The Top Secrets of Great Managers | January 8, 2015

iStock_000012077224SmallIt’s such a common story. You get great at your day job, and start become one of the company’s rising stars. You bill at very high levels compared with your colleagues and people begin to talk about you. You are a high flyer, a top performer, one to watch.

Then one day your ambitions become reality. Your boss pulls you into a meeting room and tells you that the company would like to promote you, they want to make you a manager. 


But now what? You are a great operator. But managing staff? Motivating a team? Being a player manager? 

These are such different skill sets to what you know and are good at. Somehow (in many businesses anyway) you are expected to know what to do. 

This isn’t a phenomenon restricted to any particular industry industry. In many many businesses, great operators are made into managers because they are great at what they have done. For some it’s wonderful, and for others it’s a nightmare, and for all it’s a steep learning curve. 

The learning curve

I was extremely lucky early in my career to work with some exception bosses, who not only supported and helped me when I needed it but knew when to get out of the way too. I learned some important lesson by making my own mistakes, but in truth I learned a great deal more from analysing and copying the great managers around me, and from the teachings of my mentors. 

I’d like to share some of that wisdom with you.

The top secrets to learn from the world’s best managers

1. Teach the basics and instil great working practices (*1)

If you spend enough time with your team, lead by example and teach your new staff the basics of the job well, you will help them understand how to run their desk themselves. Set them up for success from the beginning by giving them the right building blocks and training, the right time management skills and exhibit the right behaviours yourself. 

As the legendary sports coach Professor Frank Dick OBE says “if you don’t get the basics right, you will spend a lifetime trying to put them right”.

If you do get the basics right the rest will take care of itself.

2. People are individuals, manage them individually (*2)

This may seem so very obvious, but for a new manager it can be rocket science. What works for one may work for another, but as soon as you make that assumption, you are bound to fail.

Learn to understand the differences in people, and differences in their learning styles. Spend enough time with them one-to-one that you are able develop a real understanding and rapport, and be human to their needs.

Only then can you work with them individually. 

3. Chicken in a field theory (*3)

If you place a chicken a very large field, it will peck all over that field in a very superficial way. It will get some of the worms and the seeds, but leave a lot for other chickens to feed from too. If you give a chicken a small field, it will peck deeply and throughly, it will find every worm and seed, and it will own the area. 

The very same is true of business markets and patches. Give someone too big a market and they will work that market sporadically and clumsily. It will be hard for them to be able to focus and the quality of their understanding, and subsequently their control of the market will the poor.

Give them a smaller, well defined and more controllable market patch and they will find every opportunity, work every relationship and make it their own.

4. Post war cake mix theory (*3)

In the years following the Second World War manufacturers of packet cake mix produced a product that they thought consumers would love. All you had to do was open the packet, mix the content with water, and bake the cake. So simple, so easy, such a failure.

When sales never took off the manufacturers changed the recipe, which then required people to add an egg and butter to the mix. Once this change was made, sales rocketed.

As a manager it is so easy to do everything for your staff, so that all they have to do is finish the job. This is a massive mistake. Not only does it fly in the face of Secret No.1 but it never gives them the ability to develop and grow. They will never feel trusted and definitely never feel challenged. 

People need to be be bought into and involved in the process. They need to add their own ingredients and be allowed to do that in their own way. 

5. Rear view mirror theory (*3)

In most modern cars many things are automated. The lights, the wipers, the door mirrors. They are controlled by electronics and make our lives easier. But in the case of the rear view mirror, you still need to use your hand to move it. It could be controlled by a switch or a knob but it’s not. And why not? Well, some things are best left to be manually controlled. 

You need to leave a good level of personal involvement in all aspects of your team and your business. You can automate a lot of things, but many are just better being done by hand. Identify what those things are and leave them be. 

6. Don’t just hire anyone

When you are building the team it is never easy to find the right people. It can be so tempting to hire that person who is nearly right, or who could be right with just a few changes. 

The right person is the right person, and the wrong person is a disaster. The amount of time you waste hiring, training and eventually sacking the wrong person is enormous, not to mention the stress and management time taken up in the middle somewhere and impact on the team.

Team building is never about bums on seats. Hire the right person or don’t hire at all.

7. You will make mistakes, learn from them

I am certain that I have made all the mistakes in management a new manager can make, but I also am proud to say that I think I have learned from every one. Not always immediately, but certainly eventually.

You will make plenty of mistakes. This is a good thing, as long as you are able to recognise the mistake, learn from it and be better next time. 

8. Get out of the way

This secret is something I learned myself the hard way, and I would very much like to save you that pain. It is very much linked to secrets 4 and 5 above. 

I think in his autobiography Lee Iacocca, the famous American Motor Industry giant puts this secret best – “I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.”

Being in their way can feel stifling to your consultants. It shows a general lack of respect and trust, and ultimately you will lose them to your competitors. Getting out of the way worked for Lee at Ford and Chrysler, it works for Google and Apple today and it can work for you too. 

Hire the best people you can, train them and teach them all you can, and then let them do what you hired them to do.

9. Take the job seriously, don’t take yourself seriously (*4)

This secret, taught to me by my first mentor when I became a manager doesn’t need much explanation. Take the job seriously, but never take yourself seriously. It is so important to remind yourself of when things are tough, and it is often easier said than done.

The business is a serious thing. But life, life is a fun thing.

Contact me

For more on developing yourself, your staff and improving the profitability of your business, please do get in touch. You can email me at, or call me on 07736 831151. Follow me on Twitter at @jamesnathan, connect to me on LinkedIn, or follow me on Facebook.

I look forward to being in touch.

jamesdot 150px

*1 Thank you Jamie Newman

*2 Thank you Kath Roberts

*3 Thank you Renny Hayes

*4 Thank you Gary Watson



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