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Becoming an Excellent Manager: Where to Start and 12 Clues

written by Kathryn Britton 10 February 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Who rises to the top?

Who rises to the top?

Let’s assume you were just promoted into a management job. You know that you got the promotion because you were an excellent performer on your previous assignment, but it used your technical skills. You are worried that you do not have all the skills you need to be an excellent manager. How do you go about learning them? Where’s the best place to start?

What Are Management Skills Like?

In their book, Developing Management Skills, business school professors David Whetten and Kim Cameron explain that management skills are behaviors, not inborn personality traits. These behaviors are under your control, and they can be developed with attention, appropriate knowledge, and practice. These skills are complex, interrelated, and overlapping, but the good news is that one skill supports another. Finally, these skills require a combination of people-oriented and domain-oriented knowledge and the ability to make dynamic trade-offs between competing interests.

So I ask again, where’s the best place to start?

Reflecting on Excellent Managers

Jocelyn Davis

Jocelyn Davis

At the University of Maryland as adjunct faculty and members of the Center for Applied Positive Psychology in Project Management, Jocelyn Davis and I are teaching a course called Managing Project Teams to engineers pursuing a graduate degree in project management. The course helps students gain the knowledge and skills to be excellent managers.

So we also asked ourselves the same question, where’s the best place to start to help people learn management skills?

Here’s what we settled on. Every week we assign what we call pearl-diving assignments. Students write short essays applying what they’ve learned that week to their own work situations. For the very first pearl, students had two options. One option was answering the following prompt.

Have you had a manager that you thought was truly excellent? If so, describe his or her management style and explain why you found it so good. (Choose this option only if you can answer ‘yes’ to the question.)

What is excellence?

What is excellence?

We were pleased — and surprised — to see that considerably more than half were able to answer “Yes” to the initial question and then were moved to answer this prompt. Our students are engineers who tend to be technical and quantitative. We had been uncertain about how many would feel they’d had great managers.

12 Clues of Excellent Manager Behavior Emerged

Human Warmth

Human Warmth

Over the last two semesters, we’ve had 53 students write short essays (2 to 4 paragraphs) on this prompt. Here are the most common themes that emerged starting with the most frequent. The first appeared in 25 essays, the second in 22, and so on.

  1. Supports career development. Gives stretch assignments. Mentors.
  1. Knows how to do the job. Leads by example. Technical competence.
  1. Cares about people beyond work performance. Helps people with practical needs.
  1. Gives autonomy.
  1. Communicates well within team – e.g., gives clear directions.
  1. Has an open door — is accessible to employees.
  1. Asks for people’s opinions and acts on the information. Is willing to learn from others.
  1. Is positive and cheerful. Values humor. Detoxes stress.
  1. Shares information. Enables employees. Watches for occasions where help is needed and gives it in a way that increases rather decreases employee confidence.
  1. Bears the brunt of mistakes. Shields employees. Deals well with errors and failures.
  1. Gives credit for good performance. Gives feedback well.
  1. Trusts employees and is trustworthy.
Working Together

Working Together

None of these are surprising — most are described in Whetten and Cameron’s weighty book, Developing Management Skills or in Cameron’s little gem, Positive Leadership, or in the rest of our curriculum. We have students take various self-assessments to build self-awareness. Course topics include psychological capital, strengths-based management, motivation, team formation, ethics, communication skills, positivity in the workplace, and effective feedback.


But each student has a particular real person in mind, not a collection of abstract concepts. They described specific events that illustrated how their managers exhibited these behaviors. Some stated that the manager had changed their lives, and 3 commented that they frequently think to themselves, “What would that manager do in this circumstance?”

Want to Learn? Emulate the Best

Each student that responded to this appreciative question is now primed to think of the behaviors of this manager all semester long. They are primed to believe that management excellence is possible.

I can’t imagine a better place to get started.


Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Linley, P. A., Harrington, S. & Garcea, N. (Eds.) (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford University Press.

Jocelyn Davis wrote a chapter that describes some of the educational goals and processes of the course that she created and that we co-teach.

Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2006). Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. Oxford University Press.

Pink, D. (2009). On the surprising science of human motivation. TED Talk filmed July 2009.

This talk includes a statement that rings in my mind: “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

Whetten, D. & Cameron, K. (2007). Developing Management Skills 7th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice-Hall.

This is an expensive book because it’s a textbook. There is an e-book that can be used for a limited amount of time for considerably less money. Go to www.coursesmart.com and search for ISBN: 0-13-174742-8.



Office politics: A rise to the top courtesy of Alex E Proimos
UW Architectural Commission courtesy of wonderlane
Gameface (human warmth) courtesy of SimonDoggett
Table meeting courtesy of BPHA Staff Conference 2005 (Set)

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WJ 10 February 2010 - 1:36 pm

Kathryn, I do a similar exercise is a resilient leadership programs that I run. I ask them to tell me about the characteristics of a good leader that they have worked for. Interestingly most mention characteristics that align with their own personalities.

The purpose of the exercise is two-fold. It telss me who I’m working with in the workshop and secondly it highlights many of the problems with the literature on leadership – more based on opinion than research.

My initial training is as an engineer – I wonder whether the managerial characteristics reflect the engineering persona.

I suspect that many of the technical managerial skills are learnable – but not the softer skills. Not sure if you can make all engineers great communicators.

Kathryn Britton 10 February 2010 - 2:14 pm

I don’t know my students well enough yet to come to the same conclusion, but it’s not my perception. I don’t think, for example, that the people who appreciate getting professional growth opportunities are limited to people skilled in giving those opportunities.

Not everyone is going to be a great communicator, but most people can learn to be better communicators. Whetten and Cameron list a number of outcome studies showing improvements in management skills. “For example, MBA students showed improvement of from 50 to 300 percent on social skills over the course of two years by enrolling in two courses based on the approach to developing management skills presented here. A greater amount of improvement occurred among students who applied these skills to multiple aspects of their lives outside the classroom, and [to your point] people who were more competent to begin with made the most progress.” p. 12, DMS.

You’ll be amused to hear that I used the ResilienceBuilder for 15 minutes before responding to your comment. I was upset about something else, and it definitely helped me calm myself down before addressing your challenge.


wayne 10 February 2010 - 6:42 pm


Yes I smirked in a big way – I’m glad the resilience builder helped.

It wasn’t meant to be a challenge.

PD opportunities are mechanistic – so easily taught.

You should try the exercise and then map it across to their strengths – you might find the results interesting

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 11 February 2010 - 11:24 am

It is interesting to note that results are not part of these 12 most common answers. So according to this sample group, the concept of management excellence is more closely tied to how the manager relates to his or her team than it is tied to what results/goals he or she brings the team to successfully achieve.

I also wonder if you would have gotten the same responses if you had used the word leader in your question, as opposed to the word manager… just curious!



Kathryn Britton 11 February 2010 - 3:59 pm


Yes, I guess we could look at the correlation of different themes with VIA strengths and MBTI results — for one thing to explore the question you asked, do people mostly recognize the same qualities in their managers that they have themselves?


Kathryn Britton 11 February 2010 - 4:30 pm

I’ll have to go back and look. People mentioned good results, but more as an outcome than an attribute of management excellence.

Yes, it would be interesting to know whether the answers would be different, but since this is a course about management skills…


Jeff 12 February 2010 - 4:20 pm

Marie Jo,

The missing results piece reflects what the students want in a good manager…and is so sorely lacking in many of the places I’ve worked. Let’s not forget the unforgettable DumDum Head Comment that has brought me great joy in the retelling. For those of you new to DumDum, my team leader/mentor teacher when I was a teacher called me a complete DumDum Head in front of a class full of students. The woman turned red she was so mad. I guess I didn’t immediately understand her instructions. One of the students whispered, “what a b%^&h!” about my illustrious mentor. Children are so perceptive. She probably called them names when no one was looking. She was just that nice.

Speaking of awesome mentors, I’ve been dying to share my Hitler Boss story. Yes, I said Hitler. I had a manager in a certain Naval service who was absolutely in love with der Fuhrer. He used to carry an 800 page book called Hitler: The Psychopathic God with him whilst deployed onboard the ship. No one seemed to notice. He was my direct supervisor. One time I visited him at a house party he was throwing. He was dressed in a Waffen SS Storm Trooper uniform and told us they were his PJs. Yes, he slept in a Storm Trooper uniform for night night time. Finally, and to me this takes the cake, he had an allegedly autographed 8 1/2 by 11 inch framed photo of Hitler that had kiss marks on the glass frame. He used to kiss Hitler before going to bed. I freaked out. I left the party and never looked back. Before the Navy made him stop, he had a Hitler moustache. One of the sailors once asked him jokingly if Hitler were to ask my him for sexy times, what would he say? He thought about for a minute, started to say no, then smiled and said YES!

That was a bad boss.

Kathryn Britton 13 February 2010 - 10:40 am

Your stories remind me of someone saying that a good marriage is more than the absence of things that make a bad marriage. Just so with managers. You had some real doozies in the bad direction. But what were your experiences in the good direction?

And yes, the bad direction probably makes more entertaining stories. What else did you learn from them?

Jeff 13 February 2010 - 3:56 pm


The best thing about suffering under a bad manager is that you learn what doesn’t work and, by doing just the opposite, what works. Comparing sucky managers with great ones, the black hats versus the white hats, shows me that effectiveness and empathy are the big two traits that matter. If you are nice but ineffective, then nix that management style. The same for effective but mean.

We’ve got one of those types at work right now. She’s ruthless and efficient and gets the job done which makes upper management extremely happy and her subordinates plot her demise. She has multiple union grievances against her for violating the work contract. Actually, she just appears effective, but in fact, her personal efficiency costs the organization dearly. For every task she completes, her rank-and-file are dragging their feet and ruining our metrics. What a tragicomedy!

I don’t work for her. I learned that lesson early on to get out while you can!

Kathryn Britton 13 February 2010 - 5:54 pm

I don’t think that good is the opposite of bad. If you took any of those managers and subtracted out what bothers you, would what’s left be excellent?

You do bring up an interesting question that we’ve discussed in class sometimes. What if you have a really productive person who is horrible to other people? I once heard someone described as having (metaphorical) armor with razor blades pointing outward… whenever you got near him, you got slashed.

Often they are tolerated because of their personal productivity. But what if it were easy to calculate their net productivity, that is, to include their impact on other people whom they make less productive. Would it still be worth it to have them around.

Similarly, many organizations lack any way to give credit to the people who make other people more productive. Often they do it out of the goodness of their hearts, even though it takes time that they could be putting into something else that would add to their personal productivity.

So … we had a way of evaluating the total contribution to organizational productivity, I wonder how things would change.


Jeff 15 February 2010 - 11:24 am

YOU: I don’t think that good is the opposite of bad. If you took any of those managers and subtracted out what bothers you, would what’s left be excellent?

ME: Yes. If you subtracted out the obnoxious behavior, there would be some great things left over. Besides the opposite of obnoxious is not behaving neutrally, it would be behaving pleasantly. So the opposite in that case would be good.
The worst bosses I’ve had all had some skillful gems behaviorally. They got the job done or otherwise their odious habits would never have been tolerated.

YOU: What if you have a really productive person who is horrible to other people?

ME: Do what the Inuit do with their psychopaths: push them off an ice floe. Fire them. Retrain them. Move them around so they can do the least harm. Talk to them. Teach them better skills for coping with the reason why they are nasty in the first place: probably stressors.

YOU: Often they are tolerated because of their personal productivity…

ME: Yes. Unfortunately for all involved. Fear of losing a producer drives a lot of insanity at work. There should be an index of Good Citizenship which includes productivity among other factors. Hard to measure, great for determining who should get promoted and who needs improvement.

YOU: Similarly, many organizations lack any way to give credit to the people who make other people more productive.

ME: Let’s invent a way.

Business is about generating dollars. Is there a way to measure accurately the number of dollars lost to asshole behavior?


Kathryn Britton 16 February 2010 - 1:57 pm

Relative to the first point, Marcus Buckingham is very persuasive in The One Thing You Need to Know that people don’t learn about excellence by studying the awful and inverting the findings. “The good is not the opposite of bad, merely different.”

On pages 16-24, he explores this point in the context of marriage. Studies showed that in unhappy marriages, neither understood the other very well. So advice to couples was to strive for a clear-eyed realistic assessment of your partner’s strengths, weaknesses, and values. Don’t try to keep an idealized view of your partner, because eventually he or she won’t live up to it, and the whole edifice will crumble.

He cites a study by Dr. Sandra Murray in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that a match between self-assessments and partner’s assessments does not correlate with high levels of marital satisfaction.

“In the happiest couples, the husband rated the wife more positively than she did on every single quality. For some reason, the husband in a highly rewarding relationship consistently credited his wife with qualities she didn’t think she had.” (p. 20)

Thus finding a lack of understanding in bad marriages does not prove that a completely realistic understanding is the way to good marriages. So to learn about management excellence, let’s do more than collect stories (however entertaining) about rotten managers and seek the opposite.


Kathryn Britton 16 February 2010 - 2:05 pm

With respect to toxic behaviors at work, I’m in complete agreement that we shouldn’t just ignore them — and I remind you of Catherine Mattice’s earlier article on dealing with workplace bullies.

I like the index of good citizenship idea a lot. I worked with a woman who mentored more than 50 people. When she got so she just couldn’t find time to meet with them individually, she formed little groups, with the added benefit that people supported each other. There was a mentoring requirement at her level in the company, but many of her peers had one or two token proteges that they’d talk to once a year, if that. For her, making other people successful was a major source of work satisfaction, but wouldn’t it be even better if it were accurately counted in her workplace productivity!


Jeff 16 February 2010 - 6:10 pm


I know what you mean. Life would be simpler if all we had to do was the opposite of our bad behavior to live well. I never thought that doing the opposite extreme was the answer, but usually it suggests the right direction. Stop browbeating your husband and start singing his praises. Stop eating bowls of lard and start running around the track.

If you’ve ever read The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo or watched the TED clip online based on the book, maybe Youtube has it, you remember that Zimbardo said bad apples often aren’t just bad apples. They’re bad apples in bad barrels put together by bad barrel makers. He used Abu Graib as a model for why individuals go wrong. Environment is critical to fomenting evil. I think the opposite here is true. Positive stewards steer positive organizations which select great people. In that upward spiral, we have tasty apples from good barrels and skilled orchard keepers.

In the example of the husband being unrealistically negative, I think being realistically positive would be the opposing state. That would be a big step in the correct direction. Not always! Not in every situation! Usually tyrannical behavior’s cure is being moderate and positive, in my opinion of course.


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