How to pick a good manager?

This is a follow up to The most important decision you make in your professional life and beyond. You might wanna read that first.

Usually it’s the head hunters who hunt you to join a company, but it’s actually as important for you to haunt the right manager. I take it that you’re good at what you are doing and you have choices. Just like finding best friends, not everybody clicks with everybody. Your best manager, might be somebody else’s nightmare and vice versa. But there is a methodology that I have developed after these years and it’s generic enough that should work for most knowledge workers:

1. Be yourself during the interview.

You may have heard it as a cheesy dating advice. When people say “be yourself” they actually mean: “put the curtains away and make it easy for me to judge you”. But in an interview situation you may want to be yourself because any effort to be somebody else will put you on somebody else’s desk and that’s NOT a good thing. You want to be yourself because it makes it more efficient to find out if you click with a manager. NEVER regret if you don’t get a job because you were yourself during the interview.

But what does it actually mean to be yourself? It basically means: don’t try to behave in a certain way because you want to be perceived different than who you normally are. Not only it signals that you are not confident in who you are, it blocks any chance you may have to find out if you two are meant for each other. Yes, I’m using a romantic expression here because your relationship with your manager can ultimately ruins or guarantees your happiness.

I’m not saying ignore all the good advice out there like: writing a concise CV or being on time at the interview. But for example if you like joking and your manager doesn’t find it funny, it’s OK not to work for her because things will get much worse when you actually work together.

This is totally true about a permanent position as well. If you enjoy having a talk with your manager during the interview, you’ll most probably enjoy working together as well.

2. Be extremely observant during the interview

The interview process gives a lot of cues about how your manager is going to work with you. I had a interview 2 years ago and my to-be manager was 15 minutes late for the interview. I just left the place because someone who doesn’t care about me before I even started will certainly not care about me when I have signed the contract. Later he called me with excuses: “he was in an overdue meeting”! Another red flag: a manager who doesn’t know how to manage his own time, will absolutely not be able to protect mine. I could totally predict working overtime and weekends for his overdue projects.

An important observation is to take note and reflect on the questions they ask during the interview.

3. Recruitment tests

If your interview process is rather formal and has pointless steps in it, beware that you’re going to end up as a cog in the system. I have been asked to do IQ tests, stupid multi-choice tests on various programming edge cases, and even psychology tests (because “everyone in the company does it”). They all basically tell me 2 things:

  1. My interviewer is unable to judge my skills by having a decent conversation.
  2. The company needs a measurable, discrete (and often broken) way to quantify people as if they were robots.

Sadly I had to start those jobs to learn the lesson and quit. :( But if you are offered any test that doesn’t make sense to you, get the hell out of there and never look back. Don’t waste your limited time on this planet.

The only type of test that I find useful is a realistic case that represents the type of real-world challenges I’ll be dealing with on a day to day basis. That is the kind of test that is indeed useful because they stop the “talkers” at bay and let the “doers” in. In other words: you want to work for a company which has a good recruitment process because you know you’re going to be working with people who have passed a good filter.

4. Questions to ask yourself

Do you feel calm during the interview? It’s a very good sign if you don’t feel stressed and feel that you can ask any question (even if not related to the company or job directly).

Ask yourself if you would go to a trip or a party with that person. Two of my best managers are the people that I could spend hours with them without getting bored or tired. We could have non work-related dialogues for hours and the conversation is never doll. On the other hand my worst managers were the ones that I could hardly tolerate. Again, nothing wrong with the person, we just didn’t have the chemistry.

Another test is if you feel like you would say “hi” to your potential manager if you see them on the street. Or would you rather change your way and pretend you never saw them?

5. Do you respect your manager?

And by respect I don’t mean bowing to them or speak book-language when you’re talking to them. I mean genuine earned respect.

One of my former bosses that I highly respect was a savvy Linux kernel programmer (I wish I had his talent). He was a body builder and was really fit. I wish I had his muscles but the best thing, that on retrospect has influenced me after working with him a couple of years, was that he was cool at any situation. I don’t remember seeing him angry or sad. Just by working with him, I became a happier and more relaxed person.

Another great manager of mine was a real hard worker. He managed a dozen people (just thinking about having 1:1 meetings with so many people and all their issues freaks me out). Still he could find enough time to write code in a couple of languages that I didn’t even know at the time. On top of that he had a family and was a dad. To this day I still don’t know how he managed to juggle between all those roles and still keep a positive smile on his face pretty much every day!

Your criteria might be different. You may appreciate someone who dresses well or has an expensive car or whatever your conscious or subconscious value system may be. The point is: pick a manager you respect because they are interesting. hint: you don’t respect power. That’s just your inner greed tricking you.

Another way to ask this question is: are they leaders? Would you follow their lead in a situation where you can’t find your way?

6. Does your manager have self respect

This might be a bit counter intuitive but a manager who doesn’t trust himself would have a hard time trusting you.

Empathy is an important quality for a leader but one who didn’t take care of herself can’t take care of others properly. For a thriving work experience you need your manager’s trust. Your manager might have a higher position than you but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have higher self esteem. We are all humans after all. It’s OK to have bad self esteem, we’re not judging here, but if it’s your manager, you are gonna suffer the consequences.

Again, I’ve had my share of insecure managers who interpreted my actions and words negatively. Long ago I blogged about the lack of minorities at a workplace and raised the issue of possible discrimination during the recruitment process. My manager saw the post and gave me a very hard time because she thought I’m criticizing her publicly for being discriminatory. It is energy draining to work with insecure managers.

Another consequence is when managers with bad self esteem avoid hiring people that are better than them because they see them as a threat. Good managers have no problem with (and even volunteer) being the most stupid person in the room. Not because they are actually stupid but because they love working with people that are smarter than them.

7. The business affects the boss

I’ve had the opportunity to work at a wide range of companies with different types of businesses. There’s an old saying that goes like this:

organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations — Conway’s law

But the reverse is also true. The product affects the type of communication a lot. To tell a few example:

  • In a healthcare company, our product managers were like doctors. They carefully diagnosed the problems, and prescribed us a well-planned dose of work and had a bunch of meetings to talk about it.
  • In a news company our manager had spies in the team and got her report from them. “I have received reports that you have not been at work on a day that you logged as you were” she said.
  • In a telecom company my manager wrote the spec and then gave us a quarter to deliver.
  • In fin tech (strangely) the higher you go, the less manners you observe. Seems like money attracts certain type of people and the more they are interested to money, the less their character becomes.

There are many other businesses: online gambling, mobile apps, storage management, operating systems. My point is: even though the product is what you’re gonna be working on, there’s a high chance that your colleagues and manager connect with some aspects of it. Ask “what attracts you to the type of product we are building”?

Conclusion

A good test to know if your current manager is good or not is:

  1. Think about something that is important for you. For example if you like sports, your family or programming.
  2. Then think if you know what kind of sport your manager likes or how many kids she has or what programming languages she knows. If you don’t know your manager’s interest, there might be a wall between you.

You don’t have to share exactly the same interests, but do you know anything at all about their interests? Do you resonate with their interests? Do you know anything about their personal life that’s interesting? Do you ever have an engaging non work-related conversation — something personal?

If you’re changing jobs I hope you can find a good manager in your next gig.

Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer