Basic Skills, Traits, and Competencies of a Manager

18 min read

In India, being a Manager is highly valued. A majority of people see themselves taking a managerial position some day. However, can anyone become a manager? A really good manager? Are managers born or made? Do all managers, at least all good managers, share something in common?

When we look around and see the journeys being taken by different managers, their working styles and behaviors, we can hypothesize that:

  • Managers are born and made. Some folks have a natural flair to be a manager and some acquire essential skills to be a manager in a given situation.
  • Not everyone may enjoy being a manager. While you may be ‘promoted’ to become a manager, you may find that you don’t really enjoy the time spent talking to people, driving them to results, and compiling status reports for your management.
  • It appears that good managers do have many things in common, even though they may have their own style of execution.

In this article by Rahul Goyal author of Management in India: Grow from an Accidental to a Successful Manager in the IT & Knowledge Industry , we will explore the skills, traits, talents, and competencies that are usually required and expected for playing a manager role, and also burst some myths surrounding managers.

(For more resources on management, see here.)

Skills, traits, talents, and competencies

We all have heard these terms. Let’s try to understand what they mean and how they are different or similar to each other.


Skill is defined as the ability or capacity to do something, acquired through specific training.

Skills are learned abilities. Technically, anybody can take a course in a specific subject and acquire that skill. Of course, the person should have the aptitude to learn those skills.

Developing skills does not need to be in a formally-structured or schooled way. Babies develop motor skills as a natural process of learning. People develop communication skills, which are part formal learning and part informal learning.

How well somebody can translate that acquired ability, that is, skill, goes beyond the definition of skill.

In order to be an engineer, you need to acquire the engineering skills, or in order to become a chef, you need to acquire cooking skills. This alone will not make you a good chef or an engineer.


Traits are at the other end of the spectrum. Traits are personal. Traits are often linked to a person’s character. Being shy is a trait. Some people are introverts and others are extroverts.

Traits determine your response or behavior in a wide variety of situations. Some people are fearless by nature and others are cautious. Traits are often described in pairs of opposing behaviors; for example, extrovert-introvert and honest-dishonest.

Many people consider traits to be innate, and that can definitely be true. However, it is not always true. There are traits that people develop by their upbringing and the environment they live in. As people progress through life they acquire new traits or modify ones they already have; these are called learned traits. Also, people display contradictory traits, so an honest person can become dishonest and vice versa.


Talent is an oft-used word in business today. A pure definition of talent from Webster’s Dictionary (1913) is as follows: Intellectual ability, natural or acquired; mental endowment or capacity; skill in accomplishing; a special gift, particularly in business, art, or the like; faculty.

It sounds like a lot of things, but the key phrases are intellectual, natural, and skill in accomplishing. Talents are supposed to be God’s gift to you being applied to a specific craft or job. Specific application is the key phrase here.


It is very possible that Yuvraj Singh could have become a successful soccer player had he chosen to pursue that. Anyway, we are all glad that he chose cricket.

Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, is an excellent golfer now and he tried his hand at professional baseball as well. Both Yuvraj and Jordan have most certainly a combination of different talents, such as physical stamina, focus, and discipline, which when applied to a particular sport created a great performance.


Competencies are behaviors an employee displays in order to translate the knowledge and skills and leverage the traits to deliver a performance on the job.

Competencies are related to a given job function. Hence different jobs will require different competencies. An offshore software engineer needs to have the necessary technical skills to write the code and written and verbal communication skills to effectively communicate across the world, among others. In this case, the communication competency is highly valuable, given the offshore nature of the work.

If the job description changes to that of a software engineer working as a database administrator, a slightly different set of competencies apply. While related technical skills are very important, in this case, expertise will be desired given the fact that databases are critical to the business and scope for errors is less. Communication competencies are always required but basic communication may be enough for this function. However, a meticulous attitude and handling high levels of stress will be important, given the requirement criticality of the infrastructure.

Competencies are the application of all that we know and can do. Almost all employers describe a job function in terms of competencies and results required. Also, almost all employee appraisal forms will attempt to grade people in terms of competencies on some scale. For example, a competency of ‘Result Orientation’ may be measured on a scale of 1 through 5, and an appraiser may be advised to comment on the reasons behind the rating.

Top skills, traits, and competencies expected of a manager

Let’s look at some key skills, traits, and competencies that are expected of a good manager.

Love of working with people

Most managers will spend a majority of their time managing people, and everything that is connected with people, even more so in the knowledge industry.

Do you find yourself talking to people all the time? Do people tend to bring their problems to you? And when they do so, do you see it as adding value to finding a solution, or do you see that as a headache which you shouldn’t have to deal with?

If you find satisfaction in just being with people and helping them achieve their results, you have a primary quality to be a manager.

Going to parties and having a good time with people also displays that you love being around people and surely shows your love for food or drink, but not the essential part of helping people achieve their goals.

Although all interactions count, including phone conversations, e-mail, or Instant Messenger, it’s the face time that has the most impact. If you’d rather spend your time in your own office by yourself, perhaps a manager role isn’t for you.

You can, of course, force yourself to spend time with people as part of the job requirement, but unless you really enjoy that time, it will be hard to sustain and excel as a manager. You may end up limiting your interactions to a select few, where comfort levels are high, at the risk of alienating others.

Global managers today get less and less face time with some of their team members, sometimes as little as 12 hours in the entire working year. Without the love of working with people, the interaction with remote workers can really become difficult, as it’ll take an extra effort to be connected at a deeper level than just work.

If you like to work with people, you are likely to be high on empathy. When people approach you with a problem, you may feel the problem to be your own. Even before the person tells you there’s a problem, you already know there is a problem by the look on his/her face, the voice, and the body language. Your body language will be inviting and welcoming. While the person describes their problem to you, you listen intently and non-judgmentally, even supporting them so that he/she is encouraged to open up. If you are high on empathy, you may also have a feel of what kind of suggestion will work with this person and how it should be put across. You follow up and when you see the person getting over the problem you feel a sense of satisfaction.

Empathy also helps in understanding and working in a diverse environment, for example, working with people who grew up culturally different from you. Especially in India, there is a high degree of diversity with people from different backgrounds, and also while the working population is highly skewed towards men, women have a growing presence, especially in the knowledge industry.

Please note that a manager doesn’t have to be an extrovert to love working with people. Extroversion is often equated with being outgoing, and that isn’t the same as having a love of working with people.

Myth: nice manager

Sometimes managers wish to be seen as popular, someone who everyone wants to work for. A nice manager, who listens to his people and rarely says no to anything, be it taking vacations or a promotion. Being a people person doesn’t mean being nice all the time. While being a people person is a great thing, usual business rules still apply. A good manager balances the priorities of the people and business and can be nice and tough at the same time.

Easy to approach

While you may love to work with people, the people around you should also love to work with you, and a measure of that is the number of people who feel comfortable coming up and talking to you.

A non-threatening, if not friendly, demeanor would certainly help. But even more important is the rest of the interaction that will follow. Do people come to you for problem solving and leave with more problems to solve? Do they come to you to share the overload of work and leave with more work to do? Is there a fair give and take in your interactions with people?

Myth: I’m easy to approach, I have an open door policy

Approachability is not to be confused with accessibility. Accessibility is a measure of the number of channels and the time you are accessible to others. Today, channels of accessibility are hardly an issue, given the multiple modes of contact, including Instant Messengers. Time availability will always remain an issue and you’ll have to consciously make time for people. Approachability isn’t the same as availability or an open door policy. Your approachability is defined by the way you respond to people’s attempts to get in touch with you. Do you respond quickly and positively, or do you buzz them off for a few days? Do you have a friendly disposition towards people? Do you let people speak? Do you listen to what they have to say before responding? All of these define the degree of approachability you exhibit.

Farmer mentality: sow, nurture, grow, reap

There are thousands of types of jobs, but none of them is as involved, as complete, and perhaps as spiritual as farming. It requires hard work, investment, belief, knowledge, teamwork, patience, faith, ownership, and a sense of creativity. And of course, the elements of risk, especially in India where farmers still depend on the monsoon.

Farmers go through a cycle of preparation, investment, nurturing, protection, seeing it grow, and then enjoying the benefits of all the effort. They go through this year after year and while they make it better every cycle, they take the losses when decisions go bad. Nevertheless, the basic approach remains the same.

Managers need to develop the traits of a farmer. You need to have a sense of preparation and investment, since it’s the most basic, key part of the process and then wait while nurturing and supporting for the benefits to roll in. This needs to be done with every person, process, and project.

Myth: fast moving managers—in a tearing hurry

Some people believe that a hotshot manager is always juggling many tasks and pushes everyone to move faster, but that simply isn’t true. Most exceptional managers have a farmer mentality.

Farmers are always required to be patient. You can’t push certain processes to be faster than the natural cycle. You can help and catalyze, but improvements are usually marginal and need to be evaluated for the long term. Too much of anything, even the catalyst, can yield bad results. Managers also need to be patient and respect the personal growth cycle for each individual and for different processes. Managers can help catalyze the process but need to allow the cycle to take it’s own course. Once a growth or improvement cycle is over, the next growth cycle can start.

Core values: honesty, integrity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, consideration for others, and more

There is no substitute for core values like honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. These are very important for any employee in general, and are even more important for managers, as managers have a high impact on people and processes.

There will be many challenges that will come a manager’s way and many decisions that managers need to make. Core values will be a guide in all of these. Many questions cannot be answered by looking at the rulebook, but very easily answered by using the value system yardstick. There will be lots of opportunities for a manager to make quick gains, by using a shortcut and possibly lowering the value standard. This would usually be impossible to sustain, and will come back to haunt you in the longer term.

Consider this: Vijay comes to his manager’s office and expresses the monetary problems he is facing. He is a good contributor and quite important to the current project. Vijay mentions that he has an offer for about 30 percent more than what he makes right now and although he likes the company, he’d like to resign. The manager’s options are to relieve him in a month’s time or promise him more than 30 percent in a few months’ time when the annual salary revision is due. The manager knows that it may not really be possible to give Vijay 30 percent because the expected budget may not allow that; however, Vijay may stay until then and the project will be past the critical stage. At the same time, the manager is not breaking any rules, as he is fine with giving Vijay a 30 percent raise if the budget is available, plus the manager can always say that upper management rejected the change.

Even simpler situations such as taking a day off for being sick while you are really not or using the official network and resources to watch adult material or taking office stationary home are all situations which call for basic values to be applied.

Values are the foundation of good behavior and nothing less is expected from a leader.

Not a myth: corporate greed

The recent financial crisis the world underwent is a grim reminder of corporate greed, which of course is a result of a few individuals propagating a culture of greed through the system. Poor governance and integrity standards have led to many a scandal with dire consequences. Satyam in India or Worldcom in the US have cost thousands of jobs and the loss of credibility for the entire industry.

Tolerance for ambiguity and patience

We all know: the better the map, the easier it is to follow, but unfortunately the working map in an organization is not always clear. Sometimes the destination is not clear and there are multiple ways to get there and also, there are too many detours. You’d be lucky if the map does not change half way through. It would be great if the directions to follow were clear, but who is supposed to make it clear and easy to follow? A manager needs to deal with this ambiguity—find the best way given all the other factors.

Ambiguity is the order of today’s knowledge industry. A lot of things are fuzzy and need definition. It takes time to remove some of the fuzziness, and a manager needs to deal with it. It will require tolerance for fuzziness and patience to figure it out.

Some people are pre-disposed to display patience, and others can learn to be patient. Patience defines the quality of your daily interactions, your responses, and some people believe, your respect towards others’ opinions. Simple day-to-day necessity, like good communication, requires you to be patient. Patient people wait for others to complete their thoughts so they can take the time to respond well and with complete information.

Good communication skills—especially listening

Communication is the bread and butter for a manager. There is a lot of information which needs to be processed and communicated by a manager in all directions, to his directs and beyond, to his management chain, and also to many other parallel groups.

Communication is NOT smooth talking. Many people confuse good communication with fast talking or smooth talking, where one person dominates a discussion and the other party.

Good communication is not a love of talking. A rather quiet person, who can listen to others and respond with clarity, is a much more powerful communicator than somebody who simply loves to talk.

Communication includes all forms of communication, the usual written communication such as e-mail and formal memos, letters, and so on. New age communication such as SMS, Instant messaging, and so on, and verbal communication, via phone or video conference and with the person face-to-face.

Body language is also part of communication, although it’s becoming less of a factor given that a majority of communication is not face-to-face anymore. Even people who sit half a floor away communicate via e-mail or IM. The tone of your voice over phone or tone of your instant message plays an important part in perception of the message.

Good communication skills also include understanding your audience and communication in such a way that the audience can understand and communicate back to you. As such, your communication style will change a little based on the audience it’s intended for.

Finally, the single biggest factor in good communication is listening. Unfortunately, the importance of listening gets lost very often and a large population of people suffer from a lack of listening.

Especially in India, people tend to cut into a discussion or start talking before the other person has finished, and perhaps get impatient to answer with the assumption that they know what the other person is talking about. Indian managers do need to work twice as hard to develop good listening skills.

Myth: quiet people can’t be managers

Many people believe that managers are people who stand up and speak at every opportunity. It’s not uncommon to see meetings where the manager takes all the talking time with very little being said by anyone else.

Remember the term talkative. The term instantaneously takes us back to middle school, when kids who would talk too much in the class were called talkative. It’s often believed that managers need to be talkative. At every opportunity they get, they talk. It is indeed true that a large number of managers tend to talk too much, and unfortunately the problem grows over the years. Over time, people tend to avoid managers who ramble.

You can be a quiet person as such, and as long as you don’t shy away from speaking when it is required, quietness will be a strength. I have been fortunate to meet a lot of highly successful managers, who are quiet by usual standards but have an impeccable record of delivery and team management.

Team building—hiring, retaining, developing good people, and nurturing team spirit

Another key competency for a manager is to be able to build teams. Although, at a literal level, a team is made up of a set of people, in reality a team isn’t really a team without the binding glue called team spirit. A manager is as good as the team he/ she builds. A manager’s capacity and ability to deliver is equal to the capacity and ability of the team.

To start with, building teams requires good hiring skills. It requires:

  • Position identification.
  • Defining skill requirements for the position.
  • Defining the process for identification and skills testing. Most organizations will have a pre-defined process and supporting team to do this.
  • Look for fitment.
  • Deciding appropriate compensation.
  • Following required organizational process for completing the hiring process.

Besides having a team, it is important to configure a team. For example, a team of 10 people may need to be balanced in terms of experience, youth and freshness, and a variety of technical skills.

A team needs to have defined positions and each team member should know what role and position he/she is supposed to play.

Finally, a manager needs to create an environment to foster team spirit and bonding, so that a set of people works as a team and not as multiple individuals.

Once a team is in place, a manager needs to constantly nurture the team and also the individuals. Most people love to work in a team, but they are individuals too and have unique needs and aspirations. This will lead to better retention, which is a definite success criterion for a manager in today’s knowledge industry.


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