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The Most Important Management Skill

by Terence Traut

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I've been teaching management and leadership skills now for over 10 years to new managers and supervisors as well as to seasoned veterans.

I've worked with some of today's leadership and management thought leaders and researchers including Tom Peters, Dr. Warren Bennis, Dr. David Ulrich, and Dr. Henry Mintzberg.

I've met, researched, and worked with some of today's renowned leaders including Captain Mike Abrashoff (author of GrassRoots Leadership and former commander of the U.S.S. Benfold), General Tommy Franks (former commander of CentComm and author of American Soldier), and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group.

I've talked to thousands of employees and looked at what they wanted – NEEDED – from managers that they felt they weren't getting, or getting enough of.

And, perhaps most importantly, I am a manager. I hire, fire, manage performance, coach, cajole, and counsel.

Based on my unique set of experiences, I'd like to share my belief of the most important management skill and I'd like to count down to that skill in Lettermanesque fashion. You can see which skills I considered and why I believe each is important in its own right, but not THE most important skill.

#7 Know What Motivates People – Motivation is an intrinsic thing; theoretically you can't motivate someone who doesn't want to be motivated. While I agree with that, effective managers draw from a variety of techniques to cajole, encourage, inspire, recognize, and otherwise create an environment where many people ARE motivated. They recognize that each person is motivated by different things from simply having a job to contributing to something great. They also realize that what motivates someone tomorrow may be different than what motivates them today.

#6 Walk Around – The best way to manage – to know what's going on, to build the credibility that only comes from someone "in the know" – is to regularly and frequently get out there. More and more managers and supervisors are isolating themselves to get the things done – reports, updates, budgets, analyses – that upper management is demanding. Effective managers know that without the effective performance of their people, all of the ancillary work is for naught. The best way to see what's going on – and to be seen – is MBWA, Management By Wandering Around.

#5 Use the Right Tool – Effective managers can draw from a treasure chest of tools to use one that is most appropriate for the situation. Leadership and management research over the past 100 years has come up with a single definitive conclusion when answering the question, "what's the best approach?" The answer is, "it depends". It depends on the situation, the skills of the leader, the needs of the employees, and the unique interaction of the three. Effective managers have an arsenal of tools to draw from and, most importantly, they have the performance analysis skills to know which tools to use. Coaching, counseling, feedback, information sharing, self-disclosing, encouragement, recognition, problem-solving, corrective action, and others are options that the effective manager can use at will.

#4 Learn and Practice Your Craft – Like parenting, most new to the position find themselves under prepared for the awesome responsibilities. Like parenting, effective managers study the craft and art of managing. While most of us were promoted to management positions because of our technical expertise (and to some degree our ability to not bump into furniture or tick anyone off), what brought us here won't keep us here. In fact, many of our technical competencies work against us as managers and supervisors. Certainly, there is no shortage of books and courses on management and leadership.

#3 Self-Assess and Course Correct – Almost any management failure can be traced back to an almost conscious decision to ignore the realities of the situation. Ineffective managers and leaders rely heavily on hope as a strategy to get through this. Effective managers and leaders welcome – and seek out – feedback. Effective managers and leaders are like guided missiles knowing that the only way they can reach their target is if they seek in-course feedback and make in-course adjustments. Effective managers use the "start, stop, continue" method of self assessment; to increase my effectiveness:

  • What should I start doing that I'm not currently doing?
  • What should I stop doing that's not working?
  • What should I continue doing because it is working?

#2 Develop Your People – Tom Peters calls this "Job One". Effective managers and supervisors know that they are only as good as the people who do the work. Talented, committed people are a company's #1 asset. Effective managers and supervisors find ways to develop the talents of their people. Training, coaching, peer tutoring, cross-training, in-job development, online learning, job sharing, and delegation are but a few of the techniques that effective managers use to grow the capabilities of their people. In the process, they foster commitment and increase productivity. Not a bad deal for the investment of time and money.

#1 Provide Regular and Balanced Feedback – While the other skills are important, the most important – and the one that most employees consistently ask for more of – is feedback. "How am I doing?" I conducted an employee survey recently asking employees for their input on their bosses' skills in a wide variety of areas from setting clear expectations to creating an upbeat environment. Three of the four most critical areas – areas needing the most attention according to employees – relate to feedback:

  • Provide specific positive reinforcement regularly.
  • Provide me with regular feedback about my job performance.
  • Tell me when I am not meeting expectations.

Out of the 20 questions asked in the survey, only these three related to feedback – and all three appeared on the list of "most needed".

Providing regular and balanced feedback, I would argue, is the most important management and leadership skill for a variety of reasons:

  • Employees want it. In my 48 years of living, the most important lesson – from management to parenting to being married to sales to servicing customers – involves 1) finding out what people want, and 2) giving it to them.
  • It is free. As managers and leaders, much of what we need to provide our employees costs real money. Desks, computers, health insurance, compensation, and so on, all cost money. Giving feedback costs nothing in real dollars; while it requires that you invest time to give feedback, it is just that – an INVESTMENT that will reap huge dividends in increased productivity and morale.
  • It elevates the employees' perception of you as a leader. As General Tommy Franks states, "you can't 'manage' a troop of soldiers up a hill under fire; you must lead them". By giving feedback, you put yourself in a role of one who knows and cares. By focusing feedback on the employee's PERFORMANCE (as opposed to the PERSON), you cement your role as a doer.
  • It increases performance. With a focus on performance, feedback is instrumental in improving the likelihood that you'll get more from your employees. Feedback is the difference between an artillery shell and a guided missile. Artillery shells are lobbed in the general direction of the target and much of the success of the shot can be attributed to the planning of the shot. Contrast this with the guided missile whose initial trajectory is far less important than the continual feedback it receives as it hones in on its target.
  • It is motivational. Most employees – as we've seen in the survey results – want to know how they're doing – both positive feedback and developmental feedback. The reason it's motivational is because most employees want to do a job as effectively and efficiently as possible. With your appropriately worded feedback, you can create an environment in which employees are motivated to perform.

Hold on a second before you rush out to tell you're employees "a thing or two" under the guise of feedback. HOW you give feedback is as important (maybe MORE important) as WHAT you say. Feedback must be helpful, unbiased, balanced, and specific (HUBS).

Helpful — Feedback is given for one reason and one reason only – you are thinking in the best interests of the employee. You want to sincerely help the employee. You recognize the contribution and potential of the employee.

Unbiased — Effective feedback focuses on performance and results. As a result, it is relatively unbiased. Others observing the behavior or results that you're commenting on would agree with your interpretation. "When you raised your voice, several in the group stopped providing input", is relatively unbiased (and actionable); "You frustrated everyone with your rudeness", is biased and exaggerated.

Balanced — Over time, your feedback should be balanced. Providing only positive or only developmental feedback reduces your effectiveness. Note that I am NOT suggesting that you "sandwich" developmental feedback inside of positive feedback; there are times when that technique works and others when it is less effective. I AM suggesting that you provide all employees with a balance of positive reinforcement and developmental feedback.

Specific — Effective feedback is specific, enabling an employee to address a specific developmental need or repeat a specific desirable behavior. Unfocused feedback such as, "You did a great job on that report", is not actionable since the employee doesn't know what specific performance elicited your positive comment. What should the employee do again? What behavior should be repeated? Conversely, what behavior should be stopped? Or how should it change?

Be a leader – give your employees what THEY want and increase the productivity and morale of your team.

Copyright © Terence Traut

About the Author

Terence R. Traut is the president of Entelechy, Inc., a company that helps organizations unlock the potential of their people through customized training programs in the areas of sales, management, customer service, and training. Terence can be reached at 603-424-1237 or displayMailto('ttraut@unlockit.com'); ?> Check out Entelechy's website at www.unlockit.com.

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