Definition of a Great Manager - Part One

April 10, 2009

A good many of my recent posts have discussed management in terms of what managers can do to contribute, and why I feel that the management role is an important role. This post, I've elected to put my thoughts out on the table on those qualities that I feel are important in being an effective manager.

Note that I’m not differentiating between a manager and a leader, either. I don’t abide by that distinction; if you are in a management position, you are in a leadership position!

My final comments before continuing: I'm not claiming perfection on these fronts, but this is what I strive for. And if a manager has all of these qualities and executes well on them all of the time, I’d categorize that person as great in my book!

Visionary Direction, Results-Oriented
A great manager knows where he or she wants the organization to go, and how it needs to get there. Establishing this vision requires a lot of research, brainstorming, discussion, and soul-searching. In the end, not everyone will agree with you; even if they do, they may not agree on the intermediate steps that are required to arrive at the destination.

However, allowing people to participate in the process and voice their opinions will build buy-in and commitment, something that I feel is well-worth the investment in time. I’d rather front-load efforts this way instead of continually having to “sell” the vision to people who don’t have buy-in because they weren’t in the loop early in the process.

I have experienced times when I've been focused on results and felt that I truly needed to make a quick decision to keep the ball rolling. And yes, when I’ve done this there have been occasions when people have been put off with me because they weren't part of the decision-making process, even though circumstances might have prevented them from being immediately available to participate. It's a difficult position, and the best that I've found that I can do is discuss why the call was made, why it needed to made when it did, and the factors that drove my decision.

I’ve also been judged from the advantageous position of 20-20 hindsight, particularly when a call didn’t work out as well as it could have or should have. Since it is rare to have complete information when making a decision, the best that I have found that I can do is to collect as much information as feasible, and time-permitting, leverage the collective wisdom available to determine the options and best course of action.

The real trick is many situations is being able to discern when a decision really needs to be made. I’ve seen where pressure for an immediate decision was nothing more than a negotiating tactic to gain agreement from me before I have had an opportunity to fully consider the facts and options. If I’m being pressured, I ask:
  • “Why does this decision need to be made now?”

  • “Is it worth taking extra time to gather more facts and opinions?”

  • “If it is worth taking extra time, when does the decision need to be made, and who should be involved?”
There’s the old sentiment that setting direction is better than being rudderless, but I also bear in mind that there is a timing aspect to many decisions, and not all are as immediate as they always seem. Sound, timely decision-making saves a lot of thrashing.

Which leads me to my next point.

Visions are great, but they are of no help if you aren't getting the right things done. Great managers understand the need to get things done today. And because great managers are armed with a crisp vision of where they want to go, they fully understand the organization's priorities and what will move the organization closer to the vision.

Equally important, understanding the vision helps great managers understand what their organizations should stop doing. Change is difficult and old habits die hard, but it is an uphill battle to focus on projects aligned with a long-term vision if you don’t take those low-value activities off of the plate.

Business Knowledge
I feel that managers need to understand and keep abreast of the following:
  • The economic climate
  • The industry and competition
  • The customer base ( likes & dislikes)
  • Technological changes that influence the industry
  • Human Resource management
  • Finances & budgets
  • Personnel assessment & development
  • What drives the business today, and what will drive it in the future
There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but my point is that there are various forces that push and pull companies, many of which are under anyone’s direct control. As a manager working in a small company, I find that it is essential to monitor and understand what is going on, identify the key drivers and opportunities and how the organization is positioned to respond and (ideally) take advantage of those opportunities.

Critical Thinking Skills
This is high on my list for anyone who considers themselves a knowledge worker, manager or not. Critical thinking is the willingness and approach towards exploring the root cause – the true nature – of a problem, collecting facts, considering and probing for options, and working towards reasoned conclusions about what action to take.

Critical thinking shows itself in people in various ways, but overall those who employ solid critical thinking skills are:
  • Inquisitive and well-informed
  • Flexible and open-minded
  • Willing to reconsider and revise their own views
  • Persistent
  • As precise as possible, given the circumstances and time available
  • Logical in their approach, and able to explain their reasoning
I feel that as a manager, I should be transparent in my own thinking; ready, willing, and able to share my thinking with my peers and staff, particularly what I felt was the key driver(s) and my reasoning for arriving at a certain conclusion. This helps to drive those healthy dialogs that could influence my thinking enough to alter it.

Managers also have a need to guide others in the organization through critical thinking exercises. This is important for two reasons:
  • Not everyone has highly-developed critical thinking skills and will need help in the process.

  • I find that it helps to understand why someone is advocating a certain direction, as there could be an underlying personal agenda that needs to be surfaced – something that is easier to do when approaching problems by “objectively examining the key elements and reasoning.”