Monday, January 5, 2009

What makes a good manager?

Lots of people have weighed in on this question and after years of painstaking research I found a list of manager qualities I like here. And in case this site moves or vanishes, here's the summarized list from Jan Gordon, Executive Career and Personal Coach, with my comments:

Creativity – capture people’s attention and pull different elements and players together into a cohesive whole
Structure – work within structure without getting bogged down by it
Intuition – make good decisions on a gut level and relate to people
Knowledge – hallelujah, understand what your team is doing
Commitment – be there for your team and your project, moving everyone forward to the end result
Being human – connect with people if you want them to relate to you as a person
Versatility – be open to change
Lightness – exactly, get over yourself and have some fun
Discipline – focus on first things first instead of being all over the map, which keeps people and projects on track
Big Picture, Small Actions – be good at both, don't just sit back in your chair with a big vision while others do all the work and don't get so bogged down in details that you lose sight of the end game

I would add to this list being an advocate for the people who work for you.

Not all of these qualities can be learned but most can be built upon if there’s a will and a spark to work with.

I would particularly like to highlight ‘intuition’, because in my experience this is the one thing that really makes or breaks a manager. The other stuff’s important too, i.e., no one wants to work for an ignorant, inflexible hothead with no sense of humor, but intuition is where you live. This is where you draw your line in the sand and say, ‘This is the right thing to do.’ And having good intuition means that it really is the right thing to do, not just some crazy scheme of your own. We all know managers who consistently fail to pick the right advisors, fail to pick the right solution, fail to foresee fairly obvious problems, fail to realize that one message resonates more than another, or that one problem is more important than another, and it all comes down to intuition.

We also probably know managers who don’t do some of the other items in the list that well but seem to have a knack for making good decisions.

Who do you prefer to work for?

Intuition is one part experience, one part listening and one part gut instinct. The first two can be learned but a manager with poor instincts will either constantly make poor decisions or constantly fail to make any decisions because he or she can’t decide whose advice to follow.

Instinct is also essential for avoiding problems. Current thinking tends to praise ‘reactive management’, or the ability to react to problems decisively, phlegmatically and innovatively. Reactive managers are able to drill into the root cause of a problem and calmly implement solutions to solve it. Many reactive managers actually enjoy the thrill of the burning deck around them and feel that they are in their element, adding value and saving the company from the jaws of disaster with their inspired leadership.

Despite this somewhat dramatic language, I don’t want to imply that this is a bad thing because problems certainly arise and it’s always helpful when the people at the helm have crisis solving skills. But far too little attention seems to be paid, at least in American corporate culture, to ‘predictive management’, or the ability to foresee and avoid crises in the first place. Predictive managers avoid the trap of chasing their own tales and, to borrow a hockey phrase, skate to where the puck is going to be rather than where it is right now.*

Is it more expensive to avoid a problem or fix a problem?

This is actually a trick question because sometimes waiting may be the cheaper option, but generally speaking it isn’t.

*The good news is that predictive management can be learned with practice. It's often a matter of applying the problem solving skills you already have about six months earlier.

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