Non-SEO post today, although it can relate to SEOs along with pretty much any other job role, management or not. This post was actually inspired a little from what I started to say over on my State of Search blog post. I wanted to expand a bit more on what I’ve learnt about management in my time working at Distilled.

I’m talking in the past tense in this post because I’m currently here and not managing my team anymore :)

I’m fully aware that the team I managed – Craig, Dave and Tom could read this and find out the ways I’ve manipulated managed them. But meh, they can tell me whether this stuff worked or not!

In this post I wanted to share my approach to management, I’m not writing this because I think I’m 100% right – I’m not. I don’t think I’m a great manager either, I know there are tons of things I could do better. Having said that, I also think there are some learnings in this post for some people.

I’d actually love to hear what you guys think of my approaches and what works for you.

1. I had ONE job as a manager – keep my team happy

If I could sum up my role as a manager at Distilled up in a few words, this is how I’d describe it – keep my team happy. That’s it.

When I first started my role, I had loads and loads of ideas of how to do it. I started making plans for team meetings, action plans, project management, support systems for training, everything I could think of. I was a bit overwhelmed at just how much I felt I had to do. It was really hard to figure it all out. I spent probably a few months like this, but then it hit me – if my team is happy, everything else will be fine.

I think it hit me when I was having problems with one of my own projects, things just weren’t going well. It was hard to get stuff done, I was struggling to adapt to the client’s culture, results weren’t good. This affected ALL of my other projects, not just this one. This was when I realised how important happiness was. A single point of unhappiness can have a bigger impact than we realise.

What about “SEO stuff” – isn’t that my job as a manager?

Kind of yes, but it shouldn’t have been my focus.

My team were smart, I didn’t need to teach them how to do SEO. I didn’t need to teach them how to speak to clients. I didn’t need to tell them how to do link building. They were smart enough to figure all of this stuff out on their own or from each other. Of course I’m there if they need me and I’m happy to help, but this shouldn’t be my focus.

If they are happy with their job, their team, their manager, their clients and their company, EVERYTHING else falls into place. So I started focusing on making sure my team were happy and giving them the support they wanted, not what I felt they needed.

I wasn’t always successful because problems happen, life happens and people become unhappy. But this single point of focus allowed me to become a better manager, I think! It allowed me to spot problems early because I didn’t need to worry about details.

2. Your team are smarter than you – get over it

This was tough for me to get over. A couple of the guys joined as SEO noobs with little or no experience. I’d like to think that I taught them some good SEO and helped them develop into what they are now.

It hit me one day that both of them were now better at SEO than me, they were smarter than me. I felt threatened and immediately told myself that I needed to do some more SEO reading, learning and testing to show that I’m still the better SEO.

This is wrong.

I don’t need to be smarter than my team, in fact something weird happens here – they make you look good. The skills and smartness of my team made me look good (and people assume I know what my team know!). I end up learning from them! This is something that I first really picked up from my first proper manager, Steve who owns Pin Digital. We were chatting once and he told me that he built his company by surrounding people who are smarter than him. He can chime in and shake things up every so often, but he can remove himself and things would still run smoothly.

3. You get praised in different and less public ways

To a certain extent, you will get less public praise for your work when you are a manager. It becomes normal for you to do what used to be considered awesome. The bar is set far higher now. More is expected of you and even when you do great work, it isn’t deserving of a huge amount of praise because it was you that did it. If a new team member did the same, of course they’d get public praise for it. The same goes for your team, they come to expect good things from you and often take it for granted.

From now on you WILL be recognised for doing a good job, but chances are that it won’t be public praise. It will be your CEO pulling you to one side and saying well done before walking off into a meeting. No one else will hear it, no one else will offer their praise too. There is another reason for this though. Quite often as a manager you will have to deal with awkward situations. For example a project not going well and you have to rescue it, or a member of your team having a personal problem and you help them deal with it. This is the type of work that isn’t very appropriate for public praise so naturally it will happen privately.

As a manager, you need to become comfortable with this. If you want to be in the limelight and have everyone singing your praises, then you may be a bit disappointed.

4. Everyone hears what you say (and takes notice)

Obviously we all talk to each other in the office and we pass our opinions around, this is fine. When you’re a manager, your team not only hear what you say, but they can also take it to heart. Saying stuff flippantly isn’t a good idea if you have people around you who are looking up to you and learning from you.

This is actually particularly relevant for SEOs where there can often be multiple opinions on a topic. If I come out with the statement:

“client x is an idiot, they just don’t get it do they”

People around me will hear it and the less experienced will think that this is a good way of speaking about clients. In reality, I know this too. But everyone needs to let off steam sometimes, as a manager, you need to choose your location carefully and think twice before opening your mouth about something negative.

Otherwise, flippant statements like this can become embedded in your culture and it becomes normal (and acceptable) to talk this way – because you’re saying it.

5. Free up the headspace of your team

I tried to keep as much “management stuff” away from my team as possible. They didn’t need to know about everything I do, not because it’s a secret or anything, but because they should be concentrating on their job – keeping their clients happy.

As a manager, I had various metrics I cared about. I was measured on these, my team weren’t. Yes they had a part to play in helping hit them and helping Distilled overall, but they don’t need to know it all if they don’t want to. Headspace is precious, fill it with what matters. If the client pipeline is looking ridiculously rammed and like everyone is going to be overworked for the next 3 months, that isn’t something that my team need to worry about. I need to worry about how to handle this so that my team do not become unhappy.

6. Know what triggers your team to do stuff

Given that they may be reading this, I won’t go into loads of details on what triggers Dave, Craig and Tom to do stuff :)

What I did learn here though is that I found out more about what these guys cared about, what they were passionate about and what made them tick by getting drunk going for one pint after work with them. In this more relaxed environment, it is much easier to work out what they truly care about and what stops them from doing stuff.

This isn’t to say they were resistant to what I asked them to do. But sometimes when someone is feeling a bit busy (even if they’re not) then you need to know how to trigger them to open up to what you’re saying and realise you’re right.

This also means managing each person differently, conventional wisdom days that you should treat everyone the same. I don’t agree. Everyone is different and should be treated as such. This article on Inc sums my feelings up pretty well.

7. Don’t get in the way

Don’t get in the way of your team becoming awesome. One way of doing this is by getting over the fact that your team will become smarter than you and most likely, better at the job than you. Otherwise, you will hold them back because subconsciously, you want to always be smarter and better than them.

At Distilled, we hire staff who we feel are smart and get stuff done. If they prove this through their work, my job is to support them however I they want me to and to keep them happy.

What do you think?

This is a topic I’m genuinely passionate about and I loved managing my team at Distilled (I actually kinda miss them*) and I’d really love to hear other people’s approaches to management or indeed being managed. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

*That comment will test whether they have actually read this article and got this far!


Categories: Management


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Paddy is co-founder of Aira, a digital marketing agency in Milton Keynes.

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