How to be a Better Manager, a Conversation with Ben Woodward

I recently sat down with Ben Woodward at the Leadership Institute (LI) to discuss best management practices. Originally from the United Kingdom, Ben’s track record of success at the Leadership Institute started when he joined LI as an intern during the summer of 2015.

In Ben’s five years at LI, he was promoted from intern, to Career Services Coordinator, to Deputy Director of Career Services, to his present role as Director of Communications Trainings. In his last few weeks at LI before starting a new position at Deloitte Insights & Solutions, Ben gave some important advice on how to be a great manager.

Making the move from internship to management is a long track, but what are the biggest take-aways from your time as an intern, a career services coordinator, and a manager?

You always learn how to be a manager even when you’re not a manager.

You observe bosses you have that are good and bosses that are bad. I learned some key things from different bosses that I had.

When I was an intern, my supervisor had a real commitment to excellence. She taught me to pay attention to those small details that matter, and the importance of following the standards set by the organization.

As a manager, one of the key things I learned was to set an example for your staff. If you’re showing up late to work, your staff will start showing up late to work. If you start leaving early your staff will start leaving early. So, you’ve got to set the standards, because people will look to you for how they should behave.

As I supervised more interns, I gradually learned a lot. Setting expectations early on is key. Also, learning what the author Kim Scott calls radical candor, which is being very honest in the feedback you give. You have to be kind, but honest. Being able to say, ‘here’s what I liked about your project, here is what you should do differently.’ Or, if there is time in an ideal world, you tell them what they should do differently, and you let them go away and fix those things for themselves.

What recommendations do you have for people to overcome the fear of overseeing other people for the first time?

Good managers do their subordinates no favors if they fail to be honest. You’re their boss and their mentor, and your job is to get them up to the standards that the company expects of them.

First time managers -- change your mindset about the nature of the work you are doing.

As a manager, your job goes away from being the doer, and you now get things done through the people who work for you. Of course, there’s a lot of work you still must do yourself, but where possible your mindset is now that you are accomplishing things through other people, and that’s how you will be judged.

How do you become a conductor and leader of the team you are managing so a project goes well?

That’s a big question. Let me tell you a few key things to start you on the right path.

Identify what your team is good at and what your team is bad at. Be open minded about ideas, and the new innovative things that employees bring in, especially when they are new employees. They come in with fresh eyes, and they come up with their own ideas, where a manager may not see the possibilities.

So, pivoting a little bit, what have you found in day-to-day life that has taught you do be a better manager? 

Observing my dad, for certain, was a big factor. He was self-employed and had a small business.

He had two to three people working for him at any given time. I would get to observe him when I was younger, especially when I would go into his office and study, which I did frequently. I really enjoyed that, and I got to see how he worked as a manager.

He was just brilliant because he was so calm even when I knew he was stressed. He was the epitome of a duck on water, calm and gliding on the top, even though he was franticly kicking underneath. That calming energy was instilled into his team, even when the going got rough. They knew that panicking was never going to be a productive activity.

My dad was a calm, solutions-oriented person, and I really respect him for that.

When you have an employee who has just flubbed the project, and maybe not even apologetic about it, how do you deal with a situation where you’re trying to communicate that they have done something wrong and need to correct themselves?

Number one, just as your staff should never surprise you, you should never surprise your staff. They should know the standards expected of them at all times.

They should also know the strategic direction of the department you are running, and their role in it. Which means that they will know when they’ve flubbed it. If the employees don’t know they have really messed up or that the standards haven’t been met, then you really haven’t done a good job setting the standards.

I have always worked on the philosophy that you praise in public, and you criticize in private; and you should praise a lot more than you should criticize.

If you are criticizing too much, you’re a bad manager because your staff clearly can’t do their jobs. Praise in public means that when someone does something good, you’re sending all staff emails, and you’re including the department head or the CEO.

Praising in public is a big thing.

There is absolutely no reason to criticize in public. I would suggest that when something goes wrong you bring it up right away. Don’t wait. Explain what the problem is and why it’s important. You want to be calm and in control of your emotions at all times. If there is a problem, you’ll deal with it calmly and in a way that’s professional. So, when things are going wrong, bring it up right away.

Your first instinct should be performance improvement. Your staff are not disposable commodities; they’re an investment, and the investment needs care.

Just one more point; a good manager will plan for succession. Your staff should be so well trained and so effective that they should be able to function largely without you breathing down their neck. Most people, when they get promoted, are likely doing their bosses job in some way already. Too many managers let their egos get in the way, and they get defensive about the big juicy, high profile projects.

A good manager will praise their staff constantly and will do so to leadership without seeking to take all the credit themselves. They’ll look good because their staff looks good.

Well on that note, Ben, thank you very much for taking the time today, and congratulations on moving on to a new position at Deloitte!

Thank you! Very excited about the new challenge but will miss LI terribly. It’s been a fantastic five years.

If you would like to learn more about becoming a better manager, attend the Leadership Institute’s online Management 101 training and sign up for more careers training at