How to Find a Good Manager

Recently, I was talking with a colleague at work who was about to leave the company, and they were asking me for any tips to take with them to their new job. In my head, the cliche that “people leave managers, not companies” reverberated, and wanted to relay the importance of looking for good management before it became a huge issue for their new, tiny startup.

Having been in a situation in the past where my direct manager caused me to almost leave the company twice, I can relate to the demoralizing effects of an unsatisfying work environment. As most of us will have at least one terrible boss in our careers — and thus know the characteristics of a bad manager — I wondered if there were any signs to spot, say, during the interview process.

The problem is that most experienced managers, good or bad, intuitively know the right things to say to make a good first impression. They’re mostly variations on these themes:

  • Micromanagement is bad, since results are what matters;
  • There’ll be plenty of opportunities for career growth and advancement;
  • They will provide great communication and feedback;
  • You’ll get to work on awesome projects, all of which are integral to the company’s success.

Of course, the hard part is meeting and getting along with a boss who is able to follow through on all these claims and more. At the very least, it’d be nice if you can tell whether there’s any action behind those espoused best practices.

So here’s my litmus test: see if you can detect any sort of desire for (self) improvement.

It’s actually not all that different from wanting to hear that an individual contributor wants to learn more on the job. Management consists of a diverse set of skills, and like any other skillset, it takes effort and practice and tribulations to get better at being a manager.

And you’d want someone who isn’t satisfied at how well they manage currently, the same way that you’d look for a software engineer who’s excited about learning a new technology or refining their existing knowledge. Sadly, most managers I talk to don’t really show this passion for self-driven growth and ability, and are content to follow established company standards or whatever the management consultant presents during training1. Following “how things have always been done” is not a bad way to learn when starting out, but a part of the value of management is bringing in new ideas and new processes to adapt them to the team. Managers who are interested in getting better at their jobs should not be satisfied with the status quo.

Even with that mindset, the hard part about leveling up management ability is wading through all the false starts and bad advice. With elongated and ambiguous feedback loops, there’s no easy way to know whether a new technique or a new perspective on human interactions is appropriate and useful. The key is recognizing that, like programming or any complex subject, it takes a hell of a long time to achieve management proficiency.

  1. Though to be fair, managers who have had some training on management is still vastly preferable to those who make it up as they go along.

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