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14 Leadership Skills of Great Managers

Adam Bouse
Adam Bouse

People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.

I believe this is true because managers have an outsized influence on the employee experience. Even if you love the mission of a company or the work you’re doing, a bad manager can make the experience unbearable. 

I used to think this was just a reflection on people who were bad managers—managers who micromanage, play favorites, or just hide out in their office all day. I used to think bad managers were bad because, well, they were just bad at it. But the more I’ve thought about it, and after talking with many managers, I’ve come to realize that managers are more likely to fall short when they aren’t given the resources, training, and opportunities that they deserve—and need in order to grow.

Sure, there are managers who are ego-driven, who look out only for themselves, and who need to be held accountable for bad behavior. But most often, managers have the best intentions. 

They want their people to be engaged, they want to be helpful to each person, they want to bring clarity and provide valuable feedback. They want to encourage and thank people and help everyone win. They just need help figuring out how to do those things well.

The most important piece of the puzzle that is missing for most managers isn’t a desire to be good at what they do. That’s there. What is missing is the opportunity to be part of a culture and a process that prioritizes investing in them in order to make them great managers.

Management Skills List

Whether you’re just beginning to build a culture of development for managers or you want to refresh the process for helping your managers continue to grow, here are the management skills you should focus on to best equip them and your organization for long-term success. While it will require time and intentionality you may not think you have, it’s much riskier and costlier to maintain the status quo or experience recurring turnover within your management core. 

Practical, Tactical Skills

Hopefully, you’re hiring or promoting managers who bring a certain level of technical experience and competency. They don’t need to be the best individual contributors, but having a foundational level of understanding and experience is important. Beyond that, here are foundational skills they will need as managers: 

  • Communication. The heartbeat of any manager-employee relationship is clear, consistent, and honest communication. Focus on being a good listener first. Take time to understand what others think and feel. When you’re communicating to others, give them time to process new information and ask questions that drive clarity and understanding.

  • Relationship-building. Trust will determine the speed and success of your team. When there is a gap in a relationship, people have to choose if they will fill that gap with trust or suspicion. By caring personally, in appropriate ways, you can foster trust and authenticity that will serve as the foundation for effective communication, shared goals, and healthy ways of working through disagreements and conflict. 

  • Planning and Goal Setting. As you move up in an organization, there will be more on your plate to juggle. It’s critically important that managers not only get work done but that they also create a plan that helps their team move in sync with one another. Having clear, well-defined goals both motivates everyone and eliminates the risk of chaos if individuals determine priorities and success for themselves.

  • Decision-making. How you make decisions is just as important as what decisions you are making. Building on the previous skills listed, your decision-making should be shared through open, honest communication. Take time to evaluate how you make decisions—is it by instinct, based on data, or through consensus? Everyone can continue to improve the process by which they make decisions, so focus on being aware of how you make decisions and continue to grow in making solid, well-informed, and well-communicated decisions. 

  • Learning/Curiosity. Growing as a manager is a learning process—sometimes a painful one. Instead of getting defensive or putting on a false sense of confidence, admit what you still need to learn. Get curious about other people, identify short- and long-term priorities for growing as a manager, and commit to an intentional cadence of investing in your own personal and management growth. 

Power Skills

The next set of skills are usually called, “soft skills.” There is nothing soft about these in concept or practice. Most of these would fall under the umbrella of Emotional Intelligence, the framework that measures and describes how you practice awareness of your emotions, the emotions of others, and manage yourself and relationships, especially when strong emotions are involved. Strong, trusting relationships are a hallmark of great managers and people leaders. 

  • Empathy. Believe it or not, anyone can learn to be more empathetic. Sure, some people are more naturally empathetic, but it is a trainable, teachable skill. The shorthand definition of empathy is “understanding without judgment.” Being able to accurately understand what someone else thinks, feels, sees, or needs is a superpower. When you can effectively empathize, you can make informed decisions by understanding how your decisions will impact others. When you communicate with empathy, your message will resonate at a deeper level with your audience. 
  • Optimism. You might be surprised to learn optimism is a skill, too. My definition of optimism is “choosing to find possibilities in an unknown future.” Because of the impact managers have on their teams, they have to be able to look past the problems, gaps, and obstacles that get in the way of progress every single day. Choosing to find possibilities—and rejecting the notion that you are helpless—is a posture that will inspire confidence and provide a boost of hope to your team. 
  • Stress Management. As responsibility and influence increase, stress often comes along with them. To some degree, you’ll develop a new tolerance for the stress that comes with leading people and making important decisions. But you have limits and it’s important to pay attention to the signs that you’re starting to feel overwhelmed or at risk of burnout. Taking regular time off, having hobbies outside of work, and being able to share with others when you’re feeling swamped are all parts of an ongoing commitment to managing your stress level. 
  • Giving and Receiving Feedback. As a manager, you are committed to help others improve and succeed. While some managers fall into a routine of just giving positive or negative feedback (likely based on what they prefer to receive), it’s important that you be able to give consistent, clear, and quality feedback to your team—and not just on the results of their work, but on how they show up to the work as well. Giving recognition, encouraging others, and critiquing the quality or quantity of work are valuable tools that you need to use regularly. At the same time, you have to remain open to receiving feedback from your team, too. This goes back to taking on a learner’s mindset.

Next-Level Skills

Managers who really want to see their individual team members succeed and the team perform at a high-level will stretch themselves to begin mastering this final list of skills. While not exhaustive, this list includes strategic skills that move from simple decision-making to more attuned, long-term investments in systems, processes, and relationships. 

  • Prioritizing. Your team will have competing demands and you will need to help them prioritize the work, sometimes on a daily basis. And some, maybe even most priorities, will be coming down from leadership, giving you little room to adjust expectations. Helping individuals identify their responsibilities and what they need to take ownership of can go a long way towards setting priorities and limiting distractions from productive, important work. 
  • Motivating. There are times when we have to reach down deep and help people find the motivation to push through a tough conversation, tackle a challenging problem, or persevere through a rough season. Tune into what’s inspiring or meaningful for each person and help them find the extra motivation they need to persevere, push through to the other side, or find a renewed sense of commitment. 
  • Problem-Solving. Some situations don’t give you any good options. At times, it can feel like choosing between the lesser of two evils. The best problem solvers avoid falling into the trap of “either/or” thinking. They find creative ways to embrace the constraints and identify alternatives and additional options. Part of this comes through experience, but perhaps even more skill comes from maintaining a growth mindset. 
  • Delegation. Great performers who become managers can struggle to let go of control. Delegation is the antidote. As a manager, your individual success is no longer just about what you can get done or pull off—you have to invest in the success of the team as a whole and delegation can help you get there. Not only is it more efficient, removing yourself as a bottleneck on productivity, but you are also actively helping others grow by giving them both the responsibility and authority to make decisions and solve problems, too. 
  • Leading/Managing Up. To become a truly great manager, learning how to use your influence in all directions—up, down, and across the org chart—is essential. Leading or managing up allows you to advocate for your team to upper management and executive leaders. Leading up also helps align what your team needs with overarching organizational goals, by tying your team’s investments in resources or headcount to priorities that are already important to leadership. Managing up is an art, much more than a science, and will require all of your best communication, emotional intelligence, and strategic thinking skills. 

Awareness is the beginning of all growth. Where do you want to grow as a manager? What’s something you’ve seen pay off as you invested in your own growth and development? Are there any gaps you see in how managers are being trained and developed in your organization? What is the next step in helping everyone in your organization level up their management and leadership skills?

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