If you're going to be an effective manager, you better be able to make tough decisions. You also need to be good at communicating appreciation, taking initiative, delegating, and following through with your promises.
Sure, there's more, but these were ranked as the five most important soft skills for middle managers in a survey conducted by the Center for Workplace Excellence. Input was collected from 268 hourly workers, middle managers, and senior management working in manufacturing environments.
Almost everyone ranked "making tough decisions" at or near the top of their list, but not surprisingly, viewpoints differed after that, depending on where people were on the organizational chart.
For instance, front line employees thought it was important for managers to be diplomatic and communicate appreciation, while middle managers placed that skill in the lower 25 percent of their rankings. Conversely, middle managers ranked "customer service" much higher than did the hourly workers.
Senior managers added a different perspective, believing that middle managers needed to be flexible and good at goal setting. Neither the hourly workers nor the middle managers placed either of those skills in the top 50 percent of their rankings.
One skill ranked high by middle managers but low by hourly workers and senior management was coaching and training employees. Greg Sigerson, owner of Wisdom Factor in Eastern Idaho, says this skill is vital.
"Not only do managers have to communicate clearly what needs to be done, they have to help people understand how they're going to get it done."
Sigerson says that people often try to accomplish things but fail because they rely on the same problem solving skills they've always used.
"After people fail at something they commonly believe they can't do it," Sigerson says. "In basic terms, if an employee has five different types of hammers as his favorite tools but the task he's working on requires a screwdriver, none of the five hammers are going to work for him. As a manager, you must help him see that screwdrivers are available and help the person learn how to use them so he can get to a solution."
Sigerson is quick to add that once a task has been delegated, the manager may need to step into a teaching / coaching role, but the responsibility and accountability for completing the task stays with the person to whom the task has been assigned.
For more feedback on this list, I contacted Jeff Schmitz, a friend of mine who's a manager in a company with offices in several states. His perspective added yet another dimension.
"A manager must be plugged into the organization's politics and have the cooperation of senior management," he said. "If you don't, you might be effective on the tactical side, but you'll be lacking on the strategic side." He also said an effective manager knows how to make career opportunities happen for his people, or they will seek opportunities elsewhere.
"If a manager lacks the trust, backing, and support of senior management he's not going to keep his people happy," Schmitz said.
"This can be hard, especially in a down economy. For example, a manager may go to his boss and say that he found a great person he wants to hire who can really get the job done.
"But in today's economy, it's common for senior managers to say 'people are screaming for jobs—let's get him at a bargain, offer him three-fourths of what he's asking.' You can't really blame the owner because he wants to be competitive and is watching the bottom line. The problem, though, is that if the person takes the job he won't really stop looking for a job because he knows he's worth more."
Schmitz stated that such turnover eats up any savings a company may realize by offering the lower salary.
"In my business it takes six months from the time new hires walk in the door to where they're making money for the company. If you're not careful you wind up in a self-inflicted perpetual cycle of training and you're actually losing money."
In my 22+ years of training managers plus drawing from my own experiences in management, I find that most companies promote people into management without providing training on how to manage people. Unfortunately, without these core skills, too many managers fail to achieve what they're capable of.
It seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? After all, managers are responsible for making sure that tasks get done so shouldn't companies provide training in project management instead of people skills?
My response is we shouldn't focus on one at the expense of the other. Perhaps ensuring that managers get trained in people skills is just one of those "difficult decisions" that effective managers need to make.