How To Best Manage Your Direct Report

Today, we’re going to have a little crash course in creative direction. After you’ve been designing for a while, you may find yourself in charge of another person on your team, whether it’s another designer, or a programmer, a copywriter, or other professional.

There’s just one problem: you’ve never been in charge of a team member before, and you have no idea what to do. Today, I’m going to dispense some vital information on having a direct report that I wish someone had told me my first time in the director’s seat.

Be Consistent With Meetings

You want to communicate to your report that you value his or her contribution to the project. The best way to do this is to make an effort to brief them regularly one-on-one and update them on the status of your project. If you just send your report an email when you need them to do something, this sends the message that you don’t really care about them as a worker.

A lack of communication from you tells them they are simply a means to an end, and this attitude can kill morale faster than the time it takes to press ‘send.’ You also want to establish good habits for communicating in general, whether to your team members or your clients. Everyone appreciates being included in the development of a project, and you want to make sure you don’t lag behind on your updates.

Analyze, Then Create Your Blueprint

The easiest way to have a happy employee is to be genuinely curious about what their needs and desires are. During your one-on-one meetings, ask them questions, not only about what they need to do, the task currently in front of them, but also about what they want out of their career.

This may seem frivolous, but I promise you it isn’t. You can get a lot of mileage as a manager out of knowing what direction your employees wish to go. That way, you can help guide them towards being as fulfilled as possible, which in turn will assure that they do the best work they can while they are working for you.

Let Them Vent

There’s a lot to be said about getting things off your chest, and this applies to a direct report as much as it does to you. Your report will inevitably have concerns and issues with something related to their job, and whether it’s your fault or not, you have a responsibility to listen and attempt to make things as painless as possible for them.

Note that just listening is often enough to placate someone’s complaint. You don’t have to have all the answers, and most reasonable people aren’t expecting you to. Sometimes, just a friendly ear is enough to restore morale and get someone excited again. If your report can see you as a human being who cares about their feelings, it can only improve your work relationship all around.

Give Them Feedback

This one’s a no-brainer, but still something missed by many a supervisor. All employees need to hear how good of a job they’re doing. I’m not just saying this as a platitude – it’s actually been proven to improve morale and decrease turnover. If your report knows how much you value their contribution, and they feel they are being treated fairly, there will be no reason for them to complain or quit.

Also important is constructive criticism. Not mean-spirited jabbing; I mean respectfully pointing out what’s not working so that your report can correct themselves. This kind of criticism will motivate them to improve their skills and impress you, rather than making them bitter and silently wishing for your death each time you walk in the door.

If your report is working with others aside from you, talk to those people as well. The more everyone has a clear understanding of what everyone else is doing, the more harmonious the entire department or business will run.

Set A Clear Direction

Employees are human. And as humans, we all complete our tasks much more efficiently when we have a clear idea of what is expected of us. When a client gives you a project, it’s almost always easier to finish it if you have a clearly outlined brief, complete with guidelines and restrictions as to what you can and cannot include in the final piece.

A direct report needs the same kind of guidelines to be efficient at his or her job as well. What do you want to accomplish this week? What do you expect to see from them by the next one-on-one meeting? Be clear and not vague; you want to lay down a foundation for regular completion of deliverables that your report can stick to.

You can’t expect anyone to be able to read your mind. And yet, this is one of the most common sources of conflict between a manager and employees. Everyone’s going around expecting others to somehow magically divine what’s going on in their heads. If you do that, then stop it. Be clear about what you want, and your direct report will respond in kind.

Keep Them In The Loop

We’ve already discussed the importance of keeping your report informed about the status of the project you’re working on together. However, a continual stream of information that could possibly affect them is just as important, whether it’s directly related to the project or not. For example, news from the higher ups about possible downsizing or direction changes in marketing or the brand’s message. Your report needs to hear these things as much as you do.

You don’t have to inform your report of every minute detail. In fact, it’s good to practice self-editing; people only need to know what’s important, and you droning on about the boring details of your manager’s meeting isn’t going to be of much use to your report. Rather, give a clear and concise snapshot of “the view from 100 feet up,” and make sure they are kept abreast of any vital developments. The last thing you want is for your report to hear some important news from someone other than you.

In Conclusion

Being “the boss” can be an incredibly rewarding experience, if done correctly, allowing you a far greater amount of creative control over a project that you might have otherwise. Also, it can be very fulfilling to have a hand in steering a successful creative team to new heights. Remember that respect and trust flow both ways – you and your report need to have a mutual understanding and high opinion of one another to produce the best work you can.