Career Skills

What Makes a Manager Great?

By Julian Mercer

You often see commentators contrasting leadership with management, as if the two concepts were mutually exclusive. Leaders champion ideas that move companies and organizations to a more successful future. Managers are implementers who handle operations and logistics, and are often portrayed as mindless bureaucrats and barriers to innovation (which a bad manager can be). It’s also true that there are great leaders who are terrible managers.

A successful company needs both strong leaders and good managers. In my experience, leaders can be good managers, and good managers benefit from having strong leadership skills. Leadership is a personal trait and a learnable skillset, and you don’t have to be a C-Suite executive or even a line manager to show leadership. I’d recommend Barry Shoop’s Practitioners Guide to Leadership as a useful resource to anyone interested in honing those skills.

Teaching leadership and grooming leaders seems to be the professional development focus these days, but everywhere I look, businesses are struggling for lack of high-quality managers. One of the major contributors to the “Great Resignation” we’re seeing in the United States these days are staffers with options, who are fed up with their managers and the work environment they create.

So, what exactly constitutes a great manager? The great managers I’ve worked for and tried to emulate all possess several key characteristics in common — characteristics that can be screened for in the hiring process and that can be developed or learned through experience with the right positive reinforcement. It’s a potentially long list, but here I’ll focus on what I think are the top characteristics of great managers.

1) Personal Commitment

Great managers are mission oriented and believe in what they are doing, whether its about creating social impact, product value or customer satisfaction. They understand that their piece of the business has an important role to play in ensuring that the overall mission is successfully achieved. They’re committed to quality and don’t cut corners when it comes to customer or client service. The manager who shows the passion of commitment is a role model for the team, and if a manager doesn’t care or show commitment, the team won’t either. A great manager also knows that when staff have become bored with their job or lost interest or belief in their mission, that it’s time for them to move on and find something that will renew that passion.

2) Leads by Example

Great managers lead by example. This has several facets. First, they have to know their business inside and out, and understand the challenges their staff will face. That way they can anticipate their needs and will be able to handle and push back against unrealistic expectations that may flow down from higher levels. When it becomes necessary to ask staff to step up during a crunch or make some sacrifice, they make the same commitment and don’t ask their staff to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves. When the work requires an extra set of hands, they pitch in and are willing to put in the sweat equity. Leading by example builds loyalty. If the manager is not willing to make sacrifices, they can’t expect that their staff will do so, or do more than the required minimum. The great manager knows that the use of threats or negative incentives to compel work in the crunch leads to discontent, low productivity and resignations.

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3) Strong Communicators

Great managers are great communicators. They give direction that is clear and that is enabling. They clearly communicate the goal or desired outcome, and what resources are available, and make sure that any requirements, boundary conditions or constraints are understood. This impowers the team to create innovative solutions. Great managers communicate what success will look like, and provide the information needed to empower performance by their staff. Bad managers try to tell their staff how to do their jobs.

There are several habits shared by great communicators. First, they engage in two-way communication, are good listeners, and are open to questions, feedback and alternative suggestions. Second, they prefer asking questions to offering opinions. Third, they are approachable and keep an open-door policy to reinforce open communication. But open doors are not enough. A technique that I personally employ is called management by walking around, which means that the manager creates informal opportunities for one-on-one dialog and uses them to better understand their colleagues and the challenges they face, both personal and professional. This type of interaction helps the manager spot potential problems, but more importantly helps build trust, raise morale and enhance productivity, if done properly. This approach creates a safe space where your staff can ask for and receive advice and mentorship. It should not be intrusive, and managers employing this technique should be mindful not to disrupt productivity, especially when your staff are crunching on a deadline.

Many managers rely on staff meetings as a preferred mode of communication. Properly done, staff meetings are an efficient way to deliver information that affects the team and its work, and also to surface issues and problems that need resolution. But meetings should be agenda driven with an eye on the clock, and are not a good venue for the types of one-on-one discussions that would leave other meeting participants twiddling their thumbs. Those discussions should be taken “offline.” It is also a good practice to keep cell phones and computers out of the meeting room unless necessary to share data or access information.

4) Team-Oriented

It is probably fair to say that everyone has experienced a manager on a power trip at some point in their work or personal life. These types of managers tend to be abusive, rely on negative incentives to motivate their staff, and like to claim credit for the work of others. They typically have trouble finding or retaining talented staff.

A great manager can build a high-performing team by showing respect, manifesting trust, giving credit where credit is due, and creating an environment where everyone’s contributions are valued. A great manager will also show empathy to employees who are in distress, respect work-life balance, and be concerned about the health and well-being of their staff.

The great manager will also fight for and defend their team, and constantly look for ways to provide them with better tools and training. Teams work because great managers are open to different opinions and understand that the team’s success is their success. They make a point of celebrating that success with their team and recognizing individual contributions. One note about giving credit. A great manager praises the team for a successful outcome, but also recognizes outstanding individual effort. A great manager knows who on the team is generating the best ideas, who is showing leadership, and who is making personal sacrifices and going above and beyond to ensure success. And the great manager makes sure that those individuals know their efforts are appreciated when doling out credit and when it comes time to allocate pay raises and bonuses.

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5) Flexible, Problem Solvers

A great manager is fundamentally a great problem solver, in addition to being an effective “problem avoider” (i.e. addresses the causes of potential problems before they’re allowed to manifest). Problem avoidance is a function of careful planning, good communication and effective coordination. But it’s when problems emerge that managers truly earn their keep.

So, what makes a great problem solver? Great problem solvers convey confidence in a successful outcome… every problem has a solution. Problem solvers understand the power of collaboration, and focus on engaging the team and its talents. Problem solvers are adaptable and willing to hear out new ideas, try new approaches and bend the rules if necessary. Problem solvers are objective and analytical, meaning that they are able to lead the team through a process of defining the problem, determining causes, identifying and prioritizing options, testing and making a supportable decision to implement solutions.

6) Decisiveness

Many managers suffer decision-paralysis when faced with incomplete information and limited (and often mostly bad) options, which triggers a fear of consequences if they make a mistake. The result is decision-makers who are reluctant to make decisions. Failure to make timely decisions idles the team, wastes time and resources, and can result in missed opportunities. In many cases, inaction allows the challenge or problem to grow in scale and complexity.

A great manager knows when to ask for help and when a decision needs to be made, and makes it, based on the best available information and after engaging their team for their best ideas. They have enough confidence in their decision-making process to explain and stand by their decision if called on by higher-level management. A “buck stops here” attitude of personal responsibility is an essential characteristic of a strong manager, and managers who point fingers or try to shift blame to their employees (even if deserved) will lose the support of their team and the respect of their superiors.

This is obviously not a complete list of the skills or traits that help make for a great manager, but if your management is strong on these, the odds are you’ve got managers who have built solid teams whose collaborations will help drive business success. These are also habits of mind or skills that can be learned and developed through training, practice, and a commitment to personal improvement.

Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a management professional, consultant, teacher and occasional author with more than 30 years of experience working in the technology sector.

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