present would lead to the next opportunity. Others were more focussed on their future goals rather than make the best decisions for the here and now.  In some cases, their preoccupation with their ambitions affected their ability to handle management politics and made their personal insecurities show.

What about the managers in your past?  What characteristics have separated from the great ones from the dismal ones?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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