Manager’s guide to growing happy employees


At a point when I didn’t have the money to hire an assistant, I ran an ad for an unpaid intern. I ran it on a lark, thinking I’d be lucky if anyone in the world would want to work for free.

The number of responses I received was incredible, not just in quantity, but also in quality.

Losing the Management Crutches

The intern I chose was smart, talented, and fun — all the things I want in a coworker. And I was nervous she would leave. So every day, I thought to myself, “Am I doing everything I can to keep her? Am I teaching her enough? Is she getting enough out of this job?”

People aren’t managers because they have the title. They’re managers because they make the people they lead feel good about themselves and what they’re doing. I knew this before, from books, but I really learned it with my unpaid intern.

Most managers have a title and pay their employees. These are management crutches. If you want to be a really good manager, ignore those formalities and make people believe that they’re getting something even more important out of the manager/employee deal; that way, you’ll help them to grow personally.

Six Ways for Everyone to Win

Each person is at your company for a reason, and believe me, it’s not for the gold watch at the end of 40 years of service. They want to get something from your company so that they can grow personally and professionally.

Find out what they want to get, because if you’re helping them to get it, they’ll want to do the work you need them to do. People like to help each other.

Otherwise, they’ll do the work to get paid, but they won’t do it well. And managers who have people underperforming are not really managers — they’re figureheads, and people aren’t doing work for them.

A real manager gives employees what they need so that the employees deliver what the manager needs. Here are six ways to make that happen.

  1. Manage people first, do your own work second.Your job is to make sure the people on your team perform well. They can’t do that if you’re not managing them, so most of your day will be spent helping them to develop their skills.Your own work is something that comes after you’ve taken care of everyone else. This means you have to get very fast at doing your own work so that you can be available when direct reports need you.
  2. Delegate your best work.A great way to make more time to help people grow is to delegate your own work. But don’t delegate your grunt work — who wants to do that? Delegate your best stuff and the person you give it to will feel really lucky to be getting more work to do. You get more time no matter which kind of work you delegate, so you might as well be popular.
  3. Help people get recognized.You have more access to the world outside your team than the people reporting to you do. Use that access to make sure people know the strengths of your various team members.If you help people get recognition, they’ll be more likely to pick up a mentor. And while a boss is not always the best mentor, they can certainly help locate a mentor, and someone with mentor will stay longer and care more about work.
  4. Make projects relevant to people, not companies.If you’re giving a new assignment to a team member, don’t focus on what it will do for you, or the company. Focus on how it will help that person to grow in ways she’s hoping to grow. Show her the skills she’ll develop on this project and how they’ll change her.If you can’t do this, the only way to get her to care about the project is to offer other means for personal growth in exchange for her effort on the project. It’s not enough to say how something helps the company — it has to help the employee as well.
  5. Align yourself with your boss.People are much more likely to follow someone who seems to have support from the rest of the organization. You look like you can do more for your team if you have good relationships with people higher up.If you don’t look well-connected in the organization, people won’t work as hard for you because they don’t think you’ll be able to meet their needs.
  6. Work reasonable hours.If you work all the time, you look like you don’t have a grip on your workload and maybe even a little imbalanced. This doesn’t inspire confidence.It’s fine for high-profile people who have built up trust. But in general, the hardest worker looks the most scared. Otherwise, why would that person have to work so much harder than everyone else? Why wouldn’t they want to go home and be with family and friends?

Getting the Right Answer

The best way to think about management is to treat everyone like an unpaid intern.

Each day, your employees ask themselves, “Am I getting enough out of this job to keep doing it?” And each day, you need to give them a reason to say, “Yes.”


8 replies
  1. InChurnMyBelly
    InChurnMyBelly says:

    Unpaid intern. EVil Evil Evil. I was saddened to hear that you would do that to someone. Of course they’re going to take the job. You had an article of your own on this generation, and getting stuck in the loop of too many years of Interning and Temping.

    The reason I have a comment at all is that I am a PAID Intern myself, for a Forestry firm up in Canada. And okay, maybe there’s more money to kick around – but pay something! argggg. Free work is the bottoms of despiration for “experience”.

    I’m glad to hear you learned something about management though. I have a great manager, he’s keeping me for a year, and for more than a fair wage too.

    * * * * * *

    This is a good comment. You’re right — I have gone on tirades about unpaid interns. For those who have not read the tirades, I think there are two problems with unpaid internships:

    1. Internships are necessary for young people to succeed. If all the good ones are unpaid, then only rich kids can succeed.

    2. It is morally questionable to ask someone to work for free.

    The kind of internship that I think does work is, essentially, a trade. I spend as many hours teaching someone as they spend working. To be honest, that sort of trade ends up being more costly (in my time) as it would be to hire someone who is not an intern.

    I am not actually sure if this is a good answer to your question. But it’s an honest answer.


  2. Denzel
    Denzel says:

    Hmm. This is interesting. Experience is currency yes, but folding money makes living possible. The intrinsic value and inherent value of employment are subjects of a debate. The younger gen. seems to want experience, both of work and of a fun or good job. Money is really secondary for a certain class. With higher than high turnover rates, how or why would a manager want to retain an employee unless they were making the manager’s job easier.

    * * * * *

    Denzel. Thanks for laying out the current situation so clearly. The answer to the last question is that just because someone leaves after 18 months doesn’t mean that person doesn’t add value. Value is not longevity dependent. And in fact, there is data to show that people who have been at the same job for a really long time start to become less effective within the organization – they become so complacent and set in their ways that their ability to collaborate and innovate goes down.


  3. ICE
    ICE says:

    Hey Penelope
    If only there were more such positions; how great to get experience and exposure without being made to feel you “owe” the company. In this way you can move around getting the necessary skills – so what, this is training and development without having to pay for it. So what if you don’t get paid: does the university or college pay you for the development they give you? Think about it that way.
    In this way we could, as new entrants into the business world, meet the job ads “Experience required”!


  4. Susan Lynch
    Susan Lynch says:

    Hey Penelope,

    Don’t know how I found this post… too much time in Google I guess :) Anyway, just wanted to add one quick point…

    I once was an unpaid intern – and it was one of my best jobs! The person I worked for was such a great teacher and maybe because she felt guilty she could not pay me, she taught me more than any other boss I have had.

    So, I have no problem with unpaid interns – because payment comes in forms other than money.


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