Most managers suck at being managers — not because they are bad performers, but because they don't really know what a good manager is.
In startups, this is a particular problem because, unlike established companies, tons of us become managers for the first time, not because we're entirely qualified or experienced, but because no one else was available.
As such, we're rarely told what makes a good manager, so we assume that if we get our updates, if people say nice things about us, and the business is doing well, we must be doing a good job. But the fact is, there's a massive difference between being a good manager and just being an adequate babysitter.
Most managers get by simply by being a good babysitter. They are there to listen to problems when they come up, pamper those that need some love, and generally try not to leave the house a mess. They assume that if there are no surfaced problems and no crying babies, they must be doing a great job.
And truth be told — thousands upon thousands of startups have managers doing just this - and doing it well — so no one questions their title. The thinking goes "If no one is bubbling up problems, I must be doing my job."
As such, they often assume the bar of performance for their team is the collective current state of their team. They may think "If this is how much the Dev team is producing, then that's the bar" versus saying "This is how much our Dev team SHOULD be producing, that's the bar, and this team is not reaching that bar."
Babysitters don't set high bars — good managers do, because it's the only way they want to operate.
Good managers fundamentally change the behavior of the people working on their teams - they actually make them better players. They look for the strengths and weaknesses in their team and they build up on those. They create teaching moments when it matters and they reward great performance when it happens. They are constantly looking for ways to upgrade the team.
Sometimes that behavior can't be changed, a point that good managers simply won't tolerate. As such, they bear the hard cost of replacing bad performers and tirelessly seeking out higher performers.
They know there are two ways to improve a team - strengthen the players or replace them. There's no middle ground in their playbook for mediocrity. Conversely, bad managers make excuses for mediocrity so they can either avoid the painful friction of changing teams or adapt that lower performance to represent their lower performance. Either outcome is horrible!
When you see a good manager in action, it's impossible to miss. In many ways, they are damn near irreplaceable in our startups. The team itself would lose so much steam by not having them at the helm. It's not about being "missed" (anyone can be liked) it's about being "required".
It's the reason sports teams stop winning when their superstar coaches leave, or companies die off when a game-changing CEO leaves. The players are all still there, they just aren't the same team without their manager.
So, when we're sitting back, looking at our own performance, and that of the managers of our startup, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First "Has their presence fundamentally changed the quality and output of the team?" and second "If they left would this team no longer perform under someone else?"
If we (or they) pass both tests, we've got a manager on our hands. If not, we've got a really high-paid babysitter.
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Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.