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What Makes a Great Manager?

There is no shortage of movies featuring examples of bad bosses. Every film from Office Space to The Devil Wears Prada to (the aptly named) Horrible Bosses showcases what management looks like at its worst.

Hopefully, you’ve had the pleasure of having an awesome boss. We often learn from experience, so reflecting on what made them great can help you in future roles.

Ask yourself

  1. What do you remember fondly about your best manager?

  2. What did they do differently than other managers you've had?

  3. What advice would you give to a new manager?

What does being a great manager really look like?

I’ve wrestled with this question for years. In fact, it’s the penultimate question I felt I needed to answer before creating my Training for the Modern Manager program. I refused to build a foundational management training program without understanding what expectations organizations should have for their managers in the first place.

What Google Learned From Firing All Their Managers

In my research, I came across Google’s Project Oxygen and their extensive research on what makes someone a great manager. While I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve heard of Google, it’s very likely this is the first time you’re hearing about Project Oxygen. Gather round, and let me tell you a tale of a time when Google thought it didn’t need managers. In fact, they were so sure, they got rid of them all together…

Do we really need managers?

The year was 2002 and many in leadership at Google held the belief that managers were at best, a necessary evil, and at worst, a layer of bureaucracy. So they set out to prove they didn’t need managers - by getting rid of them altogether. The short version is, it didn’t go well. It only took a few short months for them to deem the experiment a failure and reintroduce management throughout the company. Point proven, right? Wrong.

Undeterred, in 2008 a team of Google researchers set out to prove what some still suspected - that managers don’t matter. This time, their quantitative research quickly found the opposite – teams with great managers were happier and more productive. There was no arguing with the data. Managers were in. However, it still didn’t explain what made managers great. So they got to work answering that exact question through qualitative research. They even did a double-blind study of the best and worst managers to find illustrative examples of what these two groups were doing differently. If you (like me) nerd out on research study details, I highly recommend this NYT article.

So what did Google uncover through all this research?

What resulted was a list of 10 attributes that were consistently demonstrated by the managers who ranked highest with their teams.

A great manager is…

  • A good coach

  • Empowers their team and does not micromanage

  • Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being

  • Is productive and results-oriented

  • Is a good communicator - listens and shares information

  • Supports career development and discusses performance

  • Has a clear vision/strategy for the team

  • Has key technical skills to help advise the team

  • Collaborates across the organization

  • Is a strong decision maker

These ten behavioral attributes would become the foundation for Want to Work There's management training program. I knew that if I could provide support for modern managers in each of these areas, they would be well-equipped to navigate the challenges of leading a team.

Should every team adopt these competencies?

You could certainly argue that every organization should populate their own list of core attributes, but in my experience most won’t take the time (or get close to investing the resources Google did) to define what those are.

So the decision becomes: do we wait to develop our own list or use the one Google painstakingly created through data-driven research?

Using Google’s framework, the questions then become:

  • How do we roll out these new core competencies?

  • How do we provide the necessary training to ensure our managers are set up for success?

  • How can we hold our managers accountable to upholding the behaviors?

Luckily, I’ve built just the program for that. If you’re interested in learning more about Training for the Modern Manager, you can download the program overview deck or schedule time to talk with me. Regardless, you now have a very reputable study to point to should anyone on your leadership team question the necessity of managers. The truth is, it’s one of the hardest jobs within any organization. Managers are sandwiched between leadership's expectations and the realities faced by their team - the people who are actually doing the work! It’s a balancing act that takes empathy, perseverance, and exceptional listening skills. I (for one) am incredibly passionate about getting them all the support we can!

Take the Self-Assessment: Are You a Great Manager?

Everyone who participates in Training for the Modern Manager takes a self-assessment at both the beginning and end of the program. It’s a chance to reflect on what areas of the training could be most helpful and then look back on how far they’ve come. Now it’s your turn! Download this editable PDF version of the assessment and use it as a personal reflection tool. Note the areas that emerge as strengths and those that are opportunities for growth. Both are equally important to understand.

For Multiple Managers

Curious how your larger management team would respond? We recommend using the assessment questions to create a short survey you can distribute to the team.

That said, this practice comes with two strong caveats:
  1. Don’t send the survey unless you’ve already built some psychological safety among your management team. This survey should be seen as a learning opportunity rather than an evaluation. We strongly recommend educating them about Project Oxygen before sending it and making the responses anonymous.

  2. Don’t send the survey unless you’re planning to provide training and support afterward. Whether that’s exploring my program or finding competency-specific training resources, you should not distribute the survey unless you’re committed to helping up-skill your team based on the results.

Want to chat about your results? Feel free to reach out and grab time on my calendar.

A woman in gray jeans sits on a turquoise chair and rests a coffee cup on her knee that says World's Best Boss. What does it take to be a great manager?

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