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How to Become a Manager — 13 Skills You’ll Need

In a recent article I wrote about why you might want to be a manager. If that’s what you want, here’s my list of the 13 skills you’ll need:

1. Communication
There’s a lot of communication when you’re a manager. You have to communicate with each of your employees. You have to communicate “sideways” with your co-workers and customers. And you have to communicate upwards with your own manager or executive. You need some substance in the communication, of course — you need to have something worthy of being communicated. But substance isn’t enough — if you know what you’re doing and can’t properly communicate it to anyone else, then you’ll never be a good manager.

2. Listening Skills
This is a part of communication, but I want to single it out because it’s so important. Some managers get so impressed with themselves that they spend much more of their time telling people things than they spend listening. But no matter how high you go in the management hierarchy, you need to be able to listen. It’s the only way you’re really going to find out what’s going on in your organization, and it’s the only way that you’ll ever learn to be a better manager.

3. A Commitment to the Truth
You’ll find that the higher you are in the management hierarchy, the less likely you are to be in touch with reality. Managers get a lot of brown-nosing, and people tend to sugar-coat the news and tell managers what they want to hear. The only way you’ll get the truth is if you insist on it. Listen to what people tell you, and ask questions to probe for the truth.  Develop information sources outside of the chain of command and regularly listen to those sources as well. Make sure you know the truth — even if it’s not good news.

4. Empathy
This is the softer side of listening and truth. You should be able to understand how people feel, why they feel that way, and what you can do to make them feel differently. Empathy is especially important when you’re dealing with your customers. And whether you think so or not, you’ll always have customers.  Customers are the people who derive benefit from the work you do. If no one derives benefit from your work, then what’s the point of keeping your organization around?

5. Persuasion
Put all four of the preceding skills together, because you’ll need them when you try to persuade someone to do something you want done. You could describe this as “selling” but it’s more general. Whether you’re trying to convince your employees to give you a better effort, your boss to give you a bigger budget, or your customers to agree to something you want to do for them, your persuasion skills will be strained to their limits.

6. Leadership
Leadership is a specialized form of persuasion focused on getting other people to follow you in the direction you want to go. It’s assumed that the leader will march into battle at the head of the army, so be prepared to make the same sacrifices you’re asking your employees to make.

7. Focus
The key to successful leadership is focus. You can’t lead in a hundred different directions at once, so setting an effective leadership direction depends on your decision not to lead in the other directions. Focusing light rays means concentrating the light energy on one spot. Focusing effort means picking the most important thing to do and then concentrating your team’s effort on doing it.

8. Division of Work
This is the ability to break down large tasks into sub-tasks that can be assigned to individual employees. It’s a tricky skill — maybe more an art than a science, almost like cutting a diamond. Ideally you want to figure out how to accomplish a large objective by dividing the work up into manageable chunks. The people working on each chunk should be as autonomous as possible so that the tasks don’t get bogged down in endless discussion and debate. You have to pay careful attention to the interdependencies among the chunks. And you have to carefully assess each employee’s strengths, weaknesses and interests so that you can assign the best set of sub-tasks to each employee.

9. Obstacle Removal
Inevitably, problems will occur. Your ability to solve them is critical to the ongoing success of your organization.  Part of your job is to remove the obstacles that are preventing your employees from doing their best.

10. Heat Absorption
Not all problems can be solved. When upper management complains about certain things that can’t be avoided (e.g., an unavoidable delay in a project deliverable), it’s your job to take the heat. But what’s more important, it’s your job to absorb the heat to keep it from reaching your employees. It’s the manager’s responsibility to meet objectives. If the objectives aren’t being met, then it’s the manager’s responsibility to:

  • Make sure that upper management knows about the problem as early as possible.
  • Take all possible steps to solve the problem with the resources you’ve been given.
  • Suggest alternatives to management that will either solve the problem or minimize it. These other alternatives may propose the use of additional resources beyond the current budget, or they may propose a change in the objective that’s more achievable.
  • Keep the problem from affecting the performance or morale of your employees.

11. Uncertainty Removal
When higher management can’t give you consistent direction in a certain area, it’s up to you to shield your employees from the confusion, remove the apparent uncertainty, and lead your employees in a consistent direction until there’s a good reason to change that direction.

12. Project Management
This is a more advanced skill that formalizes some of attributes 7 – 11. Although both “Management” and “Project Management” contain the word “management,” they aren’t the same thing. Management implies a focus on people, while Project Management implies a focus on the project objective. You can be a Manager and a Project Manager, or you can be a Manager without being a Project Manager. You can also be a Project Manager without being a Manager (in which case you don’t have people reporting to you — you just deal with overseeing the project-specific tasks).

13. Administrative and Financial Skills
Most managers have a budget, and you’ll have to be able to set the budget and then manage to it. You’ll also have to deal with hiring, firing, rewarding good employee performance, dealing with unacceptable performance from some employees, and generally making sure that your employees have the environment and tools they need to do their work.  It’s ironic that this is skill number 13 (an unlucky number in some cultures), because a lot of managers hate this part of the job the most.  But if you’re good at budgeting, you’ll find it much easier to do the things you want to do.  And hiring and dealing with employees on a day-to-day basis is one of the key skills to give you the best, happiest and most productive employees.

Conclusion
This article explains some of the things you’ll need to learn before you become a successful manager.  You can probably become a manager without having all of these skills, but you’ll need all of them to be really successful and to get promoted to higher levels of management.

For every one of these skills, there are various levels of performance. No one expects a new manager to be superior at every one of these skills, but you should be aware of all of them, and you should do everything you can to learn more about each skill. Some of that learning will come through education (like reading the articles on this web site — you might want to subscribe). But much of the learning will come through experience — trial and error.

Just learn as much as you can about each skill, take nothing for granted, and focus on doing the very best that you can do. Learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them. And ask for feedback — in many cases you won’t know what you could do better unless someone tells you.

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  • Patrick June 26, 2009, 3:58 pm

    I would add “strategic vision” to this as well. You need to be able to identify problems with the organization that you can solve with your staff, and then figure out how to do it.

    • Harwell June 29, 2009, 9:59 am

      Thanks for your comment, Patrick. For some manager jobs you may be correct. But I was trying to be general in my list of skills, and I believe that many manager jobs — particularly first-level manager jobs — don’t require much in the way of strategy. Certainly you need to be able to communicate to determine the direction you need to go, but many managers get their strategic direction from their own managers higher up in the organization. That’s one of the main differences between lower-level and higher-level managers: the higher-level manager roles are more strategic, while the lower-level roles are more tactical and operational.

      For more on the subject of strategy as a management and leadership skill, see my article Why Middle Managers are Important, and scroll down to the part of the article entitled “What’s Middle?”