What managerial skills does a boss need?

Managerial Skills

I know a lot of people (myself included) who constantly question the managerial skills of different bosses, but … as they do this, they may not be entirely aware of what managerial skills a boss really needs to have.

This question is pretty tough to tackle. It varies by geography, business model, industry/vertical, and pre-existing composition of your team. For example, if you manage a team of engineers in Singapore who are all highly-educated, that’s one set of managerial skills. If you manage a team of sewage plant workers in Chile with limited educational background, that’s a little bit different.

That’s the caveat we need to address upfront, then: managerial skills will vary by situation and context. There’s no “magic bullet” answer here. But we can probably explore this a little bit more.

Managerial Skills: The soft side of the equation

Before we get into more science, let’s start with a few basics.

First up: many managers assume their job falls along two specific lines.

  • Make money
  • Hit targets for their boss

Those are both noble goals. In reality, though, managers also manage the energy of the people who work for them. A lot of managing that energy comes down to topics like —

  • Communicating effectively
  • Doing check-ins
  • Providing opportunities for growth
  • Showing respect
  • Helping to manage excessive workloads

Unfortunately, a lot of managers focus on the first two bullet points — and view the next set as “soft skills.” Soft skills don’t pop on a balance sheet. Since most organizations are set up around “The Spreadsheet Mentality” and communicating well means nothing for your bonus, those skills die in the flood a little bit. Sad, but true. Remember: 82 percent of managerial hires end up being the wrong one. To me, that would imply a lack of managerial skills writ large. I think a lot of the gap there comes from “Oh, those are soft skills. They don’t matter to my career.”

Managerial Skills: Four roles of a manager

I’ve mentioned Harvard business professor Linda Hill a few times — here and here. She co-authored a book called Being the Boss, and in that book, she references four key managerial skills any leader needs. As noted in Fast Company, those skills are:

  • Know enough to understand the work
  • Make good judgments about the work
  • Understand common hurdles
  • Coach or find help for people struggling with problems

Now, there are managers in the world who do all four of these things on a daily basis. There are also managers in the world who believe they do all four and do zero. Most are somewhere in the middle. Let’s look at the pro/con of these four managerial skills now.

Managerial Skills: Do they persist?

Time for the rundown!

Know enough to understand the work: Usually, this one is the safest of the four. We tend to promote people based on functional (silo) expertise, or at least tenure with a company. Most managers, I’d argue, understand the work. Now: that doesn’t necessarily mean they can prioritize the work. Look at this research from MIT, or this from Microsoft. Many companies have a lot of issues with priority management. It’s interesting — many managers understand the work, but cannot prioritize the work. That’s a big problem with many jobs.


Make good judgments: This is where it starts to fall apart. There’s research from Stanford that most managers are poor judges of new ideas, and frankly, this is the issue with many managers. At 11am on a Monday, their entire calendar is blocked for the week with meetings and calls. It’s impossible to actually “manage” other human beings if all you do is move from meeting to call for 40+ hours. (Even sadder: if that’s all you do, good luck preparing for them.)

Understand common hurdles: This, to me, is kinda talking about empathy. “Hey, I know this project is a bitch. Let’s talk it through.” I think empathy is present in some companies, but it falls into that “soft skill” bucket for many managers. Empathy’s never really been ** tied ** to revenue, so, eh, who cares? Anyway. There are two types of managers on “understand common hurdles.” One works with you to get to the goal. One bellows at you constantly “I needed that yesterday!” I think the latter is probably more common, and that’s because everyone feels pressure from some other level at any job.

Coach/find help: Again, “soft skills.” Most managers don’t view themselves as coaches, even though they are. They view themselves as road warriors, target-pounders, or whatever else. “I eat what I kill! I drive growth!” This is all tied to the deification of the workaholic, by the way.

How do we improve managerial skills?

Two basic steps:

Promote better: If someone is a total asshole, they shouldn’t be a manager. It’s that simple. But, they often become a manager because they want to make more money — and in most companies, you have to be a manager to make more money. We need to rethink this equation. I’d chase two tracks: ICs and managers. You can make the same $$$ on each track. This means if you’re a great sales guy, or great Ops guy, you can stay as an IC and make the same cheddar. You don’t have to manage 15 people, which you wouldn’t be good at, and then start pushing turnover as you hit your revenue targets. That’s the irony: sometimes you’ll find a guy in a company who generates $12M a year, but the lost productivity of everyone under him is about $27M. No one does that math, though.

Train more and differently: If you had a kid today and also became a manager, you’d first get trained on being a manager when your kid was 12. He’d be in the sixth grade before someone trained you! That’s per research, by the way. I know we’re all super busy getting through our task lists each day, but let’s make some time to train managers — and especially new managers. As we do this, let’s make the training more about soft skills, working with people, co-solving problems, assembling teams, etc. These are the managerial skills of 2020 and beyond. I really could care less if you can move shit from Bucket A to Bucket B. That’s how Andy Grove and Gordon Moore built Intel, sure — but it’s not necessarily going to work in the Knowledge Economy.

What else you got on managerial skills?

Ted Bauer

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