How to be a really bad manager

And then learn how to do it properly…..

This blog is based on a post I wrote for the 2023 Q4 Edition of the institute of water Magazine

I loved being a scientist from the time I first weighed a stone in and out of water in primary school. Picking maths, chemistry, and physics at secondary schools were no-brainers for me, although to be fair I also liked art and played for my school year football teams.

Joining Anglian Water as a trainee laboratory technician seemed a natural progression, but even having swapped laboratory routine for the more exciting world of operational science, I knew I was going to have to give it up and become a manager.

Why? Because I wanted to progress, and I was already near the top of Anglian’s scientific tree. Management was the only route open to me.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that my analytical approach to problem solving, and hard-won Cranfield MSc, were virtually useless when dealing with people, and that I would find this out the hard way.

Getting it wrong

  • I focused on small details, like spelling mistakes in emails, totally overlooking the great work the email was telling me about.
  • I used broad generalities rather than give specific instruction to hide the fact that I didn’t really understand what was happening.
  • I didn’t ask when I didn’t understand, just to make matter worse.
  • I got all formal and rulebound when thing went wrong, often without hearing their side of things first.
  • I never made the time to sit with my team and listen to how they saw life and their jobs.

Given that my introduction to management was “Here’s your laptop and here’s your login, see you later”, this hardly surprising. The only saving grace was that I was so bad I wound up on Anglian’s management development programme where I got trained to do it properly.

Getting to right

As you might think, becoming a good manager mean doing pretty much the opposite of the mistakes I made. Over time, using what I learned on the improvement programme, I found the ideas below worked. Not necessarily for everybody, every time and in every situation, but they did for most people most of the time. And that was an important lesson in its own right.

  • Look at the big picture first, learn what’s important and what is more of a nice-to-have.
  • Ask if you’re not sure. “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” are great starting points.
  • Always listen to people first when things aren’t right. Few people set out to do things wrong, but nobody will admit to a mistake if fingers are pointing.
  • Make the time to sit and shoot the breeze with your team. The best thing I ever did was make the lunch after a monthly team meeting open-end so that we had time to sit and get to know each other.

It was brilliant to sit and listen to the team talking among themselves and getting to know each other, and I was impressed by the way they all decided for themselves when it was time to get back to work.

Building on success

Over time I think I became a decent manager. Anglian clearly thought so, because I progressed up the ranks, ending up successfully running managing of one of Anglian’s most complex treatment sites with a day shift, a 24-hour shift and 34 direct reports.

Along the way I did the Certificate and Diploma of Management – thank you again Anglian Water – and an MBA – Thank you Isle of Man Water Authority – which gave me a whole new set of skills. I can’t help but feel that my first team would have loved me to have had those skills before I became their manager!

I later went on to have a successful career away from Anglian, managing the clean water operation on the Isle of Man, and the Labour Market Research team for EU Skills. The latter was despite knowing virtually nothing about labour research but having the confidence and management skills to work with the team to learn what I needed to know.

I now have my own training and consultancy business as well as being the Academic Director of the British Water Engineering College.

Not too shabby for a really bad manager…..

And the big lessons?

Over time I distilled what I had learned into three golden rules:

  • Treat people with respect but set clear limits
  • Recognise good performance but address poor performance
  • Give people room to grow and develop

For me, everything ultimately came back to these three simple rules. Give them a try. Who knows, you may be pleasantly surprised.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and found it useful. If you have any thoughts on the subject, please leave a coment beow.


Posts created 3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top