Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Good Manager

This is a topic I've given a lot of thought to.  What makes a good manager?  I have some very specific criteria for judging.  These criteria can basically be broken down into three categories; Vision, Leadership & Operations.  It is not uncommon to find people in positions of authority who are exceptional in one or two of these categories.  It is very rare to find a person who excels in all three.  Sadly it is very common to find people who show little ability in any of the three in positions of authority, particularly at the lower levels of a company.


To me, the most fundamental of the three is Operations.  Has an individual mastered the skills they need to manage the day to day activities of the portion of the company that they are responsible for?  On a superficial level these skills will vary widely depending on the industry and level of authority but the underlying aptitudes needed to have success in this area are pretty constant.  Do you have a good understanding of what your part of the company does?  Do you know how it fits in with the overall business of the company?  Do you understand the various processes that drive value creation within your area?  Are you good at anticipating potential problems and solving the crises of the day?  If the answer to all of these questions is yes, than you are probably operationally sound.


I break this down into two sub components.  Charisma & Procedural.

Do people naturally like you?  Are you able to walk into a room and instantly be the center of attention?  Does your winning smile let you get away with things that most people would get in trouble for?  If the answer to these questions is yes, congratulations, you have the charisma to be a good manager.  This is probably the most important factor in the success one will have.  A lot of people have gone a long ways based purely on their charm.  That being said, you are a lousy manager if this is all you have going for you and you will eventually do a lot of harm if you haven't already.

Procedural leadership is probably the most underrated and least visible attribute of a good manager, and below the upper levels it is by far the most important.   Do you keep in touch with the people who work for you on a regular basis?  Do you run interference for them when they run into trouble?  Do you discipline them appropriately when they need it and provide praise when they have performed above and beyond what is normal?  Do you mentor them?  When there is a conflict between two or more of the people who report to you do you sit down, listen to all sides and make a judgement in a timely manner?  When you do make that judgement do you make sure that the parties involved adhere to what you have decided?  Do you provide clear guidance and then get out of the way?  If you can answer some or all of these questions in the affirmative than you're probably a pretty good manager.  If this is your primary area of strength you are likely also very undervalued by your company.


Finally we come to Vision.  Vision is potentially useful at lower levels of companies but becomes increasingly vital as you move up the corporate ladder.  We live in a constantly changing world.  Technological advances and competition from other companies means that any  business that isn't thinking one or two steps ahead has a good chance of waking up one morning to the realization that they are in serious trouble.  Hollywood Video is gone and Blockbuster shows signs of being very close behind them.  Both companies made a lot of money at their peaks and have/had been around for less than thirty years.  There is an important lesson to be learned here.  Do you embrace change?  Are you constantly trying to figure out ways to make things better/faster/cheaper/more relevant?  If you are in an established company do many of your co workers dislike you and work actively to subvert everything that you attempt?  If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes than odds are you are strong in Vision.  As a general rule people hate change.  Change threatens the established order and most people feel more comfortable in an environment they are familiar with.  They will resist change as long as they can, even when it is clear that the environment around them is changing such that their current situation is increasingly unsustainable.

Final Thoughts

All to often people end up in management because they have the right degree from the right school, or because the only way to get an all star individual contributor proper monetary compensation is to make them a manager.  There are many other equally poor reasons for making somebody a manager.  Sometimes these choices even work out.  Frequently however such individuals have a negative impact on employee morale and productivity.

Based on my professional experience this is an area that most companies haven't given a lot of thought to.  Having a well defined and articulated set of expected competencies for management should be on the list of things to do for any business that wants to give itself the best possible chance of being around for the long run.

The image at the top of this post came from http://drivenleaders.com/tag/leader-vs-manager/.

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