Worth Remembering: You Never Stop Learning to be a Better Manager

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Jun 21, 2010
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Here’s a lesson worth remembering: No matter how long you have managed people, or worked in HR, one thing is for certain – you never, ever stop learning how to be better at leading and managing those in your charge.

And, I frequently get that message reinforced when reading the “Corner Office” column in the Sunday Business Section of The New York Times, because as I wrote earlier this year, “it seems to have a wide range of management thinking from the very good (Yahoo’s Carol Bartz making a great case for ditching performance reviews), to the very bad (Carol Smith of the Elle Group claiming that women are inherently better managers than men), to the very simple and sophomoric (a CEO with a Winnie the Pooh fetish who actually says that you should only hire Tiggers instead of Eeyores).

Reading it is like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get.

Autonomy leads to great work

The “Corner Office” column is basically a Q&A with a CEO, but as I’ve pointed out before, the advice ranges from incredibly insightful to the woefully idiotic. And, even though you sometimes learn just as much from bad advice as you do from really smart thinking, I find the best management wisdom is the kind that is both present-day practical AND profoundly philosophic.

So it was last Sunday when the Times interviewed Michael Mathieu, C.E.O. of YuMe, an online video advertising firm in Redwood City, Calif. He had a lot of smart advice, but here’s the best stuff that resonated with me as a longtime boss and manager:

I think my worst bosses were hyper-controlling. I’ve learned that leaders actually do the opposite, which is to give their best people complete freedom to do the job. The worst managers come in and believe, “O.K., I’m going to control this.” They’re very structured. And what I’ve learned is that actually stifles high performers,” he said.”

This is the same thing that Dan Pink is talking about in his book Drive — the notion that you motivate people to do their very best work when they have a great deal of freedom and autonomy to really make a difference.

And Mathieu added this:

People who are really good at what they do want freedom. They want to be able to be innovative. So I try to hire the best people and give them the freedom and flexibility to do the job they were hired to do. But they have to sign up for things to get that freedom. “

Simple things are the hardest to execute

It sounds pretty simple, but like all things in life, sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to execute. That’s especially true right now as so many managers and HR leaders struggle to keep their staffs motivated and engaged after nearly two years of recession and economic downturn.

CEO Mathieu has a lot of other interesting things to say to The New York Times about talent management – like getting job applicants to wax philosophic about the meaning of life during their job interview – that are well worth pondering. Taken together, they give impression that Michael Mathieu is one very different (some might say unusual) CEO.

Maybe so, but he certainly seems to be the kind of guy I’d not only listen to but would really enjoy working for, because I think he could help to make me better at managing the workers in my charge.

And, that’s the kind of manager and leader we should all aspire to not only work for, but to be.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.