So You Think You Can Manage People

What’s up, managers?

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Let me guess, this is probably how you got here: you started off as a fresh grad, probably had a couple of fantastic years working with a great manager who you looked up to and who taught you a bunch of cool shit for your job. Maybe a few years here and there with a couple of not-so-great ones who, interestingly, taught you more because you now know what not to do (yay for learning how to avoid managerial red flags!). Or maybe you just stumbled into management because the opportunity presented itself, and you YOLO-ed your way into it. However it went for you, here we are, managing a team (or maybe multiple teams) of our own.

I’m the 3D and Tech Art Discipline Lead at Bear Force One, so my team is pretty big. It’s made up of a bunch of young, cool, and super awesome people — some fresh out of school — with a few interns to spice things up. With the age difference between the oldest (me) and the youngest in the teams standing at 13(ish) years, it can take more than a little effort on everyone’s part to communicate effectively. I’ve also been standing in as the Art Production Manager for Disney Melee Mania (coming soon!) while my coworker is on maternity leave, so the number of people I have to communicate with on a daily basis is pretty intense.

Maybe, like me, you’ve attended more than a couple of leadership and management courses to try to be a better leader. Most probably, unlike me, you didn’t make a mid-career shift to become an educator and teach teenagers and young adults your craft. I’ve learned a lot from that slightly unconventional pivot, and what I’ve picked up from education has helped me serve my young teams better. In this multi-part series on management, here’s the first part, for you, the people manager!

You’ve earned it, so now own it

So you’re a manager. You must’ve realized that management is not just about making sure work gets done, but also how to get the work done well with the sanity of everyone involved intact, including your own. But how? The first step, in my opinion, is to own it. That’s the only way I believe you can be a good manager.

Just like fundamentals in art, there are “formulas” in leadership: Empathy, transparency in communication, charisma, to name a few. But also, just like art, there are as many ways to approach the topic of good management as to how we can apply stylization to art. And let’s face it, there’s no way you can be the manager your favourite manager was, simply because you aren’t them.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, I have had more managers that were bad than good (very subjective and based solely on my opinion, of course), so when I first stepped into a lead role, I always reminded myself of the things I thought my previous managers should’ve done to be better leaders: What were the things they did that made me feel good or bad about myself as a professional? How could I do better?

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Just like the hard work you put in to become a good artist, being a good manager takes a lot of practice too. Understand what it takes to be a good manager, but do it in a way that makes it uniquely you.

For me, this meant being honest and real, be it giving credit for jobs well done or calling out areas that require improvement. Tough conversations are unavoidable, and in the low-intensity, high-conflict environment of Mighty Bear Games, such situations happen frequently. I’ve found that tough conversations are best managed with honesty and openness, and by talking to them in a way that’s uniquely, positively you.

Remember, you’ve worked hard to earn this; you should own it.

Help me help you

Next up is a mindset shift. You’ve gone from individual contributor to manager, so some things definitely have to change.

I am one of the newest members on the Mighty Bear Art Team. I’ve only been on the team for six months, yet things have changed drastically since I’ve joined, from asset creation and implementation pipelines to task planning and tracking processes.

This wouldn’t have been possible if pain points within the team weren’t openly identified and addressed, and if my intentions to implement change weren’t clear. I felt it was important to establish the latter right from the start, by always asking: What can I do to help you perform your job better?

Maintaining this alignment and stance is crucial. It’ll help you identify immediate pain points and make it more efficient for you to critically address existing issues. It could be a process they’re struggling with simply because they lack the experience to reduce redundancy or streamline it on their end; or it could simply be a task they’re unsure of. Emphasize regularly that your proverbial door is always open if they need to talk about anything at all, and make sure you stick to that mantra.

I was lucky enough to have a team that was supportive of me from the beginning, but in many organizations, regardless of team dynamic, this stance will go a long way as it helps to build your confidence and trust from the team, especially when challenging them to step up in their growth.

Enable those who are ready, have patience with those who aren’t

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“Empowerment” is a term that tends to be thrown around as a corporate buzzword more often than it is being practised when it comes to leadership and creating positive team culture, but just like owning being a good manager, it is something you have to wholeheartedly believe in for it to work well. If you’re handling multiple departments, like I am, you’re probably going to find yourself stretched for bandwidth. By identifying each of their strengths (and weaknesses), I have found the process of empowering my team members through delegation to be fairly straightforward.

But not everyone has what it takes to be a leader, so I’ve always strongly believed in the idea of enabling those who are ready, and having patience with those who aren’t, regardless of seniority or experience.

Hakim is a junior artist on the team who joined Mighty Bear fresh out of college and has only been with us for about a year. Despite that, he’s been incredibly dependable from the get-go and has gone from strength to strength, performing brilliantly overall. I worked closely with him on Disney Melee Mania’s environment, going through quality expectations and thought processes before letting him run with it. Recently, he’s been tasked with training teammates who are more senior than him, and the whole team has felt comfortable tasking him with responsibilities that would be usually delegated to a senior. I felt comfortable giving him this amount of ownership, but that was also because he was ready to take it on.

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However, different managers will have different ways of handling things, and different teams will also react differently. What has worked for me and the team at Mighty Bear may not work for you. Transitioning teams into a management style that has more emphasis on ownership could cause growing pains for some, and not all younger professionals have the maturity or experience to cope.

Throughout this entire process, I made it a point to reach out and sync up with Hakim and the team whenever possible, both individually and as a unit, to clearly communicate my intentions and plans for them to keep it up, and to step it up.

By getting junior artists actively involved in the ever-changing landscape and taking on new responsibilities, it helps them to be aware of not just what they’re working on, but what also they’re working for.

And there you have it. Becoming a manager and having to work with young professionals is not an easy feat, so I hope my tips can help you help your teams better. If you have any thoughts on the points listed in this chapter, be sure to share them with me!

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about instilling a culture of positive impact, so stay tuned for next week!

So You Think You Can Manage People was originally published in Mighty Bear Games on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.