What Makes a Good Manager?

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What makes a good manager? No one knows for sure. Just as we really don’t know the origin of the universe and the evolution of mankind. With more scientific discoveries about the moons and the stars, we are revising our knowledge of the solar system and about climate change. So is the case for the science of management.

What makes a good manager is a discovery science. Therefore, we will revise our theories and perspectives as we accumulate more knowledge. However, just as I know quality when I see it, even though I cannot articulate or explain it, we know a good manager when we see one.

We definitely know bad managers. A bad manager is rude, authoritative, and has a management caste mindset. Also, bad managers genuinely believe that they are superior in intellect as compared to those reporting to them; and that their job is to demand work, loyalty, and favors from their subordinates.

This still does not answer the question: What makes a good manager? As I was reflecting on this question, it reminded me of a research study we had carried out in the seventies about what makes a great teacher. And contrary to expectations, a great teacher was great not just because of his or her subject matter expertise (math, science, arts, literature, etc.) but also because of his (her) listening skills (empathy) and his (her) passion for their work.

Similarly, what makes a good doctor is his or her bedside manners and not just his (her) diagnostic or treatment skills.

I am pointing out these two examples to make a point. Both are clinical in nature and hands on experience matters. Good managers come from diverse experiences and encounters. Good management is as much an experiential science as it is a cognitive science. And surprisingly whereas the half-life of cognitive knowledge is getting shorter and shorter, the half-life of experiential knowledge is getting longer and longer. It is therefore not enough to have a good MBA, unless it is blended with experiential learning.

So what makes a good manager? Based on my own research and consulting experiences, I find that there are certain common behaviors, attitudes, and traits among all good managers. And here they are:

  1. Good managers tend to be great listeners. They tend to care about their subordinates’ perspectives and solutions to a managerial problem or issue. Listening enables them to understand that there are multiple perspectives or solutions to a situation. They don’t believe “it is my way or the high way.” In other words, they are good learners and they tend to be pragmatic and not dogmatic about their professional discipline (R&D, manufacturing, or marketing).
  2. Good managers value the time of their subordinates.They don’t like to keep others waiting just to prove the point that their time is more valuable than their subordinates time or that they are the boss. It also means that they are comfortable going to the subordinates’ office place or factory as they are comfortable with others coming to their office.
  3. Good managers love to mentor and coach their subordinates.They sincerely believe that the real purpose of management is to make ordinary people extraordinary. Good managers are like brilliant diamond cutters. They take pride in getting the brilliance and value of the rough diamond. The best managers are therefore more like athletic coaches and trainers who take pride in their athletes and put spotlight on their star athletes while they remain in the background. In team sports such as basketball and football, it seems this is even more necessary. Management is team work and not solo practice.
  4. Good managers practice detached commitment. I also refer to this as selfless independence. They tend to be independent of politics and ethos of the organizations. They tend not to be “yes men” to their own bosses. And finally, while fair and equitable compensation is important, they are not obsessed by it. In short, good managers tend to have political, personal, and economic detachment with respect to the job at hand.
  5. Good managers are hands on. They like to be more like player-coaches. Of course, this is very common in cricket. The captain of the team is a player also. This hands-on mindset not only gains respect from their subordinates but the managers also acquire greater compassion and understanding of the hardship that the subordinates experience. Unfortunately, as we move up the organization ladder, it becomes more difficult to be hands on managers. This is why it is better to have a flatter organization with as few levels of management as possible.
  6. Good managers are deep generalists. In other words, they are not only experts in their field of specialization (R&D, Customer Service, Sales, Marketing, Supply Chain, or Manufacturing) but they also have knowledge about other functions and especially about the staff functions such as legal, IT, accounting, finance, and HR. In addition, they tend to have general knowledge of the industry and all of its stakeholders.
  7. Good managers generate great “Ah Ha” moments.They suggest new initiatives and new ways of doing things. They tend not to be content with status quo and they don’t believe in the orthodoxy of their profession. In other words, good managers change, and embrace innovation and risk taking. They practice anticipatory management in favor of status quo or crisis management.

So what makes a good manager? Nobody knows for sure, but we are getting there.

17 replies
  1. Nitin Dalal
    Nitin Dalal says:

    Good introspection on good manager. The species you describe is a rarity. Since there are rare role models and bad bevariors get rewarded, we produce more bad mangers than good. Thanks for setting the standard.

    Reply
  2. Gopal Turaga
    Gopal Turaga says:

    Corporates are filled with selfish bad managers and rarely ever we come across such countable numbers of good managers. That’s why the very statement still stands correct, “employees quit their managers, not the organizations”

    Reply
  3. Dr. Sita Vanka
    Dr. Sita Vanka says:

    We hardly listen anyone saying my manager is good. I feel they are conditioned to be bad. Otherwise they cannot become managers in the first instance and survive in that position. It is a mystery, to be unraveled!

    Reply
  4. B. Majmudar, M.D.
    B. Majmudar, M.D. says:

    The author gently persuades without intimidating with an authoritative tone.This is the art of gentle induction.
    Among other requisite qualities, a manager has to have a knowledge of Human Psychology.
    Mismanagement is a part of human trait. He should not lose his patience over them.A Manager will be out of job if no one mismanages.
    When a proposed plan works, “We did it”, when it fails “I did it” This creates and maintains the morale of the group and add respect to his/her stature.

    Reply
  5. Manish Mittal
    Manish Mittal says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If it has a table having headings- Traits of Good manager, Traits of Bad manager and suggestions to move from Good to Bad..Then may be it could have more effective…

    Reply
  6. Shabbir Merchant
    Shabbir Merchant says:

    Dear Dr Sheth – you have described well the key ingredients of a ‘Good Manager’. Now, the first dilemma is how many organisations really value a ‘Good Manager’ and reinforce positive recognition to such Managers. The second dilemma being, do most CEOs role model these ingredients, so that the rest of the Managers in their organisation have a case to demonstrate the same behaviours. Sadly, the tribe of ‘Good Managers’ seems diminishing (based on anecdotal experiences), despite increased spends on Leadership & Managerial development. Yet, we cannot give up hope and we must keep on evangelising the ‘Good Manager’ ingredients !

    Reply

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