Monday, September 9, 2013

How to Spot a Good Manager

Vanessa tells me that while I talk a lot about what it's like to be a new engineer in the field, I don't talk frequently about what it's like to be a female engineer. I don't talk a lot about gender roles in engineering because I don't feel I have as much to contribute on the topic as most other women in engineering. This is because I work at an engineering company which has close to 50% women, which is is kind of like stumbling into cave full of already-mined, already-cut 30 carat diamonds after stumbling through a cave of already-mined gold. I know that you're thinking, "liar, liar, pants on fire! No engineering company has that many women!" But it's true.

This is how I imagine we would interact if/when I mentioned the gender distribution at my firm in a face-to-face conversation.

And there is more. Not only do I work with a decent number of female coworkers, but there are also a fair number of women who are managers at the company. Yes, my boss is a woman. To top that, my boss' boss is a woman and my boss' boss' boss is a woman.

So, you see, I'm not the most informed source when it comes to engineer workplace gender inequalities. I do, however, have a bit more insight into women in management. I compiled a list of the women in management, categorized them into good managers and poor managers, and compiled a list of common traits for each category. This list is solely based on female managers, but looking back at it, it's clear that it's applicable to both genders. Anyways, onto the list.

In my opinion, there are a few things that good managers will do:

Maintain realistic expectations
For me, what truly makes a manager stand out is that they are realistic and that they maintain focus. They know that ideals are great, and can be pursued to a certain extent, but you must keep your eye on the prize at all times. These managers accomplish a great balance between encouraging scientific inquiry and requiring deliverables which will meet business needs. They allow time for your pet projects (e.g. investigating a really weird observation, which could result in a new discovery and published paper), but also keep the main focus on the business needs (e.g. that equipment redesign plan that's necessary to for the next phase of the project).

Give praise when praise is due
Another common theme with some of my awesome female managers is that they know when and where to give praise. An ideal manager will give praise regularly for big-ticket projects and occasionally for doing a good job in general. Praise should be given regularly, but not too frequently.

Poor managers have a hard time balancing the correct amount of praise. Some will praise you too frequently, which doesn't seem like such a horror until you realize that they're praising you for things that don't merit praise (e.g. taking meeting minutes). Then, when they do praise you for big-ticket projects, it no longer feels like an accomplishment because your epic three-week intense project got the same response as taking meeting minutes.

Other poor managers will praise you too infrequently. In these cases, the managers don't appreciate your work, nor your many unpaid overtime hours, nor having a project be well-received by a client, nor that you saved their files from an untimely coffee spill. All of these acts are worthy of praise, especially that last one, of course. The bosses who cannot see that such acts are worthy of praise can pretty much be described in one word: "grumpy." I've seen first-hand how a lack of such praise makes employees feel defeated and thus think that overachieving will never be worth the effort.

And here are some things that a good manager will not do:

Disrespect the underlings
I had one manager who told me to my face that she knew more about science than I did, even though her degree was in business management. Telling anyone that their knowledge is inadequate when they've worked and studied hard in the area is going to hurt them. Plus the underling will know the manager is full of crap and lose respect for the things they do know about.

Be a slimy politician
Seriously. Reserve politics for the actual politicians, the ones who think they run a country and who like to talk circles around the issue. If your manager thinks she's a smooth talker, then I can almost guarantee that her underlings think she's a lousy scientist and a panderer. That manager tends to make life harder for their underlings. Because let's face it, smooth talkers make impossible promises. And then the underlings either have to bust their butts to meet unreasonable deadlines or deal with falling short when the deadline arrives.

Do not be indecisive and inconsistent
That one's pretty much self explanatory. Good managers aren't wishy-washy. Good managers don't change their minds (unless it's justified by new evidence). And good managers have their thoughts organized enough that they remember what they've previously decided. It's a waste of time to convince someone of something you've already spent an hour convincing them of earlier that week.

If you look at the list, you'll realize that there's no reason the same exact list can't apply to men. I have never seen any particular drawback which is specific to one gender or the other. In my mind, if you're a good manager, then that's the end of it; management skills aren't attributable to gender. The female managers I have dealt with aren't catty, bitchy, or any of the other stereotypes engineers often think define a women in management.

However, I do acknowledge that all of these cases of good and bad managers came from my own experiences with women in management and that my data may have a systemic bias/skew because of the distribution of women/men in my firm. So I'd love to hear from other sources: What is your company's gender distribution like and what are your experiences with women in management?


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