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 in New Zealand 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!



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

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  • Reply

    Briony Gunson

    December 3, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Great post, Paddy 🙂 Your points pretty much perfectly sum up how I think the best managers behave and how I would aspire to be in that role. Making sure your team are happy is paramount, and encouraging them to go from strength to strength is vital. And them being happy makes you happy! Everyone works their best when they are all smiley.

    As a manager, I think glory comes from not in being the best SEO but in having supported and trained those who do become the best SEOs. The well known irony of becoming more senior in your role is that you can end up doing less of the day job, and since SEO requires you to learn so much so regularly, it’s inevitable others might surpass you.

    And I particularly agree with point 4. A good bitch can be therapeutic, but be careful what you say and to who, as it can end up growing rot in your team!

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 8:02 am

      Thanks for the comment Briony! Agree very much about as you go more senior, the less SEO you actually do. Although I was still managing three projects before I came travelling so I still felt pretty hands on which I really liked.

  • Reply

    Antony Robinson

    December 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Some very interesting points her P – and I face some very similar challenges! Great post!

  • Reply

    Barry Adams

    December 3, 2012 at 11:15 am

    I recognise everything you say in this post, Paddy. I’m managing a team now as well, and all of these ring true.

    I’d add something extra to point 4: it’s not about what you say, it’s about what people hear. A throw-away comment I think is fairly harmless can be perceived in a much different light, and as managers we need to be aware of that and try to recognise how our output is perceived, beyond just what we intend to communicate.

    Perception = reality, after all.

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 7:27 am

      Thanks Barry and good point, this is something else everyone needs to be aware of, not just managers.

  • Reply

    David Sottimano

    December 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    *We did read this post 😉 I still don’t know how you managed to manage me, you should add an explanatory paragraphs about “rebels” or something. We miss you too mate.

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

      One paragraph? I nearly dedicated the entire post to managing you 🙂

  • Reply

    Francisco Meza

    December 3, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    When I was in the US Navy, I never liked when people “told” me what to do. But if they “asked” me to do something, I would do it. I think at the time it was more a battle of authority. That was when I was 17 years old, but I felt that through my early 20’s. I am in my late 30’s now and got great at doing things myself.

    It fun when there a a team and the manager is also in the dirt with the team. The highest sales I have ever had led to happiness. Low sales = Little Happiness. But I am (I am only speaking about myself here) I am more happy now than ever because I have more money in the bank now and I don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck. That’s the biggest thing that made me happy OVERALL. Making AND Saving more money.

    When I was younger, I always wanted to make more money, but sometimes things were out of my control and “management” always looked at numbers. 2007 – 2008 was really bad here in the US. I would end up leaving or would get fired.

    All I know is this (again I am only speaking for myself here), it really sucked when I looked at my taxes to see that I basically made the same thing as the year before. At that point, I don’t think management could have made me happy because I wasn’t growing financially. BUT TODAY is a different story. I work for myself now and the only people I manage are contractors from oDesk.

    I think it really depends on the work environment too.

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience Francisco!

  • Reply

    Rand Fishkin

    December 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Really good advice Paddy. Thank you for writing this.

    The big points I’d add would be:

    – Sometimes, it’s hard to know what will create happiness, and even harder to realize that what your team says they need may not be the thing that makes them the happiest. Great managers tend to have a ton of empathy AND can grasp the weird inconsistincies and biases of human psychology

    – Freeing up headspace is good, but I hate to do it at the expense of transparency. My preferred method is to make all the information available, but not force any of it on anyone.

    – Alcohol = truth. Totally agree with this, and would say that I’ve often better understood what’s going on after 2-3 drinks than after 2-3 hours in a brainstorm, 1:1, or offsite.

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 7:23 am

      Thanks for the comment Rand. Agree on all your points and have had debates with myself on how much I need to share with the team and whether I should be more forthcoming. In the end I decided that if they want to know stuff, I’d be open and share, but otherwise I’ll just tell them stuff when it’s relevant and impacts them directly.

  • Reply

    Mackenzie Fogelson

    December 3, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Hi Paddy!

    I really appreciate your post. For me, management is one of the hardest jobs I have as a CEO. It’s a lot harder to be a manager than it is to be a leader. I’m sure you’re great at both 🙂

    I especially liked what you said about being careful of what you say on bad days:

    “Saying stuff flippantly isn’t a good idea if you have people around you who are looking up to you and learning from you.”

    Especially with a small team, it’s easy to get comfortable because you work so closely together. Keeping professional boundaries, while still being a good human being, is something that I always keep in the back of my mind.

    Thanks again.

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 7:39 am

      Thanks for the comment Mack!

      It is tough to find the right balance between a relaxed atmosphere but keeping it focused on the work and fun at the same time. I’m not sure I got the balance 100% right with my team (being really honest) but I felt it wasn’t too far away.

  • Reply

    Ari Joutsi

    December 11, 2012 at 6:53 am

    Great post Paddy! Great to read your toughts and hopefully I can use them someday as a team manager.

    (I guess Dave has not read this yet because link to his site is broken. Another test maybe? 😉 )

    • Reply


      December 11, 2012 at 7:34 am

      Ha that was my fault, I edited the link and got it wrong, fixed now 🙂

  • Reply

    Thomas Kane

    December 19, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    I am all about helping to make sure the team is happy, it’s hard. You were lucky to have smart people. I’ve had some real challenges with people who got arrogant once they knew a little and stopped learning.

  • Reply


    January 4, 2013 at 2:12 am

    As per my experience there are few things which is very important as a manager

    1. You should know the job better than any one in the team
    2. As Paddy said make your team happy
    3. Create visibility among your senior managers and clients

    It is always important to work as a team and take the responsibilities of any mischief.
    These are some basics steps which one should follow to manage a team for longer time.
    I was working for a firm, however there are so much of politics that finally i decided to start my own venture.
    @Paddy: My site url is httpss://, can you suggest me some of the improvements i can do on this website to make it more visible.

  • Reply

    David Taylor

    January 16, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Very good post. As someone who has jumped to management I recognise and agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I also wince slightly looking back at what a ham-fisted job I made of it in the beginning – like all jobs & experiences – you live, learn and grow stronger!

  • Reply

    Nick Andrews

    February 21, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Fantastic article Paddy and I think you’re absolutely spot on with your points on both praise and public criticisms etc.

    What I would add is that for me, the management part of asking people to do stuff, making sure clients are being serviced effectively etc forms such a small part of the role when compared to the ability to listen. In my experience managers are always doing a lot of talking but often fail to listen and respond to feedback from their team and this is certainly where I’ve seen holes form in the past. I find that simple regular communication with my team is essential to keep them happy, and that’s not through emails or even alcohol but by having regular 1 to 1s, whether it be in a breakout zone, over a game of pool or even in the office kitchen. It’s essential to know what motivates each individual in your team and the only way to do that is to get to know them better.

    Allowing individuals the ability to put creative ideas and innovations on the table, confide in you as their manager and discuss their concerns is extremely powerful; certainly empowering your them (who as you rightly say are usually cleverer than you!) to run with those ideas and know they have the support from above will often reap fantastic rewards for the company and the individual’s professional development/growth.

  • Reply

    Danny Howard

    April 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Really great read Paddy, thanks for your experience with this. Sometimes it’s hard to please and make everyone happy within your team, however you can put things in place such as support that they might need and how and what they absorb and learn from you that makes them better at there job.

    Making them happy only improves the overall experiance and the team to produce the kind of results that you want.

    Thanks for sharing

    Danny Howard


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