How to become a brilliant manager (and why it’s important)

I recently facilitated a workshop for a group of middle and senior managers, as part of a management development programme. One of the activities saw the group explore what it means to be a brilliant manager and off the back of that, one of the participants pondered if the characteristics they’d come up with were actually leadership and not management. This then led to a discussion about whether it would be better to refer to the programme as a leadership development programme, rather than a management programme.

I was intrigued and I’ll admit it touched a bit of a nerve. It was and is heartening to see the very deliberate approach this particular client has taken to spend time and money on getting the foundation stones of management in a strong place. Yet I suspect that not everyone is quite brought in because of the emphasis on ‘management’.

As Tom Peters says in his new book The Excellence Dividend,

“With brand-new threats and opportunities, there may be challenging questions about the nature of the training, but there can be no questions whatsoever about its importance”

My passion is managers. That forgotten middle. And once again, I was encountering an issue I come across with clients and students – the tendency to focus on leadership at the expense of management. Leadership is sexy. Leadership is cool. Leadership is where it’s at.


Management is, in my experience, very rarely seen as those things. If it was a colour it would be seen as brown or grey. Tedious. Boring. Something to grin and bear. Something that gets in the way. Someone to circumvent.

But it needn’t be that way. Hey, if Gareth Southgate can be called a ‘manager’ and wear that badge with pride (along with a very natty waistcoat), then why can’t you?

I firmly believe you need both in an organisation to provide some kind of balance. In fact, I always refer to them as being a venn diagram. While there are distinct differences and responsibilities between the roles, there are some areas of overlap too such as strategic thinking.

They also play a massive role in organisational change. Those who know me well will have heard me wax lyrical about how middle managers can make change very easy or, as is often the case, very difficult. At the heart of this is communication and a manager’s readiness, willingness and ability to communicate to their staff about changes they may not necessarily have bought in to themselves.

As Wee and Taylor said in their 2018 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology,

“Manager role in sense-making is not about dictating how emergent changes should roll out, more about reframing for the rest of the organization in a way that is helpful for other parts of the organization”

Why developing your management muscle is important


You might be a long-serving, highly experienced manager. This doesn’t mean you can take your foot off the pedal. There is always room for learning and improvement at any stage in your management career.

Or you might be a new manager. Freshly pressed. Brand new and shiny… and feeling nervous and maybe out of your depth.

Or you might be somewhere in the middle.

It doesn’t matter. You still need to keep on developing. Just as you can lose fitness and muscle mass if you stop exercising, it’s the same if you simply stop developing your management skill and style.

Here are the three key issues I consistently see when managers believe they are fully developed (but actually still lack certain key competencies) or where they’ve received no development at all:

  1. High levels of conflict in the team and/or conflict with teams in other parts of the organisation.
  2. Poorly delivered change programmes or restructures which result in plummeting motivation and rising costs.
  3. Patchy levels of engagement, energy and commitment from team members which, in turn, impacts performance.

These three things cost money, time and angst.

Many a manager I’ve worked with has talked about having sleepless results caused by a bad relationship with a member (or two) of staff. Or they’ve talked about their stress levels getting raised as a result of not getting any engagement or feedback from their team members on important projects. As Calvo and Garcia state in their excellent paper on developing hardiness in managers,

“…the stressful nature of the middle manager’s role could have negative consequences on their physical and mental health as well as on the proper performance of their work”

This has a ripple effect. Something noted by Peter Cheese, the chief executive of CIPD, in the May 2018 edition of People Management magazine,

“Over-stressed managers will not be focused on best managing their teams and will pass that stress down”

Management development matters. And continuously developing your management skill, style and sophistication matters even more.

How you can develop your management brilliance


These are some of the tactics that managers I’ve worked with over the years have found worked for them and took their management to greater heights. For many, it opened the doors to other opportunities that might not have happened otherwise.

Ask others what they think of you as a manager: It starts with your self-awareness, your levels of which may ebb and flow as you move roles. This is why it’s vital you find out what others think of your management style. You can do this through something like 360-degree feedback. In my experience, this is best done with a neutral facilitator. Someone who can help you make sense of the patterns, as well as give you a good balance of support and challenge. As Adam Grant said on an edition of his podcast,

“It’s always wise to pay attention to the wake you create”

Use feedback to develop your own action plan: Once you have some information on how others perceive you, and how this fits or not with your own self-perception, you can then set about creating your own development plan. Some people like to do this on their own, although it can be helpful to bounce your ideas off others.

Get yourself a buddy: When I was a middle and then senior manager in a large, public sector organisation, I survived because I had a buddy. Well, I had a few. A buddy is your peer level, someone who understands the context you’re working in and who can offer wise counsel. It’s really important you trust whoever your buddy is. It’s also important that they tell you things straight. This is not about having a mutual love-in (although sometimes that’s nice on those days where confidence can wobble).

Get yourself a coach: I would say this wouldn’t I? But it’s true. A coach can help you get perspective, as well as help you go deep on things where you might be getting in your own way as a manager. Ventaka Nanduri recently wrote about how behaviour change was sustained following coaching. He found the long-term effects of coaching to be:

  • Increased self-awareness;
  • Sustained behavioural changes;
  • Setting clear goals and actions;
  • Improvements in performance;
  • Better confidence and motivational ability; and
  • Increased self-belief

Read, watch, share and discuss: One group of managers I’ve been working with recently have set up their own book club. They meet up for lunch once a month and talk about the book, podcast, TED talk or management/business magazine they agreed to focus on that month. Another management team set created an online community of practice where they shared and discussed articles, interesting videos and ideas on management. And one manager I’ve been working with writes a blog for her team where she shares things she’s learned that month.

Shadow someone you think is a great manager: If there’s a great manager in your organisation, someone who you’re impressed by, why not ask if you can spend some time with them? It can be incredibly powerful to observe a great manager with their team. Approach it as an anthropologist, making notes on what you observe. What works? What do they do differently to you? What do they do that’s similar that you might be able to build on?

And if there isn’t a great manager in your organisation, what about outside? This is where your network can come in useful.

Offer to run sessions to support your organisation’s management development approach: Learning by teaching others a great way to embed new skills, techniques and knowledge. On top of this, it’s a way to hone your communication, creativity and presentation skills. It also helps to position you as being more than a middle-manager. Here your showing that you can be a mentor and coach for others in the organisation.

Now it’s over to you. What steps are you taking in order to be a brilliant manager (and remain one)?

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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  1. I’ve recently become a new manager and it’s nice to see that the majority of your steps I’ve put in place. It’s still not easy!

    I’ve only been in the position a couple of months but my aim for the next quarter is to get clear unit objectives so my team know what is expected and surround myself with a network of people I believe are great managers. So far it’s lovely to see how supportive everyone is. 🤞🤞


    1. Congratulations on the new role, Claire. Sounds like you’re off to a great start already as a manager. Key is to make sure you have the right kind of support for you – peers, mentors, a coach and network groups. Why not check out some of the sketchnotes and checklists on this website? They’re all designed to help managers. 🙂


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