Good Managers Are Made, Not Born

According to an August 2005 Gallup poll, 80 percent of the working adults surveyed were somewhat or completely satisfied with their bosses or immediate supervisors. Those managers are doing something right. Good managers are responsible for the same types of tasks as mediocre managers, but they accomplish them more effectively and efficiently while maintaining good professional relationships along the way. The stars also possess some special skills that make them stand out.

Good Managers Build Teams, Mentor, and Empower Workers

Teamwork is essential to most types of work these days. Helping teams collaborate and achieve their goals is one of a good manager's strongest qualities. It may require you to check your ego at the door for the good of the group, too. Learn how to lead brainstorming sessions, listen to everyone's input, and follow through.

A good manager trusts her employees and gives them the freedom to ask questions and take responsibility for their own work. Management consultant Marcus Buckingham says, “Bad managers play checkers. Good managers play chess.” A good manager identifies and capitalizes on the unique skills of each worker and will defer to employees in their areas of expertise and responsibility.

Sir Howard Stringer, chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation, admitted in a June 2006 issue of The New Yorker, “I'm very happy to delegate….I really do rely upon people who know a lot more than I do.”

Rather than feeling threatened by rising stars in their departments, a good manager takes the time to coach or mentor others, secure in the knowledge that their successes will reflect favorably on him. Rich Moore of AAIM Management Association says, “If you don't develop your people, you have nothing.”

Good managers know when to give help, when to ask for it, and when to accept it when it's offered.

Good Managers Lead, Motivate, and Reward

Managers can't make anyone do anything; all they can do is ask. The good ones know how to do it without acting like a tyrant. One study mentioned in How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton (Gallup Press) found that health care employees who worked for a manager they disliked had significantly higher blood pressure. They estimate that negative and disengaged workers cost U.S. businesses hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

A good manager doesn't look for ways to motivate employees but looks for ways to help employees motivate themselves. As Edward Deci writes in Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation (Penguin), people are self-motivated in places where they feel connected, autonomous, and competent. Managers can encourage risk-taking and creativity, accept failure as part of the process, and find new ways for employees to be successful.

Harvard Medical School psychologist Dr. Robert Brooks came up with the notion of “islands of competence,” which he says everyone has. When a manager focuses on reinforcing these in an employee, rather than just trying to correct perceived problems or weaknesses, the employee can feel more pride and achievement. The skills and interests that you discovered should help you find a career that uses your “islands of competence.”

Good managers inspire and motivate their workers by not trying to shoehorn them all into the same mold. Instead, they endeavor to discover each employee's strengths and fit him or her with suitable tasks at which to excel. When an employee feels a personal stake in his work, he will feel responsible for the work, motivated to perform well, and resilient in the face of setbacks. Good leaders have standards, live up to them, and expect their staff to do the same.

A study conducted at Johnson & Johnson in the late 1990s indicated that high-performing leaders scored highest in emotional intelligence, including such competencies as self-confidence, initiative, drive, and adaptability. This and other studies found no evidence to suggest that men and women differ in leadership effectiveness.

A good leader knows when to collaborate, when to step back and let someone else shine, and also when to take charge. President Woodrow Wilson noted, “Leadership does not always wear the harness of compromise.” Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns and own responsibility for the outcome.

U.S. Department of Labor data show that the main reason people leave their jobs is that they don't feel appreciated. Don't miss a chance to praise the good work of your staff — and share credit for goals accomplished and projects completed. Encouraging employees' unique contributions helps them feel successful and motivated. Remember that money isn't the only way to reward your staff. The variety of incentives is practically infinite, from a simple “thank you” to a bonus to a paid sabbatical. Don't forget that contributions come in many shapes and sizes, too. Rather than always rewarding the person with the most sales, recognize the people who innovate new strategies to improve customer relations or whose quality of work has improved markedly, even if they aren't the top sellers.

Good Managers Listen, Cope, and Persevere

The exceptional managers have high emotional intelligence. Listening, coping, self-awareness, and persevering are hallmarks of EI.

The late politician Dean Rusk said, “One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears — by listening to them.” A manager who doesn't truly listen to employees won't earn the respect of those employees or even truly know what's going on in the organization.

A confident, self-aware, and proactive manager is not one who succumbs to stress, frustration, or anger at every little setback. She may feel the pressure, but she doesn't use it as an excuse to call employees on the carpet, blame others for her own mistakes, or crumble in difficult times. These managers don't retreat from challenges but have the drive and creativity to approach problems from different directions and learn from mistakes. They also know when they should cut their losses and abandon a goal.

People who know their own strengths and weaknesses know how to perform in a productive and not a self-defeating way. Self-aware managers can help their staff tap into their own strengths and weaknesses.

Good Managers Are Flexible and Focused

From layoffs to mergers to acquisitions, managers need to be able to adapt — and thrive — in a climate of change. Martin Yate and Peter Sander note in Knock'em Dead Management (Adams Media) that the pace of business is faster than ever before. “Managers who stay on top of change and anticipate it are more highly regarded than managers who seem to be consumed by change and are always playing catchup.” What they term “change-awareness” is a skill highly valued by employers.

Good managers operate with a steady moral, professional, emotional compass. They don't blow every which way the wind blows but bend when necessary and stay flexible enough to adjust to changing circumstances.

Work expert Gloria Mark at the University of California–Irvine has studied workplace interruptions. One of her suggestions: If you can't handle interruptions, don't become a manager. The average amount of time spent on any single task before being interrupted is about three minutes. Anyone incapable of limiting interruptions or getting back to work after an interruption isn't going to be able to stay focused and manage time and other people well.

Good Managers Are…Moms?

A May 2005 study by a women's networking organization found that 69 percent of employees surveyed would rather work for a mother than a woman who is not a mother, citing mothers' skills at prioritizing, motivating, and patience. You don't need to rush out and have a child in order to improve your management skills, but borrowing a few ideas from what moms do well couldn't hurt.

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