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What Does It Take to Become a Competent Manager?

April 17, 2015

skills of a competent manager

Can a student who anticipates a career in management enroll in a business degree program and become a competent manager? Possession of the degree probably increases the odds of becoming a manager. That begs the question, though, as to whether a business degree can qualify as a form of managerial certification. Is it, in fact, a practical way to build one’s management skills? Does it ensure success? If it does, what are the skills that can be mastered?

A quarter century as a professor of business, prior human relations policy research, and managerial experience permit me to address those questions with some confidence. Formal course work, of course, is not always uniform in its approach to management issues. Business school accrediting associations set standards for content coverage and instructor qualifications, but individual professors have wide discretion in how they interpret that content. The quality and depth of teaching can vary. The interpretations offered here are mine. They are the substance of my teaching and writing on the subject of management. They are what I hope would be taught in any good business school.

We can begin with the issue of motivation. There is little of value in topics like intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation or the overly touted hierarchy of needs. These are best characterized as intellectual musings that provide copy filler for college textbooks. The crux of motivation can be described on two levels: the energizing level and the supporting level. The energizing level is the manager’s ability to clearly articulate specific, actionable job goals and objectives. This can be summarized as the art of telling others exactly what kind of performance you expect from them. The supporting level is the manager’s credibility as a fair and competent manager. Goal setting can be described in almost technical terms. Credibility can be won or lost in a dizzying variety of ways. For the most part, it depends on day-to-day relationships.

Leadership is the art of exercising control through influence that is accepted, rather than through authority that is feared. The hard truth is that a competent manager must be in control of his/her organization and people, no matter what. Because control is fundamental, it may be exercised crudely just to get the job done. The manager who isn’t in control of his organization will not long continue to be a manager. Ineffective managers are likely to be those who either enjoy the exercise of authority too much or don’t try to develop their capacity for influence. Control must be achieved one way or another. Most managers imitate what they have experienced, which probably means authority will be exercised crudely. This is where a sound understanding of motivation comes in. Simple clarity of purpose can work wonders by substituting shared goals and objectives for incentive-robbing micromanagement.

Much of a manager’s interpersonal sensitivity comes from curiosity about individual differences. Individuals vary in temperament. Variation in temperament is well researched and described in the literature of applied social psychology. Differences of this sort can be fundamental. A good manager is part psychologist, at least to the extent of discovering the working style of his/her people. A grasp of the temperament styles called the big five is useful for reading individual working and world view style through structured conversations – interviews. Competence with interview exchanges, formal or casual, is an invaluable discovery tool. A good interview reveals the individual as an individual. People want to be treated as individuals. One size fits all approaches to working relationships will probably fail most of the time. Respect for individuality is an indispensable element of a manager’s credibility. Taking time for the thoughtful discussion that is a good interview can be very informative and powerful.

A competent manager needs a working knowledge of pay systems and practices. A basic appreciation of the advantages and limitations of incentive pay schemes can be very useful. Of greater importance is the ability to build a case for pay adjustment that will keep key people from jumping ship. It is also useful for explaining why the requested pay raise is not realistic. A competent manager knows where to go to find pay benchmarks and uses available data to negotiate for pay fairness against cost control push-back or to tamp down employee dissatisfaction with pay.


Competence as a manager requires an appreciation of the benefits and limits of efficiency. For many, efficiency is an absolute value. It is not always. It can turn people into automations or undermine quality. Time is not necessarily money but it is still a common measure of work achieved. Results are ultimately measured in terms of quality as well as quantity. Nor is time a uniform measure of work output. Some hours are much more productive than others. Wide disparities in productivity as a function of time are well known and documented. Work specialization is not always an effective way to achieve efficient output. A competent manager also allows for the growth factor in job assignments and regularly redesigns work packages to account for learning over the longer run. Organizing for productivity is a central part of managing. Competent managers understand how efficiency and work specialization contribute.

A competent manager understands that there must be enough productive capacity to meet demand. This means not just tools and materials, it also runs to worker skill as well. Service industries that experience wide swings in demand require adjustments in skill capacity. Too much skill wastes wage money, too little loses sales. Cross training, contract work, and customer prioritization may all be required to meet the need for flexible response. Often that response must be invented to fit the situation. Adjustments cannot be invented on demand. They must be anticipated and put in place before being needed.

A competent manager understands the workings of performance incentives. Incentives often work well, but monetary incentives that are too effective can seriously distort outcomes. The BP Macondo oil well blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico became a disaster largely because powerful incentives for on time performance prevented early recognition of a really serious problem. Managers sensitized to performance based incentives simply could not grasp the enormity of the failure taking place. Focused single mindedly on success, they failed to acknowledge or prepare for worst case possibilities.

All of these issues are addressed in a good business degree program. They are also the foundation of competent managing. From my vantage point as both a manager and a business school professor, I have used all of them.

Managing any form of business organization requires appropriate experience, plus knowledge of good policies, practices, and methods all backed up by sound business judgment. It is a complex package that is either won by hard experience or prepared for with informed guidance.

For more from Glenn Bassett, check out his book The Manager’s Craft: Exercising Control, Building Commitment, Sustaining Productivity

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About The Author

Glenn Bassett holds a baccalaureate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a doctorate in Management from Yale University. His most recent book is The Manager’s Craft, distributed by New Shelves Distribution Service. For over a quarter century he was a member of the University of Bridgeport Business School faculty and for eight of those years he was Dean of the School. In an earlier career as a Personnel manager he developed personnel policy and carried out major labor relations research projects as a member of the General Electric corporate staff. Earlier yet he served as human resource manager and management development consultant for GE’s Apollo Systems Support Operation in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is author of twelve published books, three invited chapters in edited books, and numerous professional journal articles. He and his wife, Lolly, make their home on Rogers Lake in Lyme, CT.

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