Answer One Question to be a Better Manager

I learned a lot in my first job as a manager. In part because it wasn’t a traditional business, nor a normal management position. My first real job as a manager was being Station Manager at my college radio station. It was an interesting situation. We had about 120 people that worked at the station. We were a commercial station (one of the few commercial college stations around), so we had advertising.

The people that sold ads got some commissions, but every other person working there was a volunteer. Not only were they volunteers, but since they were all students at the time, they were volunteers that probably had more important things to be doing than working at the radio station – like studying.

And yet, the station had to stay on the air. We needed DJs to play records, people to filter through all the music sent to us, people to put together newscasts and then deliver, people to do play-by-play for our university’s sports broadcasts, engineers to keep the transmitter working, producers to make ads, and promotions people to try to encourage listeners to give us some of their time.

That’s a lot of jobs – especially for a pack of volunteers that all have other things on which they’re supposed to be spending their time.

And there were crises. The day I was named Station Manager two of the most experienced people at the station wanted to quit because they weren’t happy with how the job allocations for the coming year had been handled. So I had to figure out how to keep them happy, without being able to force them to do anything, and without much in the way of compensation to offer them (other than appreciation).

In the course of dealing with those problems, and with the other issues that got in the way of keeping the station on the air, I learned a lot about what motivates people, and what rewards them. Some of the things I learned are:

  • Passion trumps everything: passion is what kept the station running. It’s why I got involved with it in the first place. All of us were passionate about finding music and sharing it with people (or sharing the news, or sports). How can you keep a group of 120 volunteers going? Purpose.
  • You can’t use power: when everyone is a volunteer (with more important things that the should probably be doing!), you can’t force them to do anything. If they don’t like the situation, they’ll quit.
  • The number one job of managers is to remove obstacles: when you have neither carrots nor sticks to fall back on for motivation, you develop a different set of management skills. Finding the things that motivate people is one of them. The big one though is figuring out how to clear out the obstacles that prevent people from getting things done. A good manager is not a director, but rather a supporter.

Most of you aren’t managing all-volunteer organisations, so you may ask: so what? Here’s the thing that I realised though – the more I managed in “real” businesses, the more I realised that all of the lessons I learned at the radio station still held true. Carrots and sticks don’t work very well anymore (see the talk by Dan Pink). Here’s how Douglas Rushkoff puts it in Get Back in the Box:

These top-down, regimented forms of group cohesion could not cope with the complexity of real human beings interacting with one another. Our newfound ability to embrace more complex dynamics changes all this. Instead of trying to get everyon to conform to a simple set of commands, a great manager, organizer, or leader strives to create an environment or provide the tools through which people naturally cooperate.

So answer this question then act on it and you’ll be a better manager:

What would I do differently if everyone reporting to me was a volunteer?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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13 thoughts on “Answer One Question to be a Better Manager

  1. Enjoyed your post. You might also take a look at the book “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work” recently released by McGraw-Hill.

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