As managers we often learn the most from others. Everyone from our terrible bosses we vowed never to imitate, to brilliant peers running happy teams, to our own team members in our daily work.
So wouldn’t it be great if we could ask lots of people about the best thing their manager has ever done for them. We’d probably learn a lot.
Julie Zhuo, celebrated author of The Making of a Manager, did exactly that.
Back in May this year, she asked her 120,000 twitter followers this question. By our count she got over 500 responses.
We’ve taken these responses, and categorised and analysed them, to try and find out more about what people really look for from their managers.
If you’re interested in going beyond our findings and browsing the tweets in full, you can find them all here in a Notion table we’ve set up.
If you like this approach, you’ll also enjoy our other pieces on ‘What’s the Best Thing a Manager Has Ever Done for Your Career’ and ‘The Number One Thing a Manager Can Do For Team Development’ - both also drawn from analysis of questions asked by tech leaders.
A quick caveat: this is by no means a rigorous scientific exercise. The categorisations we have put in place for each tweet are necessarily broad. Whilst we have tried to derive the genuine intention of the tweeter, it may be that we have made mistakes. There is likely also some self-selection bias here towards the tech industry, and the sample size is still relatively limited. Nevertheless, we got a lot of value out of the exercise and we think you will too.
We found that the highest proportion of responses (29%) related to specific actions that managers had taken to help people with their careers, and we spotted some distinct themes.
One third of these responses were examples of sponsorship, where managers had taken direct action to advocate for their team members and advance their careers.
Whether that be creating opportunities for visibility...
‘Gave me a seat at the table. Very literally, she would kick other executives off the table and have them sit on a chair against the wall so I can sit next to her. Gave me political leverage early in my career.’
‘Put me on projects that have high impact, make sure I was always on the right path.’
Pushing through promotions…
‘Fight for a promotion/raise. In a university context, that's always a long intense uphill battle, even for those of us who aren't faculty’
‘Stopped me from prematurely quitting my job, then gave me a 40% raise and a promotion.’
‘Before she left, they put together an entire presentation and whitepaper advocating for me receiving a salaried staff position.’
Or fighting for fair pay, even when the team member didn’t know what that looked like.
‘She gave me a larger raise than I was going to ask for, and she told me I was worth more.’
‘I was asking for a salary below the band during the interview and he told me so I was able to get fair comp.’
These stories are vivid reminders that beyond day-to-day support of our team members, there are certain set-piece moments where we have an opportunity to have an outsized impact on someone’s life and career.
It’s why it’s so important to understand how progression works within our organisations so we can be effective advocates for our teams in these moments.
These impacts compound over time. If we can get someone an opportunity, a raise, or a promotion, even 6 months earlier than they otherwise would have done, that head start will benefit them for the rest of their career.
Throughout the responses, one theme that keeps emerging is that for the managers that were most appreciated, career development didn’t stop at the four walls of their current company.
There are numerous examples of managers taking the time to understand where an employee wants to go, and investing in those career goals, regardless if that means the employee leaving their team to pursue them.
‘Told me I outgrew my current role and went to his Rolodex to get me a new job.’
‘Created a safe space for me, once a week, to talk about my career independent of my current employer’
‘Was essential in helping me transition from Nubank, São Paulo, to a job in the US. It took months, and even though he was "losing" one of his designers, he supported and coached me the entire process, showing excitement for my career.’
Sometimes that meant giving people hard truths about changing careers altogether.
‘Told me I should start over and find a new career. Still thankful for her wisdom.’
Some responses remind us that impacting someone’s career development starts as soon as we give someone a job offer. Our first act of sponsorship is to give someone the job in the first place, and this is recognised by team members. Particularly when we look critically at our hiring practices, and choose to hire from less traditional backgrounds.
‘Took a bet on me as a principal at Amplify from a non traditional background (straight out of ML PhD). Amazing, thoughtful mentors.’
Beyond career development, the next most popular tweets (19%) were expressions of appreciation for how someone’s manager had made them feel supported.
Some of these examples were general. There were numerous messages about how a manager had ‘believed in me’ or helped someone recognise their potential.
‘Believed in the potential I had not yet seen in myself…’
‘He made me feel sane and trust my intuition, which is the largest gift you can receive when you’re young, a women, a creative, feel differently than powerful people.’
‘Believed in me (and expressed it) even when I didn't believe in myself as a jr. designer new to the field.’
It’s clear that creating a general atmosphere where our team members know that we’ve got their back and believe in them is incredibly important to people.
However, beyond day-to-day support, the tweets included very personal stories of where a manager had come through for someone when they needed it most.
These situations often related to health or grief, with the manager taking care to do whatever they could to help.
‘Discreetly extended my maternity leave from 6 to 12 weeks even though i wasn’t “officially” eligible. it was a tremendous gesture that meant more to me than she’ll ever know.’
‘Was there to listen, remove red tape and give me the time and space I needed to be there for my family during an extremely tough time. I will NEVER forget that.’
‘They understood that I might need a minute to process some disappointing news. Instead of pushing me to just be okay in the moment they allowed me space to digest everything and come back clear headed at a later time.’
When there is so much overlap between life and work, managers inevitably have an influence at the most sensitive times in people’s lives. How we offer compassion and support in those moments resonates for years.
After those two, before we get to a long tail of other categories (less than 5% of the tweets), there’s a clutch of themes which all represented about 10% of responses.
A number of tweets described situations where people recognised their managers had trusted them with an opportunity beyond their current role, and continued to support them if they failed, knowing it was all part of helping them grow.
‘Let me do something the wrong way because she knew I needed to fail in order to grow.’
‘"You're a smart person. Figure it out." He literally closed the office door in my face (for dramatic effect). I asked a lot of questions early on our of fear of failure. Simultaneously gave me the space to fail and the space to grow my confidence.’
‘Let his team explore and grow beyond their mandate. Trust the opportunity is a value managers rarely recognize or support.’
Various people reflected on specific times where their managers had intervened to ensure they were included fully in relevant work, felt they belonged in a team, and were treated fairly.
‘Asked for my input in meetings. At the time I was hesitant to speak up but also buzzing with ideas. By prompting me in real-time, he set the tone that my voice was important to making decisions. That went a long way and still does now.’
‘Made it safe to show up as my full self.’
‘Told me to be more of myself because that’s who they confidently hired. It was awesome to hear at the time because when they mentioned this, I was trying to be on my best behavior and was an overly agreeable doormat, trying to please everyone and not doing the best job.’
‘Pumped me a $15k after a month of joining the team because he thought I was underpaid’
‘Believed me when I said someone was racist.’
The responses that referenced feedback support the thesis that employees appreciate critical feedback if it helps them improve and it’s delivered in the right way.
Indeed, these responses are all from people who decided that the best thing a manager had ever done for them, was give them a piece of honest feedback which fundamentally changed how they approached their jobs.
‘Give critical feedback that was necessary but extremely difficult to hear.’
‘My mngr had the tough challenge of giving me constructive feedback she received from some of my teammates. She not only provided the feedback gracefully, but she also listened to me in my frustration, and helped me put a plan together to turn things around’
‘Give me honest, direct feedback about why my promotion fell through and actionable feedback to make sure I was promoted next round.’
‘one time, he gave me feedback that was subtle enough that it took a day or so for me to realize the story he told about himself was really feedback about things I had done. and entirely on brand it was about creating a more inclusive environment.’