Management Skills

How to be a great manager

8 min read

Qualities and habits of great managers based on years of research, surveying, data and interviews with leaders around the globe.

According to a study conducted by Ultimate Software, 45% of managers have no management training and less than 50% have a mentor who advises them on how to be a better leader. How are managers learning to lead their teams? Is it trial and error? Is it learning from predecessors?

What exactly does it take to be a great manager?

After years of surveying, researching, and interviewing both managers and their teams we’ve identified some qualities and practices that some of the best leaders around the globe use to manage their teams.

Qualities of great managers

Collaborator

A true collaborator values ideas and opinions on their merit and not on the position of the person who gives them. Great managers can clearly communicate their own ideas as well as create a psychologically safe environment where employees feel encouraged to share theirs. Great managers, however, still challenge ideas, probe and discuss with integrity to work towards the best solution. Regardless of the company hierarchy, they understand that the best idea should always win.

I think that early on, I realized that my favorite leaders were the people that didn’t think they had all of the answers so were able to lean on their expertise and lean on their experience, but still keep an open mind, ask questions of their juniors, and really listen and be open to changes. 

Alyssa Furtado, Co-Founder and CEO of Ratehub

Cultural champion

Being a cultural champion does not mean being the first to challenge people to ping pong matches or rolling the beer cart around at 5pm. But rather, living and exemplifying your company values. A company’s core values set the tone for how individuals behave within the work environment and managers should champion them every, single, day.

Take Starbucks for example. Their core values are:

  • Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
  • Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
  • Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
  • Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.

A cultural champion at Starbucks then would be someone how owns and empowers others to live those four values daily. Do they create an inclusive environment where everyone is welcome? Do they act with courage? Do they hold themselves accountable for results?

Before I was a founder, I probably didn’t care enough about values, but it’s clear that done correctly, a really helpful and important way to build a business, is to define your values and live them.

Mike Katchen, Co-Founder and CEO of Wealthsimple

Pacesetter

A pacesetter is a person who sets the bar for performance. They lead by example. They are high performers and expect high performance from their teams. Pacesetters are often confused with drill-sergeants, but the best managers are pacesetters who champion the strengths of their teams to hit a certain pace, while acknowledging and appreciating individual weaknesses.

It doesn’t mean working your team to exhaustion, but rather having a deep understanding of every individual on their team, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing when to push and when to ease off to get the most (and best) performance out of them.

True performance assessor

Managers are responsible for the performance of individuals within a team, as well as their own. It is possibly the largest part of their role and as such, great managers need to have a high level of skill in assessing performance. It’s more than just knowing good performance from poor performance (a skill in itself), but being able to communicate both and provide solutions to the latter. Being a “performance assessor” means having uncomfortable conversations like putting someone on a Performance Improvement Plan. It means giving direct feedback concisely and consistently. It means knowing when it’s time for someone to move up or on from a role.

“If you had to do one thing as a manager, it’s in-the-moment direct feedback while it’s happening – or just after it’s happening – positive or negative. Because if you wait, everything gets blurry, everything changes.”

– Paul Teshima, CEO of Nudge

What great managers do in practice

If you’re an engineering or product professional, you’ve likely heard of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. It’s a document outlining better ways of developing software and helping others do it. We’ve taken inspiration for the Agile Manifesto and expanded on it to be applicable cross-functionally.

People over process

Putting people before process means recruiting the best people to join the team. It means spending disproportionate effort delighting, wowing, and empowering team members; Things like handwriting a card to celebrate milestones, mailing a thank-you to customers that give you love on social media.

There’s tremendous value in having processes but not at the expense of human interaction, creativity and the ability to respond quickly to change.

Action over analysis

The job of a manager is to enable their team to take action and come to decisions themselves, rather than overanalyze how they get there. Spend more time empowering your team to solve problems.

Great managers enable a culture of:

  • Bias towards action
  • Bringing solutions with problems and taking ownership of both
  • Optimizing processes for learning and testing 
  • Learning from successes as well as failures

Action over analysis shouldn’t be mistaken for not being data-driven. Rather, it means to build, measure, learn and iterate. In that order.

Performance over presence

Humans aren’t machines and what makes one individual the most effective will differ from the next, to the next, and so on. As managers, you give the team the tools and space they need to be effective, and efficient.

It’s time to ditch the “Never leave work before your boss,” mentality and shift to one of “I trust you to work where you’re most productive when you’re most productive.”

Measure people by how effective they are, not by what time they leave the office. 

Your team is a team, not a family. It’s important to make sure each person on your team is the right fit, to maximize your team’s effectiveness. This means putting extreme care into making sure each person is the best person for what is needed for the team. If they’re truly not a fit, spend extraordinary effort into getting them into a role where they can perform to their fullest (at your company or another). Having a team member that isn’t fulfilling their potential in a role is detrimental to both the team and that individual.

Listening over speaking

Transitioning from a great individual contributor to a great manager is a complete career change, one that is often disguised as a promotion with a general task of “make more of yourself.” The problem is that each member of the team is unique and quite different from you.

Great managers actively seek out knowledge from their teams and other teams so they can make the best decisions, by listening.

Listening involves creating a culture that:

  • Values psychological freedom and safety – That means everyone feels comfortable being vulnerable in front of the group, without fear of judgment. This is the single largest factor of team efficacy.
  • Values open, honest conversations – This means calling bullshit, debating, probing and asking questions. Your team opens up because there is trust and trust is earned by giving it first.
  • Gives and receives feedback in any form – All feedback, written, yelled, typed urgently into Slack are welcome, encouraged and will be actioned.

Will over skill

There are two facets to an individual’s performance: 

  1. Skill to do the job
  2. Will that they apply to do the work

Learning skills are table stakes. Experience matters. But, great managers focus on the employee and their motivation, so that their skills, experience, and abilities can shine. Great managers learn what motivates and demotivates their teams to enable them to do their best work. 

More specifically great managers will:

  • Consistently articulate the direction of the team, company, and the impact the individual has via their work. They ensure every individual has a purpose in their role.
  • Encourage employees to build up their strengths, instead of getting bogged down in their weaknesses to keep energy and focus on what matters most: progress.
  • Ensure each employee has a connection to the rest of the team which is positive, strong, and psychologically safe.
  • Recognize work that is good (in public), and provide feedback on work that could be better (in private).

The majority of people can recall, without fail, the countless horrible bosses they’ve had at some point in their career. The lucky ones can even recall a select few who were exceptional. When it comes to defining what makes a manager great, we consider this list a good jumping point. 


Managers are the most underserved people in organizations, but are the most impactful on employee productivity, experience and engagement. They deserve the training, the tools and the resources they need to lead a team effectively. That’s why we built Soapbox, to make the great managers far more prominent that the bad managers.