How to Master Your Management Skills and Build a Strong Team

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Whether you work as a manager or not, you need strong management skills. Editors work with writers every day. Developers and designers have interns to lead. Even stay-at-home parents have children to raise and inspire .

In each of those roles, management means more than getting the work done. I’ve surrounded myself with some of the top sales speakers in the world and a message I always hear is that great managers focus on taking care of their people. They delegate strategically and set the example for how the team should interact.

What makes a great manager? Either in school or through practice, managers must learn a series of principles and management skills.

The Principles of Management

Leaders may have different styles, but their management skills rely on the same foundation. In the early 20th century, French engineer Henri Fayol laid out 14 principles in his book General and Industrial Management that are still taught today:

1. Division of Work

On every team, members have different abilities. It takes real management skills to divide work in a way that maximizes workers’ strengths while shoring up their weaknesses.

2. Authority and Responsibility

Every member of a team is responsible to some degree for its success. To hold everyone accountable to his or her responsibilities, management must have the authority to order, reward, and reprimand as necessary.

3. Discipline

Disciplined team members obey orders when they can and respectfully explain themselves when they can’t. Managers with discipline actively grow their management skills and hold their teams to account. Without discipline, teams fall apart.

4. Unity of Command

To avoid confusion, team members must take orders from and answer to one person. When multiple people are in charge, conflicting commands are inevitable.

5. Unity of Direction

To be a team, all members must be rowing in the same direction. Managers need to set clear objectives and develop a singular action plan.

6. Subordination of Individual Needs

Teams fail when members serve their own interests. Workers and managers alike must put the needs of the group above their own, including the individual interests of the manager.

7. Remuneration

Managers must recognize workers for the contributions they make. Not all remuneration is monetary. In addition to financial compensation, managers can use compliments, titles, and privileges to make employees feel appreciated.

8. Centralization

On small teams, all decisions may be made by a single person. But on larger ones, executives may craft the high-level vision while leaving the implementation details to lower and middle managers.

9. Scalar Chain

Teams need structure. Especially if decision-making is decentralized, a chain of command should exist from the c-suite on down. Members must bring concerns directly to the link above them.

10. Order

Chaos is the enemy of management. Managers must provide order across multiple axes: social order, an orderly work environment, and orderly processes for completing work.

11. Equity

Teams don’t survive when their members don’t treat one another fairly. Managers must be kind and avoid playing favorites. Workers must be respectful of one another and their manager, even when the work is difficult.

12. Team Stability

Too much turnover compromises the competency and efficiency of the team. Managers must minimize disruptions by putting the right people in the right roles.

13. Initiative

Every member of a team has to be involved and interested in order for the group to do its best work. Managers must encourage employee initiatives, even when those new ideas conflict with existing ways of doing things.

14. Esprit de Corps

Roughly translated to “team spirit,” espirit de corps describes the importance of morale to a high-functioning team. By cultivating buy-in and unity among workers, managers create trust and culture.

Managers don’t spend their days memorizing those principles, of course. What they do is build management skills, through experience as well as through continuing education, that help them put Fayol’s 14 principles into practice.

The Core Management Skills

Ask ten different managers what the most important management skills are, and you’ll get ten different responses. But you can bet the following ones will be popular answers:

Problem Solving

Managers solve problems that executives don’t want to deal with and everyday employees aren’t equipped to deal with. Those problems typically fall into one of three buckets: people, product, or process problems.

People problems concern team dynamics. When two workers on a team can’t seem to get along, it takes strong management skills to sort things out. Although executives typically handle high-level product strategy, they leave product problems like bugs and interface updates to managers of technical teams.

Process problems are the most common issues managers deal with. Customer complaints that fall through the cracks, copy mistakes that wind up in published content, and leaky sales pipelines mostly fall to managers.

Although every manager has his or her own preferred problem-solving techniques, there are a few common ones:

  • Ask “why?” What caused the problem in the first place? If you couldn’t sleep last night, the reason might be that you drank too much coffee. The solution, then, may be to cut yourself off at noon.
  • Brainstorm as many solutions as possible. Silly or simplistic answers are sometimes the best ones. Challenge yourself to spend five minutes ideating answers to a complex problem, refraining from judgment until after your timer goes off.
  • Change your phrasing. The way you discuss a problem influences how your team sees it. Use phrases like “What if,” or “Imagine” to convey possibility. Avoid terms like “impossible” or “too difficult.”

Listening

The best leaders are listeners. Although someone has to give the orders, those with real management skills listen to others’ ideas and concerns before they make a decision. When that choice does not line up with their workers’ suggestions, effective managers explain why.

Just as importantly, managers must listen to those above them. In a hierarchy, each link must carry out the orders of the person they report to. To lead their own teams effectively, managers need to understand the goals and wider plans of company executives.

Great managers also soak up ideas from people who aren’t on their team. Teams — even diverse, large ones — are bubbles. Ryan Hawk, who operates a podcast called the The Learning Leader Show, maintains a database of career and life advice that I really like that’s helped me become a better listener.

In a journal or a private document, keep a running list of the best ideas associated with each group. Record insights and suggestions for improvement from your workers. Take notes on executive conversations about improving your management skills. Jot down bits of wisdom that motivate or inspire you, regardless of who said them.

Communication

Listening is only half the picture; managers must communicate openly and regularly up and down the chain of command.

When managers face a challenge that surpasses their management skills, they speak up to their superiors. When a team member keeps making the same mistake, they say something rather than let it slide. When a customer emails or asks to speak with them directly, they respond in a timely and professional manner.

Managers need to be masters of oral and written communication. Becoming a better verbal communicator is really a matter of three things:

  • Managing non-verbal cues. Making eye contact is a sign of respect and a request for the listener’s attention. Smiling makes people want to hear what you have to say. Fidgeting, on the other hand, indicates disinterest or a lack of confidence.
  • Being direct. Avoid going off on tangents or beating around the bush. Making your point in as few words as possible creates clarity and demonstrates respect for others’ time.
  • Using appropriate vocabulary. Be precise in your phrasing. Don’t call a catastrophe a mistake. Don’t use a phrase like “myocardial infarction” when “heart attack” will do.

The last two techniques also apply to written communication. To build your writing and management skills, read and write regularly. Emulate your favorite authors; chances are, they use the conversational-yet-professional style that you aim for in your own emails and memos.

Delegation

The whole reason managers are given teams to lead is so that they can accomplish more than they’d be able to as individuals. That’s why valuing time((Calendar: The Value of Time)) and a focus on delegation is among the most important management skills.

After you’ve decided which tasks to delegate — which should be any that your team members can do better than you — determine the recipient. The delegatee’s technical skills should align with the task, but so should their temperament and soft skills.

Then, trust your team. As long as you’ve provided clear instructions and a deadline, you shouldn’t need to check in before the project is due. Publicly compliment and reward team members once the work is done.

Learn more about how to delegate effectively in this guide: How to Delegate Work Effectively (Step-By-Step Guide)

Motivation

Of all the key management skills, motivation may be the most difficult to learn but also the most important one: 9 Reasons Why Motivation Matters in Leadership

How do you inspire someone to do what might be tedious work day in and day out?

For better or worse, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. People are motivated by different things. Raises and bonuses might light a fire under one person, while more paid time off might be the best reward for someone else.

Those with the best management skills use carrots liberally and sticks sparingly. Unless rewards aren’t working to change someone’s behavior, don’t punish them. Remember that if you aren’t ready to fire them, you have to maintain a positive working relationship.

Performance improvement plans are a good intermediary step. If the problem isn’t corrected after three or so months, then perhaps a demotion or pay cut should be on the table.

Final Thoughts

Strong teams don’t build themselves. Only leaders who understand both the principles and key management skills can turn a handful of employees into a well-oiled machine. Learn them, and you’ll have made more of a difference than any new marketing strategy or product feature every could.

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