The Secret To Being A Great Manager

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I know the secret to being a great manager, and I’m going to share it with you, in this blog post, right now. No need to spend $29.95 on Leadership Lessons From Larva, or whatever other leadership book is hot right now.

What’s the secret?

Well, hold on. I feel obligated to tell you how it is I come to know this secret. It isn’t from my being a great manager (duh). Instead, it comes more from my being a lousy subordinate (double duh). In my 25 years of being a lousy subordinate, I’ve worked for a lot of managers, and I’ve finally discovered the difference between the good and the great.

What is that difference?

Not so fast. I just want everyone to know that in no way am I criticizing any of the multitude of bosses I’ve had over the past 25 years. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I can only think of one who I would consider to be a lousy boss (and he’s way too wrapped up in his own blog and twittering to read my blog). In fact, it’s really the opposite — it’s the realization of what some of those bosses did right (and may not have even realized it).

So what’s the secret to being a great manager?

Leveraging people’s strengths.

That’s it in a nutshell. The longer version goes like this: Leveraging people’s strengths instead of obsessing over trying to get them to overcome their weaknesses.

Getting people to overcome their weaknesses doesn’t work. Trust me, I know this firsthand (so does my wife — she’s been trying for nearly 30 years now).

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but in the U.S., our whole employee evaluation system is oriented towards finding weaknesses, problem areas, or more euphemistically — improvement opportunities. People’s strengths are given a cursory glance, and it’s on to the litany of things they could and should be doing better.

There are generally two reasons why I’m not good at some of the things my boss(es) want me to be better at: 1) I don’t like to do those things, and 2) I’m simply not wired to do those things well.

There are, however, some things I am good at. And the best managers I’ve had recognized those things and found ways to help me focus on those things and maximize my output on them. And not let me get dragged down by the things I’m not good at — and will never be.

Here’s the problem with this secret: It’s not very easy to implement.

The reason for this isn’t just that our system isn’t oriented towards it. It’s that it isn’t easy to determine exactly what people’s strengths are. It’s bad enough that many managers don’t really know their people well enough to make this determination. But many people don’t truly know what their own strengths and weaknesses are.

Here’s another challenge: If someone isn’t good at understanding other people, doesn’t want to take the time to know what their strengths/weaknesses are, etc., then — by my own logic — they won’t be able to overcome this weakness, and become a great manager. In other words, the very principle that separates the good from great managers precludes some managers from being great in the first place.

Do I really believe that people can’t improve on their weaknesses? Not really. But it takes work, and it takes focus. Simply giving me a list of the things I’m supposed to do better — with the promise that it might get me some raise and/or promotion — won’t work. And I don’t think it works with other people, either. Great managers pick their spots. They get people to focus on the ONE thing that — if they truly improve on it — will move the needle on their personal and the company’s performance.

In the meantime, my manager will just have to put up with the fact that I’m a lousy subordinate. Sorry.

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