Two Important (but not obvious) Skills for a Manager to Develop

If you read any books, blog posts or newsletters about being a manager, you’ll find lots of skills that you need to develop. We’ve covered some of these in previous newsletters such as delivering feedbackrunning 121s or managing weaknesses. Whilst valuable skills, they are somewhat obvious areas that a manager should work on.

Today, I want to talk about two skills that a manager should work on developing, that are not so obvious and in my experience, are not talked about that often.

Change Mental Gears Quickly

Most managers will be in roles that have numerous responsibilities and some of those responsibilities will not be management of their team. For example, if you work at a design agency and manage a team of designers, chances are that you also have to get hands on and deliver client work. If you work in-house at a SaaS company in their marketing department, you may manage a team but also have input on their marketing strategy and execution.

Essentially, very few managers will spend 100% of their time actively managing their team. 

This is often forgotten about and shows perfectly why having the ability to change mental gears quickly is important. Let’s imagine that your schedule for the day includes the following meetings and topics:

  • 10am: Annual review with a key client who isn’t happy and wants to terminate their contract.
  • 11.30am: A weekly 121 with a team member who highlights some issues they have with their workload and you need to help them prioritise tasks.
  • 12:30pm: Lunch with an intern who you tell is being given a permanent role within your team, along with a pay rise.
  • 2pm: A team member grabs you to share that they’re struggling with their mental health due to a combination of high pressure deadlines and some personal issues.
  • 4pm: You get an email from the key client who you spoke with at 10am and they are back on board with you and your team and looking forward to moving forward.

You can easily see how in the space of around six hours, you’ve needed to switch between lots of different scenarios and be fully engaged with each one. For example, the switch between the lunch meeting which is a very positive chat, to the one afterwards where you need to move from a completely positive frame of mind to a supportive one, then back to a positive state of mind at 4pm, shows how you need to shift your mind quickly.

Each of these different scenarios requires different types of mental energy from you, as do most scenarios that you will face as a manager. You not only need to be aware of these types of mental energy, you also need to be able to move between them seamlessly. 

If you move from a positive situation into a negative one, but can’t update your mindset to match, then you’re unlikely to be as supportive or effective as you need to be.

One way to develop the skill of changing mental gears quickly is to practise mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and focusing your attention on the task at hand. By practising mindfulness, you can improve your ability to concentrate and stay focused on the task at hand, even when unexpected challenges arise at different times.

One practical way to practise mindfulness is to look ahead at your day or your week and prepare yourself for what is ahead. But as well as doing general preparation for a call or meeting (such as making notes, preparing agendas, talking points etc) you can also think about the mindset that you’re going to need within each one. 

You should be able to look ahead and know what type of meeting you’re walking into. Of course, you may sometimes need to go into an ad hoc meeting, or a meeting may catch you off guard by going in a different direction to what you expected. But generally, you can cut down on a lot of problems and effort in switching mental gears between these situations.

The Ability to Continuously Evaluate and Shuffle Priorities

Another critical skill for a manager to develop is the ability to continuously evaluate and shuffle priorities. A manager must be able to prioritise tasks based on their importance, urgency, and impact on the business and team. Priorities can change quickly, and it’s essential to be able to adjust your focus accordingly.

This doesn’t just apply to the priorities of your team, it’s about also being able to shuffle your own priorities. Naturally, your team will come to you for help on their priorities and lean on you for support, but you’ll have your own tasks and projects to work on and prioritise. 

To develop this skill, a manager should regularly review their own priorities and adjust them as necessary. It’s important to consider the impact of each task and prioritise them accordingly. Alongside this, you need to build in time to work on the tasks and priorities of your team.

One of the most important tasks that a manager should help their team with is evaluation of those priorities. Team members, particularly more junior ones will require help with understanding what their priorities are because they can often struggle to do this themselves. You are usually in the position to see the bigger picture, making you the ideal person to help with this evaluation.

Finally, take time to step out of the day-to-day fire fighting and problem solving that will naturally form part of your job. You can do this by carving out time each day, or at least a couple of times per week, to look at the overall priorities for your team and ensure that your team is focusing their efforts in the right places. 

Personally, I do this every Friday morning where I have calendar time blocked out to look at this exact topic. This means that I always have one eye on the bigger picture and when my team requires my help with their priorities, I’m able to help them and not worry about being sucked too much into day-to-day detail.

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