I once knew a friend who, at the tender age in her early 20’s, decided that she wanted to be a manager when she graduated from college. Instinctively, I felt that was a naïve proposition, but I wasn’t able to articulate why I felt that way since I was also just a 20 something. Nor was it my place to discourage her from a career goal. Now that I am older and had experienced both good and bad managers and somewhere in between, I have a better understanding of what a manager does.

Of course not all management positions are created equal. A manager at a technology company, a factory manager, and an “account manager” all serve different roles. Without going too deep, an account manager is about building and maintaining relationship on behalf of their company with a specific customer or a few. A factory manager, among other things like inventory and cashflow, manages people in the sense that they need to make sure they schedule enough staff in the store to cover the shift for the purpose of producing goods or services. Inventory, money, and scheduling are increasingly done by software algorithms. So what is left for a manager to do?

In a very abstract sense, managers manage assignment of resources, and all of liquid assets, non-liquid assets, and people are resources that need management. Because resources are finite, scheduling problem arises to allow greater utilization of the finite resources.

Traditionally, these managers optimize their scheduling towards a fixed set of goals. If you are a factory manager for a rubber ducks company, you know exactly what the end product looks like, what raw materials you need, how to operate the equipments, how to package the finished product, and where to ship them. If your factory makes other toys, they are still mass-produced in a similar process with some variations. It may rotate between making rubber ducks for a week, and rubber chicken for another week. The fixed set of goals is about rotating between these two product lines.

In the dynamic world today, market condition shifts all the time, and companies need to shift their objectives and complete deadlines in time to respond to market condition. A manager who only adheres to a fixed set of goals are no longer competitive, but employees have also learned to self-manage in order to adapt to the ever-changing world. Being able to set one’s own objectives and meet deadlines is now expected of anyone, whether they are a manager or an employee. One can also set objectives for another coworker without being their manager; this can take the form of leadership, but this is distinct from management.

This still begs the question, what does a manager do that an employee doesn’t? If we can’t tell what they are supposed to do, how do we say why someone is a good manager, and how do we even justify the existence of a manager if everyone is self-managing?

What is gradually emerging from my many years of work-life is the realization that managers are more about the people potential and less about managing people as if they are finite resources. In a broad stroke, there are two aspects of a good manager that I could recall:

  • Good managers help people grow. They develop people’s careers like coaches develop athletes.

  • Good managers help people accomplish what they have set their objectives for. This includes connecting them with other people who can provide what is currently missing.

(There are not new ideas. Countless articles have been written about these aspects. When I have the time to find good articles, I’ll link them here.)

Going back to the question if someone in their 20’s could graduate from college and become a good manager, if the said management position is in the traditional sense of scheduling the finite resources to maximize utilization towards a fixed set of goals, probably. But these managers are few and gradually being replaced by software algorithms. The other option is to become people’s career coach.

What makes a good career coach? To answer this question, we need to take a brief look at a typical person’s career trajectory. People in their 20’s are still exploring their interests, and they spend their 30’s honing a specific skill. It is not until in their 40’s they start to see how to negotiate their place in the social hierarchy, and they could spend very well the rest of their lives doing just that, and in the process, grow ownership of responsibilities.

Coaches were former athletes. They can’t be a coach unless they have been there and done that, and often times have had demonstrable success.