My best manager

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Who was your best ever manager and what made that person the best?

Take a little bit of time and think about the answer to this question.

What does it tell you about you?

What does it say about them?

How does it inform you of how you best get motivated?

This is an exercise from one of my management training courses and it is used so that the delegates can think about what their idea of being a manager is. I’ve used this exercise when people have had their current manager in the room and of course they were bashful about saying whether their current manager was the best. They were even more bashful when their current manager wasn’t.

Some people will tell me that they have never had a good manager and if that’s the case, I always think that that person has either been very unlucky in their life, or the problem doesn’t lie with their manager, but their own attitude to being managed. This is not uncommon and I may do more on that in a later blog. I’ve been very lucky and I have had some fantastic managers.

I thought that in my first blog that maybe I was being a little bit hard on Mr Davies the manager who had so much trouble in getting a quota performance from me. After all, he did give me the opportunity to become a salesperson in the UK, so he can’t have been all that bad. So in this blog I have decided to answer my own question that I asked from the management course and tell you about some of the great managers I’ve had the pleasure to work for.

If I am to choose the manager who I think was my best manager and give my reasons why, there are many who are vying for the title and if I try to tell you about them all, this blog will be too long to publish. So with apologies to the managers I have had to leave out, I’m going to restrict myself to just three.

I have chosen these three managers not just because they were great managers, but also because of the tremendous contrast in their styles. I hope this will demonstrate that you don’t have to be suited to a specific type of manager to thrive in business. If you are open to the help they can give you the more management styles you can be exposed to and learn from the better.

There is a common thread running through all the managers I have worked with and it is this, I have worked hard to make each of my managers into my friend and I consider all my managers to have been my friends.

I’d like to invite you to join in the discussion and write a similar pen picture of your favourite manager and include it in a response at the bottom of the page. Other people will then be able to view your input at the bottom of this blog page and benefit from your experience as well as my own.

I am just using the first name of the people I am writing about, just in case they are reading this blog and maybe embarrassed if I use their full name in it.

Kevin

Kevin was the first manager that I had after I left the company where Mr Davies was the boss and he was a breath of fresh air to me at that time. He could see the potential that I had, even though I still wasn’t totally confident of my ability. Kevin always made me feel that he had confidence in me and a belief that I would succeed. I think that this is the first thing a manager should give to the employee.

Kevin was the most energetic and focused person I have ever worked with. Field visits were a weekly event with him and he would encourage me to phone him at the end of every day and talk through every sales opportunity with him. It was tough to pick up the phone on the days when I didn’t have an order to report and I didn’t really want to call him, but Kevin was never critical of me. He was always helpful, and he always gave me tips: “Next time that happens why don’t you try this……”. The next time the same situation arose, whether it was a customer objection, or a reason not to buy, I would put Kevin’s advice into action and most times it would work. In this way I became progressively better at my job.

It took me a while to settle in to my new company, I still had very high expectations of myself and I had a tendency to beat myself up when I didn’t get quota. Kevin knew that and he also realised that this was not a totally bad thing, he didn’t take the pressure off, but he made sure that we turned my doubts into learning points. There were things to learn, even from the most disastrous of calls, in fact there were probably more to learn from them than the ones that went superbly well.

I didn’t get quota in the first month, or the second. In the third month I achieved quota and in the fourth 150% of quota and my performance hardly ever fell below that amount after that. This was entirely due to the encouragement l received from Kevin and my own capacity for work and my hunger to learn.

As time went on I became Kevin’s top salesperson and his right-hand man and because of the large amount of business we generated between us, there was some time and some space for other, newer salespeople to come into the team and to learn the job without too much pressure. They also wouldn’t get quota in the first few months and sometimes Kevin would ask me to do field visits with them. Sometimes I’d take them out on my territory and allow them to watch me in action and they would learn from that. The fact that I was trusted with such a role gave me the confidence to believe that I could go on to manage a team myself when the time came.

We were one of three teams in our region and the atmosphere was extremely competitive, each had a manager and each manager had a top sales person. I knew my job was to beat the top person in each of the other teams. Every month was exhilarating and we went to great lengths to hide how much business we had achieved from each other, or if we were doing outstandingly well, we’d tell the others in the hope that they would give up the chase.

Kevin became a good friend and I knew his wife and his children and he knew mine. We would share time at the weekends and attend each of our kid’s school plays.

Kevin had no hesitation in delegating responsibility to me and I came to see his team as our team and as I did this I became even more confident in my ability to become a manager when he achieved his inevitable promotion. If I’m really lucky and Kevin is reading this, I hope this reminds him of what it was like in the team and how he set me on my way to an excellent sales career.

I’d like to thank him for all he did for me.

Dave

Dave came to manage me much later when I was studying for my MBA, which had a specialisation in strategic marketing. Dave was head of strategic marketing and In order to help me Dave took me into his Department to give me the experience that I needed. Dave was managing a very different individual to the one Kevin managed. I’d already worked as a regional sales director and I was much more experienced and confident as a result. I was in fact already a senior manager and this gave me the confidence to take the action that I did.

Now not all managers are as easy to deal with as Kevin at first and sometimes the employee has to take a hand in helping the relationship to form and develop. Dave lived in Canada and he would fly over on the weekend on the redeye and we would have a meeting every Monday morning. There were three of us in the meeting two other senior marketing executives and myself.

Dave was always angry!

Dave was one of the best, most highly focused strategic business managers I have ever worked with. He had his finger on the pulse; he knew the value of every order and the effectiveness of every promotion that we ran. He had charts and diagrams for every piece of the business that he was responsible for. He also knew all of the figures and the numbers for the departments that he wasn’t responsible for and when they weren’t up to scratch he would get angry.

We would spend a good portion of the meeting hearing about the shortfalls of the managers in other department and how much the company needed to be reorganised and stimulated with a major shake up. Dave was right of course, but company politics don’t always allow the sweeping changes that a visionary like he had in mind. I often think that it was good that they didn’t, because the changes Dave would make would have been very uncomfortable for some employees who simply needed to be managed better.

Although Dave’s anger was never directly aimed at me, largely because I worked hard to produce the results which kept me out of the firing line, he did not suffer fools gladly and he would spare no words in letting us know where the business was being let down. We would sit and listen and comment where and when we dared.

It soon became obvious to me that this type of management was not working for me and so I knew I needed to take action. I pondered long and hard before I decided what to do. At the end of the next meeting when the other two executives had left I remained in my seat.

“Well that’s it Mike we’ve done you can go now”, he said.

I didn’t move, instead I asked him a question: “What is it that’s making you so angry?”

“But I’m not angry with you” he replied a little surprised.

“Well you’re angry with something”, was my response and he just stared at me, no doubt wondering what he should do next. He had a few options and some of them wouldn’t have been too good for me, but he knew I did a good job and that I was on his side.

Then an amazing thing happened. He breathed out and he visibly softened, stepping out of the robotic boss stance and becoming a real person. He began to open up about his frustrations and the pressures of his job and the pressures of his life and we agreed to meet up for a beer at the end of the day. Beer is a superb lubricant at times like this.

David became one of my best friends and we once again built a relationship like the one that I had with Kevin where I could help him and the team in ways that were not immediately obvious to me in my position. We also had some good times out of work.

Dave was a great sports fan, an ardent QPR fan and we saw games at Stamford Bridge, Loftus Road, White Hart Lane, Wembley as well as my beloved Oakwell. We also had an unforgettable trip to the summer Olympics in Atlanta

Dave taught me so much about the business and lots of that learning found its way into the assignments for my MBA. He taught me how to step back from the business and look at the big picture without forgetting that the small details were also important. Dave is one of the rare managers who can do both. I’ve met superb strategist who make the strategy and then tell their staff to “make it so” like the captain of a Star ship. I haven’t met any who could, or were prepared to set the strategy and then make sure that all the details were all in place.

One last talent that Dave had was that of being an exceptional politician. He knew that playing politics was essential for a manager who wanted to gain support for his ideas and for his team. I’ve heard managers who say with pride that they “don’t play politics” and all I can say is that if they are not politically aware they will never achieve their full potential. On my MBA course we had a very wise professor who said that for a manager: “Not playing politics is a dereliction of duty”. I think he was right!

Without Dave’s help I would never have become the marketing business manager that I later became. Who knows I may also have missed out on my MBA. I have a lot to thank Dave for.

Frank

The prize goes to Frank, because without Frank’s help I would’ve left the company at a very early stage and without his support I may not have made the achievements that I did make, because he supported me throughout my first senior role when I ran a region with over three hundred people in it.

At the time that Frank helped me, and some of you will recognise this, Frank sat at the right hand of God in our company. I was working in a part of the business that we called key accounts. The company was the market leader in its field and you don’t get to be a market leader unless you have on board the big accounts. They are the ones who can give you multiple order deals and these installations count towards market share. Corporate accounts usually expect discounts in return for their business, but they also, and maybe even more than best price, need to have first class customer service and support and delivery of that takes a very special type of salesperson.

My reporting line in the corporate account role was to a team manager and the team manager reported to the regional Director. The regional director had two lines of reporting, one to the National Sales Director for the standard business and the other to Frank who was National Director of Corporate Accounts. Frank was way above me and when he came to the branch he would be more likely to be talking to my boss’s boss than to me.

I also had a soft dotted line to Frank and through this I would get an occasional field visit from him. He was a busy and important man, so any day that he was out with me I would pack with the best appointments I would get and there would be plenty of them. We’d start at 7:00 in the morning to allow for travel time and I wouldn’t leave him until after 6:00 in the evening.

Well my team boss left to take a promotion and as top salesperson in the region I expected to take his place. I’d been practicing within the team and put many extra hours in to developing members of the team who were struggling. I thought I’d done enough to at least be considered.

There was also within the region another salesperson and he was also pretty good although he didn’t have the experience that I had. Unfortunately for me he had better political contacts than I did and he was on some kind of fast track organised by the managing director. He was given the job over me, and I immediately bought the Telegraph for the jobs page. To say that I was not very satisfied at this time would be an understatement.

It was then that I got a phone call from Frank. It came out of the blue and he asked me if I would be available to take him out on a field visit in a couple of day’s time. Frank said that he didn’t want too many appointments that day, but asked me to arrange two in the morning and then we would have some lunch and nothing for the afternoon. This was surprising to say the least and I thought that he was coming out with me to assess my attitude and decide whether I had a future with the company.

The morning went well and I recall that in one of our biggest accounts Frank gave me a lesson in key account selling. He sat with their buyer and drew an organisational diagram showing where his position sat in our company. Of course there were a few reasons for this, firstly to let the customer know the level that he was dealing at and also demonstrating to the customer how important his business was to us, because we sent the top executive to speak to him. Later on, when I was in a senior position like Frank, I would use the same technique.

The response from the customer was amazing and we left the building with a stronger and renewed relationship with orders to follow and also a flow chart diagram of who everybody was in the customer’s organisation and permission to contact them.

We then went for lunch and I was a little apprehensive about what was going to happen. I needn’t have worried, because Frank spent the next three hours talking to me about my future with the business. He told me how long he expected the guy who had been appointed as manager of my team to last in the fast track role and when my opportunities would arise and how far he thought I was going to go.

He told me his plans for me, the kind of things I would be good at and he gave me a timeframe to work to. It was like having a session with the best fortune teller in the world and the afternoon wasn’t about the business it was all about me. At the end of the meeting I took him back to his train and I felt like a completely different person. I went into work the next day with a new enthusiasm and a new will to succeed. I greeted my new boss and told him that I would help him. I never quite made it to friend though with him.

I learned later that in a senior management meeting in head office the announcement of the new manager had been made and Frank left the meeting to call me. He anticipated my reaction very accurately and decided to handle the situation immediately before it became any worse.

When I became the regional director later on, I used to produce a weekly bulletin sheet called “The North East Express” and I used it to tell the sales force how well we had done the previous week. We had an order champion – the person who took most orders, revenue champion – the person who got most revenue, and an order of the week, which was the best single order that anyone had taken.

I wrote about all of it and I actively searched for any good news I could find from the region and included it in the bulletin. I put write ups of the sales people in it along with their photograph and they really wanted to be in that bulletin. They would take it home and show it to their partners and their parents and anyone else they could get to look at it.

This was so good for the sales persons ego and by the way, if it ever occurs to you that you might over do the flattery of a salesperson’s ego then forget it, you can’t.

Frank insisted on being copied in on every bulletin that I wrote, he called me every week to ask how things were going and to give me advice and he kept faith with me for many years.

I remember him saying to me: “Barns (he called me that because I support Barnsley football club and he was a Spurs fan): “Stay captain of your own ship for as long as you can”. Frank was an example to me, and he gave me confidence and more than that, I always knew he was in my corner.

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