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Can You Learn to be a Great Manager? 

My column last month was titled, “Five Habits of Great Managers.” I always re-post my columns on social media and that column had by far the most views of any column I’ve ever written. In addition, I received a long list of emails about the topic. One of the most interesting questions I received was, “Can anyone learn to be a great manager?” I decided to make that the topic of this month’s column. 

I am fortunate to be on the faculty of the W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University. I am part of the Management department, teaching Entrepreneurship, International Management, Non-profit Management and general management courses. I make it a point to tell my students that I can’t teach them to be great managers, but I can tell them about my experiences and what I did.   

Early in my management career, I had an employee who was given a choice between resigning or seeking help. He came to my office and asked me to get into his truck with him so that we could talk. When I got into the truck, there was a gun sitting on the seat between the two of us. I explained to my students that no lecture or textbook can prepare you for that situation.   


Does a Management Degree Make You a Manager? 


Management and managing employees are not academic exercises. I’ve never pulled out Maslow’s Hierarchy Pyramid and sat down with an unhappy employee to show where that person lined up on the chart and why he or she was feel the way he or she was feeling. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of getting a college degree. The vast majority of open positions on Indeed and LinkedIn all require a college degree. But don’t think for a minute that getting a degree, even a management degree, will qualify you to be a manager. No theory that I discuss in lectures or group projects prepares you for the employee who is holding a gun.   

Even less life threatening situations, like telling an employee that he or she has a personal hygiene issue or having an employee tell you there has been a death in the family, are challenging situations for any manager. We don’t teach students how to handle these, nor, in my opinion, is it possible. 


Two Requirements for Becoming a Great Manager 


Looking back on my nearly 40-year business career, which involved organizations with as many as 500 employees, there are two requirements that stand out: the ability to observe and the ability to care.  

First, the easy part. As you go about your day, observe everyone in management. See what they do and how they treat their employees. Notice how managers behave during stressful times, during easy times. Watch both the bad ones and the good ones. You will learn equally from both.  

I once worked for a CEO who, when he was angry, would cuss up a storm, throw things and even punched a hole in the conference room wall one time. Based on the reaction from his team, I made a mental note to myself to never swear in front of my team, never lose my temper and never throw things around. If you ever get a chance to talk to anyone who was ever part of my organizations, they will tell you I never, ever lost my temper or swore, and never needed to patch any holes. 

The tough requirement is truly caring. Do you really care about your employees to the point that you will put them ahead of yourself ? Do you take it as a personal challenge to make sure each and every one of your employees is more successful than you? When your employee comes to you and says he or she needs to leave early to take a child to the doctor, do you respond that you didn’t even know that person had children? 

In my opinion, no one can teach you to care. But there are lots of jobs out there that don’t require you to be a manager, and I know lots of successful people who don’t manage people and are perfectly happy. My advice to you is to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself if you want to be a manager because you truly care, or for some other reason like money, ego, attention, power, etc.   

Managing others is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. If your motivation is anything other than truly caring about others and wanting them to succeed, please steer your career to that of an individual contributor. Every employee deserves to be managed by someone who really cares. FBN 


By T. Paul Thomas 


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