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A version of this post originally appeared on Fistful of Talent.

For HR professionals interested in improving our organizations and our abilities to find, attract, recruit, develop and retain great talent, there is no shortage of freely available resources: HR/Talent blogs, HR and workplace podcasts, webinars, LinkedIn Groups, Twitter chats, white papers — the list goes on and on. But while many of these resources offer great insight, advice, tips and tools, it's hard to sort out the truly valuable from the obvious.

Sometimes, I think we spend too much time searching for answers instead of paying attention to our own experiences and the people we have encountered along the way. The truth is, anyone can learn much of what they need to know about becoming a better manager by reflecting on their own careers. 

Here are the top 5 lessons I've learned throughout my life about good management – from real, live, actual managers:

1) Trust: Age Sometimes is Just a Number

My first job was working retail at the mall with my high school buddy. We were about 17 — and due to a combination of decent upbringings and a low bar to climb over, were the most trustworthy employees out of a shaky lot. Once the store manager determined we were reliable, she slowly began to give us more and more responsibilities at the store.

We went from stockroom to customer service at the front of the store to inventory management and ordering, and eventually even to scheduling and payroll. It didn’t matter to her that we were just high school kids, or that we had not worked there (or anywhere) for very long. She let performance determine trust — and from there came more responsibility and opportunity.

2) Calm: Don't Cry Over Spilled OJ 

A few years later, I had a summer job at a massive grocery distribution center. One evening, a forklift driver was attempting to move several large pallets of orange juice from an extremely high shelf when — suddenly — crash! The pallets gave way and, in an instant, there were hundreds of gallons of orange juice everywhere and the forklift driver was stunned on the ground, knocked out of his seat from the force of the impact.

Of course, my fellow employees and I began to freak out – no one knew what to do first. Then the shift manager arrived, and almost like a movie (if movies were made about night-shift warehouse workers), issued a series of calm directions: deal with the injured man first, then address the potential danger of additional pallets crashing, focus on clean-up third, and finally get everyone not needed at the scene back to work. Everyone played off his controlled attitude and within minutes, order was restored. 

3) Perspective: Take One Step at a Time

My first “real” job after graduating was in a staff accounting and finance group for a huge corporation – The kind of place full of smart and nice people, but also the kind of place where a dense and determined bureaucracy had developed over many years. Young and arrogant, I was full of ideas about how we should change everything.

My manager humored me, while making sure I understood some important (and not covered in the official onboarding process) elements of the culture. He taught me the value of seeing the bigger picture, thinking about the one or two areas to try and effect change and then driving hard in these areas. The company was a massive ship – no 22 year-old was going to step in and turn it around! But a 22 year-old could have an impact if he played it smart, and my manager taught me that crucial lesson.

4) Respect: You Don't Know It All

The one thing that I found most important the first time I had to manage another person was patience. It can be really tempting to hit your first managerial role with the mindset of, “I know it all, and if the team just does ‘it’ the way I would, we'll all be fine.”

Trying to tell folks not only what to do, but how to do it, is the fastest path toward tension, disengagement and even rebellion. I learned this when a long-time (and very good) employee I was managing pulled me aside. In no uncertain terms, he informed me that the team did, in fact, know what they were doing, and that I, in fact, had about 20 fewer years of experience on the subject matter than they did. 

5) Compassion: Your People Are People First

We have all encountered personal problems – from an illness or a death in the family, to problems with kids’ or parents' care-taking, to a bad breakup. 

In two different situations, the “best” managers I ever had stood up as caring, decent and compassionate people. They never brought up things like “bereavement leave” or asked about where a particular piece of work stood. They demonstrated the kind of concern and empathy you’d want from someone who cares about your welfare. And in both cases, once the “crises” were over, I knew I would do just about anything to help both of them going forward.

What examples of great managers do you have from your career? 

Photo: Shutterstock

Steve Boese View all

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