Management Skills: Run a Tight Ship

The first and biggest challenge for any new manager is finding the right balance between being a good people manager and an effective task manager. In my last two Management Skills Series articles I wrote about being nice and how we have to treat everyone in the workplace like people. Both were warm-and-fuzzy feel-good posts addressing people management, but we are also responsible for getting real results for the organization. And getting results starts with establishing a culture of discipline and standards, or in other words, with running a tight ship. Here’s how I try to do it.

Pay Attention

Nothing good ever came out of a manager’s office. I work in retail, which means I have a small office at our distribution center, and my team-members are all out in the field in our retail stores. Emails, reports, and spreadsheets tempt me to spend more time in the office, but I’m working on limiting my desk time to 1/2 day per week – the rest of my time is better spent talking with people in the field and inspecting locations.

Business literature calls this, “Management by Walking Around.” I love that because all you need to know about this management technique is right there in the name. If you work in an office building, you should spend time visiting other offices and cubes talking to direct reports and departmental counter-parts. If you work in a factory or operations facility, you should spend time with your boots on the concrete floor.


My wife and I love the Emmy-winning PBS drama Downton Abbey, which begins its fourth season in January. Carson, the manager of The Abbey Estate’s servants, is all about running a tight ship, that is, he’s always going on about his standards. Waiters serving from the right, and valets matching the right accessories with the right tuxes, and maids preparing the chambers a certain way, and so on.

What are standards anyway? Your standard as a manager is whatever you walk by and say nothing about. In other words, if you see something, say something, otherwise that something becomes the new acceptable standard.

Having standards is where a divide occurs between good people managers who also insist on results, and managers who are just trying to be everyone’s friend. The cool, friend-seeking manager lets it slide when an employee shows up late, is out of uniform, or their work area is messy. A manager with standards always gives feedback to employees – positive or negative – in relation to his standards, and by doing so guides future behaviors.

Cleanliness is Godliness

In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the world’s greatest sushi chef Jiro says that one of the four marks of a great chef is cleanliness. When I started out in the restaurant business I was taught that the back of the house needs to be as clean as the front of the house. In other words, the kitchen, storage areas, and bathrooms need to be as clean as the dining room.

For those of us who still work in the brick and mortar world, this literally mean ensuring a neat, clean, and organized work environment. It goes without saying that customer-facing areas of the business need to be pristine, and managers who run a tight ship expect all work areas to be spotless. For those of you who work in the digital world, the notion of cleanliness might mean having your content well-organized or embracing clean and functional tech designs.

Challenge Everyone

Management 101 Loop: set goals, measure results, provide feedback, and repeat.
Management 101 Loop: set goals, measure results, provide feedback, and repeat.

People don’t really want a leader who will go easy on them all of the time. If you’re like me, you responded positively when a parent or a teacher or a football coach or someone else challenged you to try harder.

I challenge my team using what I call the management 101 loop. Set goals, measure progress, give feedback, and repeat.

Aggressively Address Intentional Wrong-Doers

About 1% of people in the corporate world intentionally do the wrong thing at work. Slackers, thieves, and Negative Nancies frustrate the 99% of people who show up to do good everyday. Top performers will run from this evil 1%, and impressionable new people in the organization might be swayed towards the 1%’er’s misery. When someone is intentionally doing the wrong thing, the manager owes the team a swift and final decision to maintain the integrity of the team.

Running a tight ship means being tough on standards but soft on people, and being the best manager  you can be is all about finding the perfect balance between these two concepts.