Developing a management philosophy

June 21 2019

A management philosophy is not something I thought I needed, but once I finally landed on it, it felt like a puzzle had been completed. My philosophy—Take care of your people—is the truth for me. I meditate on it and tell the story to anyone who will listen.

Developing my management philosophy was a long process and was sparked by my management coach, Lara Hogan. 1 She said this philosophy was going to become my North Star, so I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. Two months and 11 versions later Take care of your people” came into focus and for the last 18 months it has guided everything I do. 

In HBR, Carol A. Walker points out that:

…having a core philosophy can help guide you through the day-to-day and the job’s tougher moments. ”

And this is especially important for new managers.

This is how I eventually landed on my philosophy. Follow these steps and you’ll get there!

Step #1: Develop a vocabulary

The important part of vocabulary development is to make a list of the concepts (words or phrases) that are invaluable to you as you guide your team. Check out Lara’s management philosophy worksheet where she lays this out. (Subscribe to her newsletter to get it!)

Try your best to use ultra-positive framing and grammar. For instance, rather than remove obstacles,” try keep focused.” Rather than don’t forget,” try always remember.” In general, it’s easier for me to capture negative concepts more than positive ones, so I have to work harder to find positive framing.

After you’ve determined your philosophy, you will to think about it a lot (that’s kind of the idea). And a philosophy filled with negatively associated words or phrases can take a toll over time.

Step #2: Consider the phrasing

Remember, words have literal, cultural, and social meanings. The words you use will have an impact on you and your team, so remember to consider the optics and phrasing from your philosophy in as many angles as you can.

For instance, in a vacuum, phrases like building bridges,” creating a foundation,” or discover” have an architectural, engineering, and exploration connotation and could be read as positive, but in the context of leading a diverse team, these could feel colonial and culturally damaging. 

Likewise, phrases like opening doors,” empowering people,” and shining a light” could have a positive association to mentorship, but if you’re part of an overrepresented group2 and your direct reports are not, this could also sound like I hold the keys to your success, and I’ll allow you to succeed.”

I have found that metaphors and analogies are the pitfalls when it comes to phrasing a philosophy. By their nature, analogies are defined by context, and your management philosophy will frequently stand apart from a lengthy backstory, idioms, or inside jokes. Use caution when using metaphors and analogies as they could be interpreted differently with those who have different backgrounds as yours. Focus on saying what you mean. 

Step #3: Make it actionable

The most obvious way to make your philosophy actionable is to start the philosophy with a verb, but focus on capturing the spirit of action. Remember it’s ok if you use a word that isn’t describing an exact action. 

Lara’s philosophy is

I believe that humans already have the answers inside themselves. My role is to help them find it.”

This doesn’t start with a verb, but the second sentence definitely has an actionable spirit to it, with help” being the primary action one would take.

Sometimes the action is implied. An example she gives in her management philosophy worksheet is

Strong back, open heart.”

This works well because of the implied action. The philosophy is implying we have,” or you have” a strong back and an open heart. Arguably it’s powerful because of that interpretive spin. Even still, the spirit of action is built in.

Step #4: Talk with your people

Over a few months I created 11 versions of my management philosophy, and I was proud of each individual word chosen. In early drafts, I overused a thesaurus in an attempt to develop the perfect phrasing. I needed to describe everything I was about.

Every. Single. Word. Was. Deliberate. And. Also. Read. Like. A. Robot. Was. Delivering. It.

I got lost in the individual words, and hadn’t worked on the meaning as a whole. It didn’t sound like me.

Finding my philosophy was supposed to be akin to finding a North Star so I could guide my team, but instead I tried to create a perfectly drawn map, and I never looked up from my drafting table to see the world around me.

Version 11 read:

Design a flourishing environment that’s diverse and clear of obstacles.”

I planned to share with one of my designers during our 1:1, and we started with the 1:1 cards from Plucky. She randomly chose the card that read Tell me about a leader you admire. Why do you admire them?”

She told me about how she loved and admired her family. Our conversation turned into an emotional 1:1, and I wanted nothing but to listen. After a few minutes, we both chuckled at the odd setting we found ourselves sharing details of our lives — a typical 1:1 on a random day isn’t usually where I expect to be emotionally vulnerable. 

After that conversation, my version 11 philosophy seemed trite. I wasn’t connected to it, and I felt I needed to rethink everything.

When I got back into the office, I wrote Take care of your people.” on a Post-it note. As soon as a wrote it, it feel like a weight lifted off my shoulders. This one felt right. This one actually sounded like me.

That 1:1 with my designer changed my philosophy from

Design a flourishing environment that’s diverse and clear of obstacles.”

to

Take care of your people.”

Step #5: Share your philosophy

I finally (officially) shared my version 12” philosophy with my design team recently, though they had seen it scrawled on Post-it notes and my dry erase board for months. 

Sharing your philosophy with your team is a way for them to hold you accountable. I encouraged them to ask, how does [some action] align with your philosophy,” if they ever have a concern with how I’m leading or managing them. This open-ended question (based on an external-reference point, ie. my management philosophy) gives them fuel to give me actionable feedback, versus me asking them a question like how am I doing,” or what can I do to help you?” 

Go make yours

This was my process, though there are many ways to go about this. Take what you need from mine, combine it with others, and develop the philosophy that gives you life.

Our next step is to develop a design team philosophy.

  1. Buy her new book: Resilient Management, and hire her: Wherewithall

  2. Bryan Liles flipped the association between overrepresented” and underrepresented,” and I’m following his lead. His tweet changed how I think about this.