Is There Such Thing as "Management Material" and Are You Made Of It?

Is there such thing as "management material" and are you made of it?

I hear this question more than you might think: Am I management material? 

I most often hear it from new managers and individual contributors on the path to management. But in fairness, I’m not sure this question is reserved only for the newest among us. I think we all wonder from time to time whether or not we have what it takes to be a great manager. Whether we were built from “management material”. I’m not ashamed to admit, I’ve asked that question of myself more than once.

Whenever I hear this question, the first thought that comes to my mind is: “Are any of us really made of management material?” I’m not sure I was … but maybe I am now. Any qualities I now possess as a manager were developed over the course of a long cycle of mistakes and self-reflection. I’ve seen so many different approaches to management succeed and fail, I’m not 100% sure there even is such a thing as management material per se. The concept of some management template through which super managers are pressed does not jive with my observations and experiences. What I am sure of is, there are some characteristics common across all great managers. Some people will argue that these are attributes you’re born with – I’m not so sure. In my experience, the qualities that make exceptional managers can be discovered, developed and optimized.

The question for today: What exactly is management material and how do I get me some?

Great managers come in all different shapes and sizes. As I’ve alluded to, I don’t think there is a single management mold. We all enter into management through different paths and with many different motivations. Many of us became managers because it was the only obvious path to earning more income. Many of us chose the management path because it was the best way to have a big impact on the company. Others have ambitions for management because it seems like the best way to keep score in your career. Some of us became managers almost by accident – it just happened and we never thought about the why’s and what for’s. And then some of us find unique intrinsic rewards that management offers and individual contribution doesn’t – leading, teaching, helping.

Whatever your reason for being a manager, you want to be good at it. Here are some of the traits I see common across all the great managers I’ve worked with and observed. Unlike some “management material” proponents who see these traits as a fixed set of gifts you’re born with, I believe you can work on these and develop them until the day you retire.

1. The Courage to be Honest

It’s often easier not to be totally honest with people. In the short run at least. It can also seem easier not to be honest with ourselves about the true state of the team and our performance. For a while at least. Honesty, in the management context, always feels like the harder path. Providing critical feedback, hurting people’s feelings, admitting failure, having uncomfortable conversations. Honesty at work hurts a lot of the time. It’s the painful path that our minds and instincts scream at us to avoid. The greatest managers take this path every time.

For many years, I don’t think I was totally honest at work. I wasn’t lying to people, but I wasn’t being as honest as I could have been. I let my desire for harmony and happiness trick me into taking the easier path. I’d sugar coat critical feedback to my staff. I might start a tough conversation but then quickly try and turn it positive. I’d try to find the silver lining in every situation and focus on that. It was easier … on me. But what I didn’t realize at the time, is that I was being unfair to my team members and to myself by not being totally honest with them.

My recommendation to managers and future managers is to opt for the honest path every time. Force yourself to have the hard conversations, to give feedback that is tough to hear, and to be objective in assessing your team and yourself. In the short term it can be more painful, but in the long term it leads to greater success for everyone.

2.  The Strength to Ask “Why?”

The more experience I get as a manager, the more basic my questions seem to be at work. It’s a funny thing actually. I think when you’re early in your career, you’re reluctant to ask very basic “why” questions because you fear you’re supposed to know the answer already. You’re afraid of asking “why” because people might think you don’t get it or that you’re just trying to be disruptive. It takes a lot of strength to ask why and the great managers, in my experience, have it.

Great managers aren’t afraid of looking dumb. They care about actually understanding and actually driving performance more than they care about what others might think about them. They operate under the philosophy that everything should be questioned. Great managers have seen what happens when you sit passively and accept the status quo. They understand that asking “why” is a seed for innovation and transformation.

My recommendation to managers is to make a point of asking “why” more often. Even if you’re new to a job or new in your career, don’t be afraid of not understanding or looking silly. Ask why.

3.   The Ability to be Open but Decisive

I don’t think you can be a great manager if you’re indecisive. You just can’t run a team without providing clear direction. Teams led by indecisive managers spin out of control and inevitably become toxic. With that said, there is a big difference between decisiveness and narrow mindedness. The best managers, can make strong decisions and also entertain counter arguments and alternative strategies. This is easier said than done. It might seem obvious and easy enough but it’s not.

Many managers, in their effort to be collaborative and inclusive, start managing by consensus. They create a team democracy of sorts, where they take the pulse of the room and opt for the most popular path every time. This is not leadership. Sure, it seems like open collaboration and probably feels great at the time, but it’s not a path to success in the long run. But neither is single mindedness. Some managers, particularly those who have been successful individual contributors, opt to direct vs. include. That is a recipe for low engagement and is based on a fundamentally flawed assumption that you always know the optimal path.

My recommendation to managers is to embed a spirit of healthy debate and objective analysis into your team culture. Set clear objectives, encourage team members to offer alternative approaches, debate them on their merits, make a decisive decision, explain why, and move forward aggressively.

4.  An Understanding of Scale and Leverage

The best manager I ever knew, seemed to sit at his desk and do nothing all day. It was something to behold. In my opinion he had reached the pinnacle of management prowess. He had mastered the art of achieving leverage and scale through empowerment.

As you manage larger and larger teams, you inevitably come upon a moment where you are forced to acknowledge the concepts of scale and leverage. When we first move from being individual contributors to managers we get caught in the trap of trying to scale ourselves. We try to get everyone to do what we do. We tell people how to do things. We architect processes and systems with ourselves as the bottleneck. The reason we do this is that in our hearts, we don’t believe in other people as much as we believe in ourselves. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we would do it and wondering why others can’t replicate that. This is a trap.

The best managers in the world truly embrace the concepts of leverage and scale. They become totally focused on others and stop focusing on themselves. They build organizations and programs and processes unconstrained by their personal capacity.

5.  The Fulfillment of Teaching

The best managers I’ve ever worked for were also great teachers. They genuinely loved to teach. They took joy out of helping people develop into greater versions of themselves. They understood that a team that improves every day will ultimately become a competitive advantage.

For me, teaching is probably the single biggest pleasure I take out of management. And if I didn’t enjoy it, I’m not exactly sure I’d want to be a manager.

My recommendation to managers is to embrace teaching as a vital part of your job. Embed learning into the culture of your team. It will make your job more fulfilling and your team more engaged.

Whether there is really such a thing as “management material”, I’m not so sure. But what I am sure of is the best managers I’ve ever worked with had these attributes in common. I’d love to hear about other attributes you see in great managers. Share them in the comments section.

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