Unwritten Rules of Management: Air Cover

Recently I was discussing something fairly innocuous with a member of my team. Given there was a very small financial outlay for what I was planning, I mentioned I’d take it up with our manager just to confirm it’s not a big deal.

At that moment my direct report joked, “You can just do it and if anyone bristles, you can blame me.” I told him the first “rule” of being a decent manager is to not throw your team under the bus!

And this got me thinking that there are so many of these unwritten rules that I should share given it took me over 15 years of work experience to learn them!

Sticking with this “rule” it’s essentially the “golden rule.” For those who didn’t grow up in Catholic school, that translates to: do unto others as you’d want done unto you. To put it more plainly: treat your direct reports the way you’d want to be treated.

I would never want my manager to scapegoat me for a decision they chose to make that backfired. The opposite is actually the hallmark of a good manager. When they make a poor decision, they own it.

And if you make a poor judgment call, they own it with you, too. While your manager might not do the work, they are responsible for setting you up to successfully do the work. If you aren’t on track for success, a self-aware manager should recognize that there is a part they need to play to get you there. A good manager should not hide mistakes but give you some guidance and “air cover” to recover from them with grace.

One of the toughest parts of the job is figuring out how to play that coach part without taking over the player role (i.e. micromanaging). The situational leadership framework is helpful here as what might be micro management to a tenured employee is exactly what a relatively new or less skilled employee needs to succeed.

That’s why it’s important for a manager to listen and observe in key situations where they might be able to help by simply offering a tip that their direct report may not be able to see. As leaders, it’s our job to help our directs see what may be in their blind spot – whether that’s about their performance or the industry at large.

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