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10 Surprising Skills That Make for a Great Manager


Summary: Effective management skills means more than administration savvy, but requires the same virtues as it takes to be a good human being – such as openness, gentleness, a sense of vision, and humility.

10 Surprising Skills that make for a Great Manager
  • Managers require a fuller vision not only of their part in their company, but their company’s place in the market.
  • A manager must not only inspire confidence, but demonstrate humility that they have faults they are willing to overcome.
  • A manager must not only command respect with their authority, but show empathic understanding of what motivates and frustrates their employees.
  • A manager must show loyalty to their employees, and the courage to stand up for them to higher management.
While most managers and those aspiring to be managers know the stereotypical necessities of management – keeping strict deadlines, building teams, delegating tasks – the difference that separates a (groan) ordinary boss from a visionary leader means exactly the same as what it takes to be a good human being, cultivating all the virtues we use for the rest of our life.

In short, instead of a heavy-handed boss, aspire to be more.

What skills a manager needs extend beyond business ethics to the greater ethics of being a well-rounded, competent, and fair human being.
1. Have vision

Each of your employees is more than an employee. He or she is many things off the job – a friend, a parent, a sibling, a coach. They are also many things on the job. Each works a variety of roles at the same time, as do you.

Take a look at the big picture, all the way up to the industry as a whole. Make note of how your organization competes with other companies, with both yours and their strategies involved. This, of course, involves reading and thinking about corporate goals and keeping abreast of how your business runs at a macro level.

What is your exact function in all this? Having a sense of what you do and offer defines you and guides you as a compass while you lead your employees toward their ultimate purpose within the organization. Keeping in mind your context – your relation to your bosses and peers as well as your relationship to your employees and other employees in the company – gives you a touchstone of value towards what is important and what is not.

If you lack this, you lack perspective and might get on employees’ nerves by prating on personal pet peeves that “don’t even matter,” in the big picture.

This touches the nerve center of what it really means to be a manager: you are managing a team in regard to a fuller context: the goals and purposes of the corporation as a whole, in perspective of the world as a whole. Having internalized this vision as a sort of intuition will give you an uncanny sense of how to prioritize. With manager skills that refer back to your vision, you will be able to keep work heading in the direction of importance.

2. Have Confident Humility

Certainly you would not encourage anybody to openly or even covertly badmouth you – you are a leader, and must inspire confidence in those who would follow you – yet have the humility to learn from your subordinates as well as your superiors. Actually listen to them when they complain, write it down, think about the objections when you are cool. It is all too easy for an employee to get defensive and criticize you, and for you to get defensive and criticize them right back. Yet often your subordinates may be apprehensive to point out your actual flaws – and hey! We all got them! – so when something comes up, and especially from different sources, be humble enough to accept that you, just as well as your employees and your company, have flaws and need to grow to compensate for them.

That you are willing to learn from your mistakes, even when pointed out by others, and to try harder, will not only earn you the respect of your employees, but inspire them to follow suit, to recoil from a criticism with the eagerness to do better. We all trip up, we all fall, but the key to success is recognizing fault and building a weakness into strength.

3. Have Empathy

While you must command respect and speak authoritatively to those under you, have empathy, the ability to see things from their perspectives. What motives them? What are they afraid of? What do they admire about you and what do they lament about you, or about other team mates? The secret to empathy, as any psychologist will tell you, involves the ability to listen and keep silent. Rather than judging somebody’s opinion immediately as interesting or dull, right or wrong, imagine what sort of person would say such a thing? Often employees, when they grieve, rather than demanding an immediate solution, want most of all to be heard. Sometimes the bare words, “I hear what you are saying,” work as an immediate balm to even the most turgid of wounds.

Having a sense of empathy for what motivates your employees will help you shepherd them into performing their best. We all want to do important things, to be praised for our efforts, but perhaps your employees lack a vision of what they could do or how they could improve. Have empathy not only for their grudges and impatience, but also their potential for pride and joy in their work.

4. Have personal insight

These values are accumulative and feed into each other. Just as you want a vision into the organization as a whole, and empathy towards your employees, so you want to follow the ancient advice to “know thyself,” and reflect on both your own strengths and weakness, realizing where you cover a fear with bravado (a feign more transparent then you might hope). By knowing your own weaknesses, you may not be able to simply snap your fingers and fix them, but you can anticipate them and work around them. You will click with some people and not click with others. That doesn’t mean you must work only with people you personally like, but if you dislike a certain person, for whatever reasonable or unreasonable reason, you can still be polite, respectful, and supportive to the important part he or she plays on the team.

Knowing why you favor some employees over others; knowing why you grudge some bosses and appreciate others; knowing, in short, what makes you tick will help you plan around your faults and keep you from being defensive, angry, and belligerent.

5. Be Gentle and Firm

This classic parenting advice makes only too much sense in the business world. Nobody likes being criticized. We all would be praised for our efforts, and, were it possible, for our faults to be overlooked. Many of your coworkers and employees will look up for you. Whether or not they say it, they want your approval, respect, and well-regard. Therefore, avoid criticizing any employee in front of others, even if you think it comes off as a harmless joke. Avoid insulting the employee, even if his negligence cost you face in front of your superiors. We all make mistakes. You do too. Be gentle when correcting them, and be quicker to compliment than insult. That way, when you must correct misbehavior, the employee will know that you may generally approve of him or her while yet expecting them to do their best.

You are responsible for a group of people. They will squabble, dispute, blame and backbite. Your job is to see that as part of the bigger picture (part of our Humanity) while yet keeping your eye firmly on the goal you share together, which makes you one team with one purpose.

As a parent usually regrets punishing a child out of anger, take a moment when you must point out the failing of an employee and return your eyes to the greater vision of what you are there for. Perhaps he or she cost you some embarrassment or impatience, yet is lashing out going to help things or only make you feel better in the short run?

6. Be Courageous

Every leader must be courageous in some regard: they must call the shots, dare risks, and answer for what their employees do. Your employees want you to be courageous for them. If your upper ups delegate tasks that are too much of a strain for your team to handle, stand up for them. Let them know you care about them, that their well-being is as much your concern as the well-being of the company. Respect is better than fear: respect your superiors, but also your employees, and demonstrate the respectful loyalty you have to your team in protecting them from unjust treatment from other teams or your bosses.

7. Be Direct and Honest

If you don’t have the guts to say it like it is to your employees, they will know so and despise you for it. Call a spade a spade, gently if you can, but call out the nonsense in others, and even in yourself when confronted with your own folly. Every one of your employees wants to be respected. Work means so much more than money. It means importance that they are doing something in the world, contributing to a team bigger than themselves. You show your respect and recognition of your employees importance when you give it to them straight, tell them exactly why their coworkers got a raise and they didn’t. If you claim “budget issues” or some other dodge, they will see straight through you, and resent you. We pass for what we are. If you want to be known for being trustworthy, speak the truth.

8. Be Loyal

This means recognizing your team as a team – celebrating your successes, honoring those among you who accomplished extra, and mourning your losses together. Trust and community require that you believe in each other, that you can depend on each other. This means, if you see somebody struggling, that you be willing to delegate his tasks respectfully to another person, or even yourself. Threats and bullying come to nothing: your employees will start fantasizing about another job if you base their compliance on intimidation. They will do their best work for you if they want to do their best work for you, and that wanting comes from loyalty and commitment.

9. Be Human

If you truly are confident, you won’t mind admitting your honest mistakes. Hiding them, or worse of all, blaming somebody else, comes off as weak. Be human. Admit your actual mistakes, and also, when others make mistakes, don’t beat them up over it. Have patience that not everybody is as competent as you are, and realize you are not as competent as some others might be as well.

10. Be Organized

And of course, being a manager requires you go above and beyond in managing, which means have a sense for systematics – exact time schedule, prescient planning, delegating the tasks to the correct people, and making sure nobody is overloaded or overly resentful of the others. The organizational virtue – a love for simple order – perhaps characterizes the manager most of all, for though individual employees may focus especially on their own task at hand, what is before them, you must have a sense of how all the pieces fit together.

With time and patience, you master these skills and get a gut sense of when things are running right, a sort of intuition regarding who isn’t pulling their weight, or when anything is a little out of balance.

As the leader, you are the model, the focus of attention on what the other employees are to follow. If you cut corners or are lax with anybody’s time, an employee might reasonably rationalize in his head “well if my boss does it, why shouldn’t I?” Like a teacher, coach, parent, or pastor, you as a leader must provide an example, making a distinction not based on your privileges or perks, but in your respect for corporate goals, and the role everybody plays within them.

Delegation is a key ingredient – even a hard working employee would be a poor manager if he or she did not know how to delegate. Being a manager does not mean you pick up all the slack yourself – and work yourself into an early grave. It means you know how to reassign work, how to be flexible enough to compromise and re-delegate.

Budgets, reports, and schedules – all the administrative and financial skills are a must, the adamantine core of what makes a good manager. Mastering this aspect of the business makes you competent and inspires confidence. However, it is even more important that your employees like and respect you. So always go above and beyond in being the most dependable person on your team.

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