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JAG’S THOUGHTS: What makes a good manager?


Dr Sheth is a renowned scholar and world authority in the field of marketing. He is currently the Charles H. Kellstadt Chair of Marketing at the Goizueta Business School, Emory University.

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 their subject matter expertise (math, science, arts, literature, etc.) but also because of their listening skills (empathy) and passion for their work.

Similarly, what makes a good doctor is their bedside manners and not just their 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 playercoaches. 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.

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