As a Manager, be a Thought Partner


A term like ‘thought leader’ is largely bullshit, and while I understand how you might think ‘thought partner’ is the same degree of bullshit, it’s not. In fact, being a thought partner might be the best managerial move out there. We’ve got enough books and podcasts and landing pages and platforms about management now to choke an entire continent of horses to their “Lead with transparency!” deaths, but here’s the real series of issues:

Management isn’t intuitive for many people: What gets you there isn’t what makes you good when you’re there.

The goal of work often isn’t productivity: Rather, it’s pleasing the supposedly-right people, i.e. stakeholders.

Usually, the best managers have the most “soft skills:” … but we crap on those because they’re not revenue-focused skills.

A lot of managers simply do nothing all day except suck money out of the company: Sorry to break this to you.

That’s a complex four-way intersection. What happens at that intersection, usually? A lot of running around on low-priority tasks and unclear notions around “What makes a good manager?” That’s why we have all these books, podcasts, speakers, etc. This stuff isn’t that hard, but we love to over-complicate it in 92,151 different ways.

Enter this thought partner idea.

Kim Scott and the thought partner

Mentioned Kim Scott (former Facebook/Google employee) in this post before, and now here she is on First Round Review discussing a host of topics related to hiring, team-building, etc. It’s a long article. If you get all the way down to the bottom of it, here’s what happens:

Don’t do that to the people who work for you either. They want to work for you because they want to work with you. “Keep your top performers top of mind. Literally, top of mind — as in, in your thoughts. What you want to be is a thought partner. This is not just an abstract title, like ‘thought leader.’ It means approaching their work with curiosity and with an aim to be equal in discussing it. They know when they need to know more. You are thoughtful. And you are a partner,” says Scott. “From a reporting point of you, you may still be their manager, but, for these high-performers, you help manage their curiosity, not their work.”

That ball was hit deep — and I don’t believe it’s playable.

If you’re not a thought partner, what would you be?

OK, so … a thought partner is like, “Hey, I know I make more money than you. But I respect your thoughts and opinions. Let’s talk about where the work stands and where we should go with it.” That’s kind of like saying “I respect hierarchy but I respect you more.” Seems like a good boss to have.

The direct opposite of a thought partner, then, would be a micro-manager. We’ve all had that type of boss, probably.

Scott says another opposite is “the absentee manager,” also known as the “Cancelled Meetings Culture” manager.

I can think of another 12 types of bad managers you could be if you’re not a thought partner, but I might be bitter.

We’re dangerously close to a “bottom line” on this topic. Ready?

The bottom line on this thought partner idea

We all want a nice salary and some perks from work, sure. But respect is really important. This is a place you’re going to spend 10–12 hours/day or more. Who wants to run around in a no-respect vacuum for that much time?

If your boss is a thought partner — regardless of whether you think that’s a buzzword term — then he/she probably respects you and your intelligence. (And what you can bring to the business.)

But if your boss is any of these other types, he/she probably over-relies on hierarchy or doesn’t fully believe in what you can bring or who you are. If anything, he/she probably thinks you need some degree of babysitting. How fun is that? Respect ain’t walking through that door.

So if you are a manager of others, aim to be a thought partner. Trust in the actions of those who report to you — don’t engage with them around “How is KPI №7 coming along?” Rather, engage with them around ideas for the future of the business and its growth. Make them your thought partner.

Anything else you’d add to this thought partner concept?

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