Mastering management

Becoming an effective manager is more of a process than a destination. These 10 tips can help you create your own self-improvement program.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Becoming an effective leader is not a one-time thing. Rather, it’s a process that good managers are constantly evaluating. GCM file photos

Great management skills are more important than ever in today’s tight labor market. Businesses large and small need to take steps to retain top-performing people and attract new ones. Dealing effectively with employees can do just that.

Management mastery, however, is not a one-and-done affair. Effective leaders continuously assess their workplace performance and seek ways to improve. 

How good are you as a manager? In this article, business experts specify 10 indicators of effective leadership. Read what they have to say, then assess your own managerial skills by taking the accompanying quiz.

Do you listen well?

Effective listening is a core competency that underlies other management skills. “When speaking with employees, managers need to hear both the words and the music,” says Johanna Rothman, founder of Rothman Consulting Group, based in Arlington, Mass. “That means understanding not just what the person is saying, but also the subtext.”

Rothman gives an example. “Suppose a manager asks Jane, ‘Is everyone on your team working well together?’ and she responds with a lackluster ‘It’s OK.’ That, to me, is a big red flag and an early warning signal of bigger problems.”

On the surface, noted Rothman, the word “OK” is positive. The subtext, though, is that Jane’s team has dysfunctional elements that need to be addressed. Doing so will require follow-up questions that encourage Jane to speak out. A simple “Tell me more about the situation” may do the trick.

Do you communicate priorities clearly?

Shared goals energize a workforce. “Everyone’s priority should be the same as the company’s top executive,” says Lois P. Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International in Pasadena, Calif. “When you talk about your company’s big picture, where it’s going and how the employees can help it get there, that’s real leadership.”

Inspired by the knowledge of the company’s motivating mission, employees will develop their own creative techniques for boosting performance. “People will not be managed. They will only be led,” Frankel says. “Too often managers communicate how to do what needs to get done instead of letting people do it the way they want.”

Good managers also create milestones to monitor progress, Frankel adds. They also check in regularly with staff members to share feedback. “Everyone needs to feel that their unique skills are being used and further developed in a way that contributes to the priorities of the organization.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
Shared goals can bring energy to the workforce, but only if they’re communicated clearly.

Do you delegate effectively?

Delegation is not just about saving a manager’s time and fostering operational efficiency. It’s also about preparing employees for promotion. “Step-up assignments are great tools for grooming people into higher levels of responsibility,” says William J. Rothwell, a professor of workforce education and development at Penn State University. “And a great way to use them is to systematically delegate a manager’s duties.” This technique is of particular value for workers who have expressed a desire to get ahead. Rothwell suggests telling such people that the process of delegation is intended to help them step up to more responsible positions.

Set reachable goals by delegating one or two items from the manager’s job description every year. “Proceeding slowly will allow time to coach the worker on effective techniques for mastering each duty,” said Rothwell.

Do you help to set reasonable goals?

Employees are motivated to perform well when they have taken ownership of their future. Managers must ensure that workers buy into any mandated performance parameters. That process begins with a clearly drawn road map.

“If we set expectations that are not clearly understood, manager and employee will operate on different wavelengths,” says Randy Goruk, president of The Randall Wade Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The manager expects X and the employee thinks, ‘I’m going to do Y.’ Next thing you know, you’ve got somebody not meeting expectations.”

Seek assurances that the employee really understands what’s expected of them, Goruk says. One way to do that is to invite the individual to restate the expectations you have delineated. It’s better to discover any disconnect in the present than six months down the road.

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Do you inspire your employees?

Inspired employees work with greater enthusiasm and invent creative solutions to workplace problems. 

But how do you inspire someone? The task seems formidable and abstract.

The secret is to look at the big picture. “The way to inspire people is to explain how the business or work product benefits employees, customers and society,” Rothman says. “That will charge workers with the enthusiasm required to perform at peak levels.”

Becoming an inspiring leader requires making a special effort to relate the goals of the employee and the organization, Rothman adds. And that means moving beyond the management techniques one has employed in the past. “If you cannot get rid of what you previously used to do, if you cannot move beyond your prior expertise, you will not be an inspiring leader,” he says.

Do you encourage new ideas?

The best ideas come from people on the front lines. Top managers encourage employees to develop and communicate new and productive operational techniques based on their experience.

“You need to tap into the collective wisdom of the team,” Frankel says. “Creating an environment where ideas are appreciated, recognized and rewarded will spark ideas that help the business achieve its priorities.”

Encouraging worker contributions means going beyond the company suggestion box. “Reinforce at every team meeting that there are no bad ideas,” Frankel says. “People will speak up only if they understand that they will not be punished for doing so, and that the company wants everybody’s ideas on the table.”

When the business comes up with a new goal, Frankel explains, throw it out to the employee pool and invite input. “Many managers are afraid to ask for suggestions because they fear they will receive unworkable ideas.” The fact is that employee groups tend to be self-correcting and will reject ideas that are impractical.

Do you take a personal interest in employees?

Managers gain the trust of employees by engaging with them on a personal level.

“Any good manager communicates a genuine interest in the well-being of workers,” Rothwell says. “Doing so doesn’t require a face-to-face structured conversation. It can be a hallway interaction of a minute or less. It can be a brief talk in the break room, the parking lot or even online through direct messages.”

Employees who trust their managers will not only work with greater commitment but will also share information they might otherwise keep secret for fear that it could damage their status in the organization. Suppose a valued worker is planning to leave for employment elsewhere. If they feel secure enough to share such information, the manager can take steps to improve the work position in a way that will keep the person from jumping ship.

Do you help employees fix performance shortfalls?

Effective managers take the initiative quickly when employees fall short in their duties. “If someone is performing poorly, don’t surprise them at review time,” Goruk says. “Have an early two-way conversation.” 

Goruk suggests leading off with an open-ended question, such as, “How do you feel you’re doing?” That provides an opening for the individual to express anything bothering them about their experience. The manager can then follow up with a statement such as “You know what? I’ve noticed the same thing.”

The manager should provide specific examples of where the person has fallen short, including dates, times and numbers where possible. “Ask what you can do to help them get back on track,” Goruk adds. “Develop a game plan: What steps can they take to resolve the problem? And when will you have a follow-up meeting to assess progress?”

Do you help resolve conflicts?

Organizational change often leads to workplace conflict. Dealing effectively with flare-ups is part of the leadership challenge.

While most managers would rather avoid the negative emotions that accompany workplace interventions, organizational effectiveness requires the maintenance of a smoothly running work environment. “Effective managers need to realize that the ability to address conflict is a core competency that they must develop,” says Pete Tosh, the founder of The Focus Group, based in Macon, Ga.  

Effective managers learn the skills required to help employees deal with disagreements. That means directing the involved parties to reach realistic resolutions, casting light on perspectives and ideas that can improve performance.

“Focus on solutions, not the problem,” Tosh says. “Concentrate on commonalities, the future, and negotiation, rather than on differences, the past and emotion. Emphasize process, not content.”

Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course
When it comes to effective leadership, actions speak louder than words. Leaders who say one thing and do another struggle to earn respect.

Do you behave in a professional manner?

Titles empower obedience; behavior earns respect. “A leader’s actions are far more important than their words,” Tosh says. “People listen to talk, then watch the walk.”

A manager’s words and actions must be consistent for them to be believed. And they must also conform to the company policies and practices that have been championed by top leaders. Any deviation from them can create distrust. 

“When we lead by example, our actions need to be consistent with our words,” Tosh says. “No matter what we say or how we ask others to behave, our actions will always serve as the truest indicator of our priorities.”

Mastering skills

How well have you mastered the 10 skills described in this article? Find out by taking the accompanying quiz. Your answers will help you draw up a self-improvement road map. Bear in mind that effective management is a process rather than a destination. Managers must continually learn new approaches and techniques to create an environment where employees perform at peak levels. 

“People often make the mistake of feeling they have it made as soon as they are promoted into supervisory positions,” Goruk says. “They stop learning and start coasting. And then they fail as effective managers.”

In contrast, managers who make a concerted effort to improve their leadership performance end up creating motivated employees and greater profits. “Some people are born with competencies that make it easier for them to be leaders,” Tosh says. “But most people need to get some experience and training under their belts. The good news is that leadership is learnable. All it takes is an individual who wants to succeed.”

Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning business management writer based in New York City whose work has been syndicated in publications nationwide, including GCM.