How to be a good boss when you hate being a manager: 10 rules for agency owners

Written by: Karl Sakas

Don't be Bill Lumbergh at your digital marketing agencyOne of my clients said he hates managing people. Another client said being a manager “feels gross”… yet she has several employees reporting to her.

If you ever feel like that, too, this advice will make your life easier—whether you have one freelancer or an entire team of employees and contractors.

Many of my agency-owner clients are “reluctant managers”—they never wanted to manage people. They started a digital marketing agency because they really liked doing marketing, design, or development—and suddenly they find themselves managing a team.

Like it or not, if you have people reporting to you, you’re a manager—you might as well make the most of it! Don’t be Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. Here’s how.

Your #1 Job: Get results through other people

It’s not like when you were an individual contributor and it was all about your own execution. Remember, your #1 job as a manager is to get results through the efforts of other people.

You’re there to help your team run efficiently to meet your overall goals.

This may mean hiring people to handle things you don’t like—an outsourced bookkeeper to handle accounting, a project manager to keep projects on track, or a contract web developer to keep your site running smoothly if you don’t have the time or skillset to maintain it.

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should—focus on making big impacts. If you can assign your virtual assistant to book a flight and s/he charges $50 for the time it takes to find the best deal, but you can use that time to close a deal, it’s better for you to focus on the deal-making.

10 Rules for Getting Results as a Manager

As a third-generation manager, I like the challenge of managing people. But you’re not born with it—I’ve learned many of these lessons the hard way.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be happier and your team will be happier, too. No one wants to work for Bill Lumbergh.

1) Employees are going to leave eventually—don’t take it personally when they do.

And never, ever try to convince people to stay—they’re mentally gone already. Don’t delay the inevitable by wasting time and money on a counter-offer.

2) It’s all about incentives.

Align employees’ and contractors’ needs with your agency’s needs. As long as they match up, everyone’s happy.

3) Set expectations up front and hold people accountable.

If they repeatedly don’t deliver, warn them. You may eventually need to escalate to firing them.

But you can’t ding people for failing to deliver if you’ve never told them what you expect from them. Your employees and contractors can’t read your mind.

We’ve all been in a situation where we didn’t fire an employee or contractor soon enough. Having your own accountability buddy—whether your spouse, business partner, or business coach—helps you prevent making things worse by avoiding the problem.

4) Do something to keep on top of your emails, so you can keep track of everything.

I use a Gmail plugin called Boomerang to help with this. Boomerang will automatically notify me if someone hasn’t responded to an email (in a timeframe I specify), and I can use it to return a message to my inbox at a future date (perfect if I’m busy and want to say, “remind me about this tomorrow afternoon”).

Boomerang is a paid plugin, but it’s totally worth it—I use it on nearly every email I send. Try their free trial and see what you think. (You can also use it to send emails in the future, so you can choose whether to let a client see you’re working on their account in the middle of the night.)

For shorter-term followup, I use a Gmail flag I’ve labeled “Tickler” to do this. When I get a message that needs a followup in the future, I mark it with the Tickler label.

There are other solutions to this, like forwarding messages to your task management system, but this works for me. The main thing is to do somethingwhen you’re a bottleneck as a manager, you’re holding up the work of several other people.

To keep up, I occasionally view everything under the Tickler filter and I can catch up in batches. This helps me find things where I’m waiting for a response and the person hasn’t gotten back to me in an appropriate amount of time—seeing the pending message is a reminder to ping them.

5) Always be recruiting.

You never know when someone else is going to leave. It’s a lot easier to have someone in the wings. I like meeting people even when I don’t have a specific need.

6) Shoot to spend 80% of your time managing, 20% doing.

The 80% includes thankless jobs like sending reminders, writing agendas, checking the team’s performance against the plan, coaching, and recruiting.

It’s thankless, except that doing it makes your job easier in the long-run. Monitoring and reminding (as needed) along the way means fewer surprises later. And surprises while running your agency are rarely good surprises.

7) Tell people thank you, and send them thank you notes.

This works in volunteer roles, too. One volunteer I managed said in her 20 years of volunteering, she’d never received an actual thank-you note ’til I sent her one. Saying thank you is free.

8) Praise your team publicly.

You get credit yourself by giving your team the credit. Their success is your success.

9) Make it fun and minimize bureaucracy, beyond what’s necessary for accountability.

Yes, you’re paying them, but ultimately, people don’t have to be there.

10) Read the “Ask a Manager” blog.

Alison Green shares great advice to help you be a better manager. I especially recommend posts in her “Good Management” category.

How are you doing as a manager?

As a manager, you control a big part of your team members’ lives—their schedules, their work assignments, and even the reliability of their paychecks.

You don’t have to be perfect, but if you were an employee again, wouldn’t you want to work for a boss who’s trying to do their best?

Question: What management rules would you add to the list?

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