Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Five Top Tips That Will Make You a Better People Manager

My first management job was around the age of 28 and I wasn't good at it.

I'd built a ground-up debt recovery team in the space of 6 weeks and it was staffed by temporary workers. Eventually, the team was made permanent and my management of the team was made permanent.

At the time, I was a good individual contributor doing a mix of in-house lawyer work. Mainly commercial contracting but also some employment and debt recovery and my performance in that role led to me being asked to create the temporary team and then to take it on permanently. It's a common story, the individual contributor being asked to take on a management role.

So, where did I fail in that management role?

Firstly, I didn't really know how to manage people. There was no formal training in how to be a people manager. There was an HR framework and an expectation that 1-1s would happen and performance objectives would be set, but there was no real training in how to do it.

Secondly, I didn't like the tough conversations. Moving into a management role means having to say no or not yet. It involves letting people down and not always for reasons within your own control. In my later years, when I had colleagues profess a desire to move into a management role, I would ask, "Why?".

As with all things though, practice makes you better. From that start, I have managed teams of up to 15 legal, compliance and audit professionals. Managing professionals can bring with it its own set of challenges but I want to focus today on five things you can do to be a better people manager.

Note, I'm not saying a better leader. There's a lot of talk about the differences between leadership and management but unless you are on a board or in a CxO role, you are a manager first and a leader second. Yes, part of being a manager is embodying leadership behaviours but the principal expectation is that you will manage your people.

Have a plan for pay and rations

This is the bread and butter of a people manager role. Managing the constant demands from your team around salary, benefits, career progression and the like.

If you are a head of department, you may set and manage your own budget otherwise you are likely to be feeding into a larger budget over which you may have some influence but little control.

Having a plan for pay and rations means setting out steps to increase salary, improve benefits or grow careers for your team that is done well in advance of actually needing to execute. If your financial year is calendar-aligned, your team member won't get a pay rise in November after the budgets are locked. You should understand to what degree these elements are important for your individual team members and lay the groundwork to make them happen.

An example may be to ask an employee to take on additional responsibility in the March of a given year and then use that to platform a salary increase when budget discussions occur in the September.

Planning for these issues make the inevitable conversations about salary and benefits that much easier when they do occur.

Set routines and stick to them

Nothing should be a surprise to your team. This is most commonly used in the context of "feedback" (more on that later) but here I mean the frequency and content of meetings - one-to-ones, team meetings and performance reviews should all happen with an established frequency and with established content.

How you run the meetings and how frequently needs to align with the expectations of your organisation but when I was in a management role, I would work to the following cadence:

  • one-to-ones with direct reports on a monthly basis although in a later role I moved it to weekly with my Head of Legal as we had a lot of change work going on. Here's a link to the standard 1-1 form I used with my team;
  • team meetings on a monthly basis with standing agenda items including a review of business performance and a review of our team performance;
  • performance reviews and objective settings on a quarterly basis as this aligned with the organisational approach to KPI management.

We would weave in a wider team meeting on a quarterly basis that looked to develop non-technical skills such as relationship management, influencing and leadership styles.

I mentioned feedback earlier and making this routine removes the stigma. The 1-1 form I linked earlier provided an easy framework for feedback to be given and received. By making it a standing item on each 1-1, it removed the element of saying to someone, "I'd just like to give you some feedback".

Learn the basic legal aspects to the job

This one might make you HR's best friend.

As someone with a legal professional background, it's easy for me to say that you should know the law as it affects employers and employees. However, it will make your life, the company's life and HR's life so much better.

If you are in the UK, you should know the basics on the law as it relates to unfair dismissal (including constructive dismissal), discrimination, harassment and victimisation. You should not bring your own interpretation of the law to the issues - office banter can be harassment, even if you think it's just banter.

Having a good understanding of the relevant legal issues relating to redundancy, working time and holiday pay will make you an asset to the company and someone seen as a capable of dealing with management issues in her own team. You will be able to spot nascent problems and make sure the right people are involved at the right time. In my experience, most damage is done well before HR are involved and by that time, it can be too late to mitigate the risks.

If you are stuck with where to start, ask if you can go on a basic course. Many organisations run three-hour courses on basic employment law.

Toe the company line

Until you are in a CxO position, you don't get to determine the business policies. It is your job as a people manager to align behind those policies and implement them within your team.

This means that if the policy means saying no, you have to say no...full stop. Don't try and weasel your way out of it by saying you disagree with the policy; by saying that if it was "up to you", you'd allow it. Hopefully, the company you work for aligns with your own values and you don't find it hard to enforce the policies but enforce them you must.

You cannot play both sides. You cannot not be the bad guy as that leads to ambiguity and misunderstanding.

Be honest

This one goes without saying but it needs to be seen in the context of toeing the company line.

You do a disservice to your team by not being (within relevant confidentiality parameters) entirely honest with your team. This means that if you cannot get a salary increase, you must clearly say that and provide reasons for it. Maybe it's performance, maybe the employee is at the top of their grade but whatever the reason, don't hold out false hope that it will happen.

There are two reasons for this and they are opposite sides of the same coin. The truth will eventually out and the employee will not thank you for it. Their opinion of you and the company will be severely damaged. The other side to this of course is that being honest means that an inevitable decision on the part of the employee happens anyway, sooner than you would like perhaps, but with their view of you and the company intact.

No manager likes an employee leaving, even less so if the reason if for something outside the manager's control (see toeing the company line) but if they are to leave then it is better that they do so on a positive note and they will if you have handled the matter honestly and professionally.


Being a good people manager means accepting that you are balancing your obligations to the company with your obligations to your team and that you can find a healthy middle ground. Setting routines and having a plan will make day-to-day management effortless. Understanding what your team members want from their careers and being honest with them about that will forge excellent team relationships that make you seen as a strong people manager.

Posted by Robin on 01 Jun, 2021 in Guides