Managing people starts with managing yourself

Getting the most out of your day-to-day work with people means knowing yourself and regularly working on managing yourself. Personal responsibility is the starting point for being granted additional responsibility.


Many years ago I was a senior manager in a large accounting firm. The partner for whom I most often worked told me one day that I had been selected to attend a week-long course on managing people. I was delighted by the news and traveled to Toronto for the Sunday afternoon start. After some group introductory icebreakers, the facilitators got deeply into the topic at hand.

Managing yourself

Later that evening the session leader came to my room and asked to speak to me. He said that I had a quizzical look on my face late in the session and he wondered if there was anything that he could do to address any questions that I had. I took a deep breath and said that I really couldn’t relate to the theme of the session – managing people – and what we were doing in the session. I thought that the session was all about managing oneself versus managing others.

The session leader had a little smile on his face and said that I had actually divined what he hoped people would conclude at the end of the session – managing people starts with managing yourself. Knowing the end game, I threw myself into the course and got a lot out of it.

Serving staff

Through the years I have reflected on that theme many times. Personal responsibility is the starting point for being granted additional responsibility. Managing people is a privilege that carries a high level of responsibility. It’s not about power and exerting authority capriciously. It’s about serving staff – assigning them to projects, supporting them in their development and bringing out the best in them.

Staff observations

Staff routinely observe their manager’s every move, assessing its alignment with policy and behavior expected of the manager. They know more than managers might suspect, judging their behavior and their words. They listen to the inane and the inspirational. They see managers who abuse their position and those who don’t. They know bad behavior when they see it, but they often don’t feel empowered to tell anyone.

Personal accountability

The gold standard is and must be personal accountability for one’s behavior and performance. Caring about people, measured communication and reflecting on the impact that all staff interactions have are the hallmark of emotionally mature managers. With a solid interpersonal foundation, getting down to the actual work is a whole lot easier. People who have a healthy, positive working relationship with their managers perform better than those who don’t. While staff members certainly have responsibility for their behavior and performance, managers are most responsible for creating the environment within which their teams function.

Interested in managing people? Then manage yourself well first.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.