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Great Managers Matter Now More Than Ever

Skilled management can make or break one’s ability to be successful.

Key points

  • Management matters for the organizational bottom line and for individual well-being and engagement.
  • As 1.6 million college grads enter the workforce for the first time, effective management is critical to their success.
  • Emerging from a global pandemic means great managers matter more than ever before.
Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash
Man and woman high-five over a desk.
Source: Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

Roughly two million people earn bachelor's degrees each year (with another million earning their associate's degrees).

While it’s still too early to calculate for 2021 grads, Pew Research has determined that the percentage of college graduates entering the labor force in 2020 at 79 percent (down from 86 percent the previous year, which is another topic). This means that close to 1.6 million young people started their professional lives last year. In a good year, this transition point is challenging, as many young people lack the tools and knowledge of how to show up and be successful at work and in their lives. And, of course, it hasn’t been a good year. They have been stuck trying to figure out work, relationships, organizational politics, and what it means to be successful during a global pandemic.

We put a lot of emphasis on leadership within organizations, getting the right leader(s) in place, and thinking about effective leadership qualities. In recent years, the term “thought leadership” has become popular to describe one’s ability to get in front of trends and issues and move industries forward. We extol the virtues of visionary leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and transparent leadership. I, personally, value a model of mentor leadership and try to incorporate it into my daily practice.

While great leaders might inspire people with a compelling vision, it is the manager who helps their people understand how their work fits into that vision, what will be expected of them in their roles, how they will be held accountable for their work and ensures that they have the tools and resources they need to be successful. In her wonderful book, The Making of a Manager, Julie Zhuo makes the distinction between management and leadership thusly: management is a specific role, whereas leadership “is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people.” (p. 34).

Leadership, according to Zhuo, is a quality, and great managers certainly can and should be leaders. But ultimately, the work of management is concerned with three things: purpose, people, and process. The purpose is the why, the outcome the team is trying to accomplish. People are the who, the members of the team, and the manager’s relationship with them. And, process is the how, the expectations for how the team works together. Great managers set and communicate a clear direction, build effective relationships with their people, and define and uphold measures for success.

When it comes to our people, their lives, and their abilities to be successful within organizations, it’s the manager that really matters. Sure, the leader sets the tone, the vision, and the direction. But it’s the manager who does the day-to-day work of executing on that tone, vision, and direction. It’s the manager who determines whether people are engaged or not. And when it comes to new professionals, in particular, the effectiveness of their manager can make or break the start of their professional lives. In today’s organizations, and especially in this not-yet-post-pandemic moment, great management matters more than ever.

Great Managers Create Engaged Teams

An internal study by Google found that “Teams with great managers were happier and more productive.” Their research identified ten qualities of great managers, ranging from being a great coach to creating an inclusive team environment to supporting career development to being a good communicator and decision-maker.

Gallup has spent years studying what great managers do and determined that “Managers account for at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement scores across business units,” which ultimately impacts the bottom line: “When companies can increase their number of talented managers and double the rate of engaged employees, they achieve, on average, 147 percent higher earnings per share than their competition.”

What should organizations look for in great managers? Five things, according to Gallup:

  1. They motivate every single employee to take action and engage employees with a compelling mission and vision.
  2. They have the assertiveness to drive outcomes and the ability to overcome adversity and resistance.
  3. They create a culture of clear accountability.
  4. They build relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and full transparency.
  5. They make decisions based on productivity, not politics.

McKinsey has found that “relationships with management are the top factor in employees’ job satisfaction, which in turn is the second most important determinant of employees’ overall well-being” (second only to mental health).

And, at the same time, 75 percent of those surveyed in a recent study “said that the most stressful aspect of their job was their immediate boss. And those describing very bad and quite bad relationships with management reported substantially lower job satisfaction than those with very good and quite good relationships.”

The bottom line? Management matters. It matters for the organizational bottom line and for individual well-being and engagement (which ultimately impacts the bottom line).

Certainly, great management always matters, but especially now, when we are living (and working) in the midst of so much change, uncertainty, and chaos, the ability of individuals to be successful, to feel connected to their work, to feel safe and cared for and like they matter will depend upon the quality of their management. And, as we know, people are no longer going to just sit quietly and take it if they aren’t getting the management they need and deserve. And for this population of new graduates entering the workforce for the first time, they must be supported by skilled and effective management, who can help them navigate this transition, figure out work, and learn how to be successful there.

Strategies Great Managers Use

If you are a manager, you can use four key strategies to do this work well.

  • Talk about the why. Organizations spend too much time talking about mission, vision, and values as marketing terms and not enough time talking about the why behind the work. Every single person on your team should know why the work matters. And, they should know how their role contributes to that why. If they don’t know why their work matters, it won’t be long before they stop caring about the work. Talk about the why. Be clear and consistent with your messaging, not as a marketing tool but as a people engagement strategy.
  • Get to know your people as people. Just because you manage a team, it doesn’t mean that you can manage everyone the same way. Teams are made up of individuals, and those individuals have lives, interests, strengths, and challenges that affect how they show up to work every day. Getting to know your people–as people–means caring about who they are, asking questions, listening, and learning. How do your people want to grow this year? What is preventing them from being successful? What are their short and long-term career and life goals? How can you be helpful? Management is a relationship, and relationships always start with a conversation.
  • Set goals and check in regularly. Do the people on your team know what they should be working on? Can they connect their goals to the why of the organization? Do they have stretch goals that will help them to learn and to grow? Goal-setting is the work of management. It should happen at least twice a year, if not more frequently. Goals set direction and clarify priorities. Once you and your team members have set goals, schedule regular one-on-one meetings to discuss their progress, give feedback, and listen.
  • Communicate and uphold clear expectations. Lack of clearly communicated expectations is one of the biggest problems in any relationship, personally or professionally. As a manager, it’s your job to tell people what you need, what you expect of them and provide accountability for those expectations. Giving people what they need to be successful in their roles includes giving them the information they need. Work shouldn’t be a puzzle for people to figure out. It’s your job to make sure they have all the pieces, a clear picture for success, and the ability to get the job done. Then you get out of the way and let them do the work they were hired to do.


Zhuo, J. (2019). The Making of a Manager. NY: Portfolio/Penguin.