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Improve Your Management Skills by First Improving Yourself

by Jon Birdsong

I called him on the phone.

Introduced myself and stated the reason I called. After a few minutes of building rapport, I asked one question that changed the course of our relationship forever.

When the question was posed, his facial expression was the only thing missing from what I knew was going to be a real conversation.

The simple question: “What are you currently doing to become a better manager for your team?”

The pause told me everything.

It’s a question I must remind myself as I grow a startup.

Executing vs. strategizing is a difficult balance. Those of us building seem to always be in the weeds, onboarding the next customer, developing the upcoming piece of software, or improving some process. Often times we forget to prioritize the most important person in the business first, you (me).

The job of a manager is incredibly difficult.

There are activities you should do to improve management skills. To be a great manager, you first must focus on yourself. Only then can you truly lead to the best of your ability.


Read. Not just blog posts.

It’s ironic I write this…from a blog post.  Yes, some blog posts are incredibly valuable to our particular niche or industry, but what are you reading that makes you think differently? What thinking patterns make you different than the manager two offices over?

Bill Gates has his summer reading list.

Here is what his bridge-playing-billionaire buddy, Warren Buffett said when replying to the question: ‘How do you get smart?’

Buffett held up stacks of paper and said he “read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”

“I just sit in my office and read all day.”

Buffett estimates that he spends 80 percent of his working day reading and thinking.

The Omaha World-Herald writes:

“Eventually finding and reading productive material became second nature, a habit. As he began his investing career, he would read even more, hitting 600, 750, even 1,000 pages a day.

Combs discovered that Buffett’s formula worked, giving him more knowledge that helped him with what became his primary job — seeking the truth about potential investments.”

Takeaway Today: begin a reading journal and document how many hours a day you are reading and what you are reading.

Maintain a Growth Mindset

As we get older and more mature, many of us get set in our ways. We develop beliefs that may never be changed.

Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, describes the difference and findings via Brain Pickings:

Fixed Mindset – “assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.”

Growth Mindset – “thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.” (Source)

A Growth Mindset creates and fuels a desire to learn rather than seek acceptance. A core philosophy is that intelligence, skill, and creativity can be improved upon, dramatically, with focus, discipline, and practice.

Takeaway: Next time you decide not to attempt something out of your comfort zone or normal routine, quickly uncover why and see if has to do with a fixed mindset. jon-birdsong-atvsv

Examine the Time Spent with Your Team

Have you ever wondered why that one team member is veering off of plan? Before diving into their calendar, take a sincere look at how much time you spend with them.

In 2014, Leadership IQ published a study titled: Optimal Hours with the Boss’ Study.  They surveyed 32,410 managers, executives, and employees from the U.S. and Canada to find the answer to two simple questions:

  1. How many hours per week do people spend interacting with their direct leader?
  2. How many hours per week should people spend interacting with their direct leader?

The findings were astonishing:

Almost half the people surveyed spend less than 3 or fewer hours a week interacting with their direct leader. Approximately 30% surveyed spend 6 hours or more.

The results from the study were of little surprise:

  • People who spend 6 hours per week interacting with their leader are 29% more inspired than people who only spend 1hour per week interacting with their leader.
  • People who spend 6 hours per week interacting with their leader are 30% more engaged than people who only spend 1hour per week interacting with their leader.
  • People who spend 6 hours per week interacting with their leader are 16% more innovative than people who only spend 1 hour per week interacting with their leader.
  • People who spend 6 hours per week interacting with their leader are 15% more intrinsically motivated than people who only spend 1 hour per week interacting with their leader.


Before pointing the finger at one of your direct reports, first think introspectively on the time you spend with them. Reflect on the quantity and quality of communication you have with them. 1 on 1 meetings are highly leveraged activities for this point.

Takeaway: Review your calendar over the past month. How much time did you spend with each direct report on the team? birdsong-atv

Put in a Process to Maintain Discipline

When a manager commits to something there is a sense of pride and ownership in that commitment. If her team witnesses it fizzle out, it’s an indication of how they execute on other goals. Maintaining discipline is a requirement for all managers who prioritize developing their team from individual players to team all-stars.

Developing people takes time, stress, and energy. Imagine being the The POTUS!

People inherently do not enjoy conflict. Avoiding pain and discomfort is natural and easy.

In Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, he explains it’s the “whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning.”

“Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.”

Back to having a growth mindset, we are able to comfortably embrace these problems and challenges because deep down we know growth is in us and the conflict we will soon confront.

In order to systematically challenge the status quo and embrace conflict we must put a process to maintain discipline.

According to Peck, there are 4 simple tools you can use to maintain discipline:

  1. Delaying Gratification –  “Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.”
  2. Accepting Responsibility – “ can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”
  3. Dedication to Reality – “Superficially, this should be obvious. For truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world.”
  4. Balancing – Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity. Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.

These four tools of discipline will help you maintain the framework required to be an extraordinary manager.

Takeaway: Identify today which tool you use the most to maintain discipline in your current state and choose one that you’ll use more often.

Being a great manager first starts with the manager and their skills and habits. Reflect on how you’re improving your management skills, so you can impact your team.

Jon Birdsong is CEO of WideAngle, software that facilitates 1:1 meetings between managers and employees. Birdsong is also Vice President of theAmerican Association of Inside Sales Professionals. He acts as a leader in the Atlanta startup community as  founder and director of the Atlanta Startup Village, a showcase for emerging companies to pitch their products and services to audiences each month.

A longer version of this article was originally published by Birdsong here.

[photo credits: WideAngle]

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