The 3 Skills You Need to Be a Great Manager

Published by 5280 HR on

There are 3 skills needed to be a great manager. Most likely you are already on track with cognitive and technical skills. Interpersonal skills are typically where people struggle.

Take a minute and think about the most inspiring manager you have worked for. Once you have a person in mind, take a minute and write down 5 traits that you admire about that person. Did you do that? If not, take a minute to write them down before you continue.

For me, that would be an easy answer. When I was still early in my career, I worked for a gentleman named Brandt. Brandt was a straight-shooter. He was honest. I could trust him to be fair and give me good advice. He shared what was going on at higher levels. Brandt taught me how to be BOTH an employer and an employee advocate. Most importantly though, I knew that he cared about me.

Notice anything about my list? Most of the qualities I listed for Brandt are related to his interpersonal skills. Look at your own list. Does anything stand out to you?

Most people get promoted because they are the person on their team that is best at what they do. But we all know that resting on your laurels will only get you so far. To be successful as a manager, you need to be equally good at 3 different types of skills:

  • Cognitive
  • Technical
  • Interpersonal

Today we are going to take a look at these skills and define them. Then, I’m going to give you some suggestions on how you can improve in these areas. Finally, I am going to give you some practical insight from my 20+ years of experience working as an HR Professional and Executive Coach.

Cognitive Skills


Cognition is about thinking. A person with strong cognition processes information quickly. They are able to synthesize information and recognize patterns. They have a strong working memory. In short, they are able to interpret and analyze the world around them. They use this information to help their decision making. They can also see the big picture which helps in strategic planning. 

In strong organizations, having good cognitive skills is part of the price of admission to management. If you need to develop this skill, here are some simple things you can do to strengthen that muscle:

  • Focus – As you are reading something, absorb the material. What does it mean? What are the implications?
  • Problem-solve – When you encounter a problem, don’t just come up with one solution. Instead, brainstorm and come up with 3-4 scenarios to choose from. Likely, when all is said and done, the best option will be a hybrid of a few of your ideas.
  • Observe – Pay attention and be curious. Listen to not only what someone is saying, but also listen for the things they are NOT saying. What are they leaving out and why? What does your intuition tell you? 

Technical Skills

Technical skills are about a person’s expertise. Often times people get promoted because they are the best [finance, human resources, marketing, sales, etc.] professional. Think about your current manager. Were they the best at their role before they got promoted?

Being a subject matter expert is also part of the price of admission to management in most well-run organizations. If you are not seen as a technical expert in your field, here are a few things you can do to fill in gaps:

  • Get certified. Certifications provide credibility and distinction. Research the most well-respected certification for your profession and go after that designation. Many companies will help you with the cost of the certification if it benefits them AND you pass the exam. Be sure to ask your manager for input and ask your employer if they can help subsidize the cost.
  • Ask for experience and exposure. You can’t become a technical expert in something by sitting on the sidelines. Take initiative and ask your boss for assignments that will help you shore up any areas where you need experience.

Interpersonal Skills

It’s probably not a surprise, but strong interpersonal skills are the secret sauce behind great managers. Your cognitive and technical skills are likely what helped you get promoted, but to rise to the top you must have strong interpersonal skills.

One of the more interesting studies done about great managers is Google’s Project Oxygen, which compiled over a decade of data about Google’s highest performing teams. The findings, which are discussed in this Inc. article, point heavily toward the soft skills.

If you need a place to start as you work on your interpersonal skills, here are a few suggestions:

  • First, find out where you stand. Ask for the hard feedback from your peers, manager and direct reports. Let them know you want to improve on your interpersonal skills, but you need to know where to focus. And by all means, do not retaliate against anyone for telling you something you don’t want to hear.
  • Next, find an accountability partner. This is someone who is going to give you feedback in the moment. Let them know what you are working on and then solicit their feedback often. For example, if you are working on communication, ask whether or not you listened and shared information readily immediately after walking out of a team meeting you both attended.
  • Create a way to keep what you are working on top of mind. This can be as simple as a unique screen saver or post-it note to remind you of your goal.

Practical Advice on Developing Managerial Skills


It takes a good balance of all 3 skills to be a successful manager:  cognitive; technical; and interpersonal. However, if you are already a manager but have limited time, I would suggest starting with interpersonal skills. After all, your cognitive and technical skills are probably what helped land you the role.

I can tell you the things that make people leave – or things that make them want to leave – often involve their manager’s interpersonal skills.  Remember the statement, “People don’t quit companies, they quit managers.” This widely rings true based on hundreds of conversations I have had during employee exit interviews. Here are some of the common things I routinely hear:

  • My manager micro-manages me.
  • My manager says one thing and does another.
  • My manager shows favoritism towards certain employees.
  • My manager doesn’t hold everyone to the same standard.
  • My manager doesn’t communicate well.
  • My manager doesn’t share important information with me that I need to do my job.
  • My manager doesn’t create a [psychologically] safe environment.

On the flip side, here’s what I hear from people during job interviews about what they are looking for in their next employer:

  • A workplace where I can trust and am trusted.
  • Good communication from my manager and the leadership.
  • Freedom and autonomy to do my job. Do not want to work for a micro-manager.
  • A workplace where they have my back and I have theirs.

Notice a theme here?  These are all related to interpersonal skills. This is why I advise you to start here

In summary, being a great manager doesn’t have to be hard. Simply break it down into these 3 areas. Get feedback from your peers, manager and direct reports and start making continuous improvements today.

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