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Rethinking the Manager’s Operating System 

A manager's operating system, just like a computer's, needs to be fined tuned and updated to run effectively and efficiently, writes Art Petty, who offers 10 upgrades.

9 min read


manager's operating system

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Late last year, I shared an article here at SmartBrief on Leadership, introducing the idea of the Manager’s Operating System — a set of core programs or instructions that must be present to create a healthy working environment and support manager and team success. I like the operating system metaphor because we can all relate to the need for an up-to-date operating system for our devices. An incomplete or buggy operating system makes our devices go wonky (a technical term), generating frustration and reducing the usefulness of these expensive pieces of plastic, glass, silicon and rare earth elements. The same holds for our effectiveness as managers. If one or more of the programs I outline aren’t present or operating correctly, our effectiveness as managers is reduced considerably.

A missing framework for managers at all levels

art petty

The research work of Linda A. Hill suggests that the shift from contributor to manager is one of the most challenging transitions individuals will make in their professional careers. My only point of disagreement with her research-backed perspective is that this shift is THE most challenging transition any of us will make. It’s the opportunity where intelligent, successful people trade in what’s worked for a new set of foreign skills. It turns out the work of guiding, supporting and being responsible for the work of others would be easy if it weren’t for the people!

If they survive the perilous start-up phase, the work doesn’t get any more straightforward. Becoming a manager of managers and increasingly engaging in strategy and transformation initiatives comes with ambiguity, stress and the need to generate results at scale. A framework for getting the fundamentals right and generating a healthy working environment is missing for everyone laboring in a manager role. The Manager’s Operating System (MOS) framework offers this missing help.

The 10 core programs of the Manager’s Operating System (MOS)

1. Create role clarity (yours)

The responsibilities referenced in job descriptions are typically incomplete and so vague as not to be helpful to the manager. And, what’s expected from managers during a normal growth period varies and differs from their charter during hyper-growth or in a turnaround situation. Incomplete job descriptions and a big disconnect from what the team needs at a point in time add up to manager role confusion. 

A simple solution is for the manager to ask their team members what they need to help them succeed. I coach individuals at all levels to use this question as a critical input source: “At the end of our time working together when we’re and you’re successful, what will you say I did?” 

Armed with the insights from this question, the manager can bundle team members’ needs with the boss’s needs and craft their leadership charter. I encourage everyone to make this charter visible and ask others to hold them accountable. 

2. Practice swift trust

The research via The Trust Project (Northwestern University) and from various initiatives studying leadership in dangerous situations and high-performance teams concludes that time-to-trust is related to time-to-performance. Effectively, the faster group members decide to trust each other, the quicker they can perform effectively together. Thus, the idea of Swift Trust.

Humans are naturally careful about whom they decide to trust. We know that a wrong decision on trust can lead to adverse consequences and often life-threatening situations. However, in the workplace, we must use our knowledge of the individuals and their expertise (cognitive trust) and award them our trust initially, recognizing that as we gain experience with them (affective trust), we reserve the right to reinforce or change this decision. While there is risk in practicing Swift Trust, the risk is typically manageable.

3. Define rules for success (group values)

Every group develops a culture that dictates behaviors and expectations. In most cases, these are unspoken/unwritten rules and values. With the Manager’s Operating System, we encourage the manager to deliberately jump-start the healthy culture and then work daily to reinforce this environment by writing the rules for success. A client of mine referenced these as the “Rules of the Road.” 

Similar to the work in seeking role clarity, work with your team to define a working set of guidelines or values that define expectations for working together, communicating, navigating problems, making decisions, supporting each other, giving each other feedback and other critical behaviors. The presence of these rules for success gives you tangible, visible guidelines for setting expectations and coaching for behaviors. 

4. Create context

We do our best work when we understand it has meaning and is essential to a larger cause. It’s your job as a manager to ensure individuals have context for the importance of their work assignments, projects and goals. You must work with your manager and executives to understand your firm’s strategy and significant organizational goals. Then, it’s your job to help team members connect their work and priorities to these goals and strategies. 

5. Uncover connection

The context for our work, as described above, is important. Helping individuals connect their superpowers and interests with their work is, as the commercial says, “priceless.” Connection is an even deeper, personal linkage to the job. It’s something that inspires individuals to be at their best. It’s your job to ensure that your team members are involved in work that leverages their core skills and interests them. 

6. FLEX your communication approach

It’s common for managers to reference their open-door communication policy. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with inviting individuals to reach out to you when they need guidance or input, it’s just one part of the communication process. And, it’s not enough. 

The best managers understand that they need to strive to understand and adapt to their team members’ communication styles and needs. These managers appreciate the differences in communication preferences and needs across cultures and between individuals. Effective managers flex to the needs of their team members and don’t require them to step across a real or virtual threshold in the process.

7. Coach for performance

Effective management is based on engagement and is supported by observation and timely feedback. The best managers use every available opportunity to engage with and observe their team members and provide timely input on what they are doing that is great and what they might do to improve results. Additionally, these effective managers use goals as powerful learning and growth tools and regularly discuss goal progress. 

8. Collaborate for career development

One of your core operating system programs is constantly being on the lookout for opportunities for career development with your team members. While every individual owns their career direction, it’s incumbent upon you to engage with team members, support them for opportunities to explore new tasks, and potentially open their eyes to new roles they might not have considered before the experience. The best managers use observations to raise ideas and encourage exploration around new skills and initiatives. 

9. Teach critical thinking and creative problem-solving

Problem-solving is the essence of our work as professionals, and managers are both guides and teachers for creativity, problem-solving and decision-making. I coach managers to emphasize creative problem-solving by leveraging framing/reframing, encouraging divergent thinking and supporting experimentation. And I coach them on the challenges of developing as effective decision-makers. After all, decisions are the catalysts for action. Decisions are also a powerful learning tool. While all of the programs in the MOS are intended to create a healthy environment, the critical thinking and creativity components inter-operate in a big way to drive great results. 

10. Engage in continuous learning

Learning to manage and lead is a journey, not an event. The best managers and leaders recognize the need for deliberate, continuous learning. They are avid journalers, seek feedback, expose themselves to new opportunities and learn from others. Of course, learning also occurs through seeking new assignments, pursuing skills development programs and engaging with individuals in diverse networks. 

An added program: pursue cross-organizational connection

A participant in one of my recent workshops raised the importance of this issue. I agree. One of the challenges many managers face is spending too much time living in just their functional silos. These silos become echo chambers, perpetuating bad practices, stifling learning, and generating function-think—my equivalent to group think. From day one of their jobs, it’s imperative for managers to strive to grow their networks with their manager peers and to increase their visibility with key influencers in the organization. Too many shy away from this work, preferring the comfort of their small domain. That’s a mistake. Building a healthy network and growing your influence are essential for success and career growth.

All of this in pursuit of the healthy working environment

A healthy working environment — one where people are excited to engage and operate at their best in pursuit of something meaningful is the output of a bug-free, interoperating set of programs that make up the Manager’s Operating System. Feedback is plentiful. Learning is expected. Accountability is clear. Individuals understand how their work fits the big picture, and they feel free to explore and experiment.

Creating this environment demands hard and unrelenting concentration on doing the right things. Managing is a big role, and effective managers are more critical now than ever, yet managing must evolve to reflect today’s realities and workforce. Use the Manager’s Operating System as your checklist. There’s more to do to succeed as a manager and scale your results than I’ve outlined here, but get these ten core programs right, and much of the other work happens easily and seamlessly.

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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