Updated: Jan 2
by Kimberly A. Carlson
New Year’s resolutions this year look a little different for me. Six months ago, I transitioned from full-time teaching faculty to full-time administration at our university, so I made several new commitments to myself a while ago. Then, my focus was on work-life balance to free up time and mental capacity to exercise regularly and renew my interest in several hobbies that I haven’t had a chance to do in 10+ years. After six months, I can call those resolutions a success! As the calendar rotates to ’23, many friends have asked me what my new year’s resolutions are. My response is that, rather than personal resolutions, I plan to focus on Tractus and some of the goals we set for ourselves when we started two years ago. One of those goals is to explore the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs), or competencies, of managers. Our philosophy in Tractus is “Management as Tradecraft” – this year, I want to home in on what that tradecraft involves.
Management as Tradecraft
When we were first designing Tractus, Charity made a comment that she views management as a tradecraft. We both loved that idea and made it the motto for our company. Tradecraft is an old word that refers to the skills acquired through experience in a particular profession. In the 20th century, the term became affiliated with espionage. While we like to think of ourselves as intelligent, we prefer the original definition – developing skills over time through practicing and honing one’s craft. In our case, management is the craft we are pursuing.
So often, people in leadership roles falter because they haven’t been given the opportunity to develop the necessary management knowledge, skills, and abilities. We’ve seen it over and over again - employees and team members are trained in the work they do (and are widely successful at doing it). They are then promoted to a management role, and yet too many are not trained in how to lead others, which is usually a different set of KSAs than needed to do their previous work. Some managers take to the craft naturally, honing their skills right away; while it's great for those whose managers have this innate ability, it can make us believe that managing is easy (it isn't), anyone can do it (not true), and doesn't require additional KSAs (definitely not true). Those without this natural talent muddle through hoping that the decisions they are making lead to team success, or worse, fail to recognize that they don't (yet) have the skills they need. Unfortunately, the data shows that most common reasons people leave their jobs is tied directly to poor management. Muddling through just doesn’t work.
Tradecraft is about developing skills as one works through their profession over time. But many organizations and teams expect their managers to jump right in and manage well from the get-go, and so many managers find that they don’t have time to focus on learning to be a good or better manager. Learning, practicing, and honing your management competencies takes not just time but the commitment to set aside time on a regular basis to work on acquiring and strengthening those skills. Sometimes it involves attending a workshop or class. It might involve meeting with a management coach or mentor. Many times, it involves building in time during the week to set strategic goals, reflect on the consequences of decisions and actions of your team, and plan next steps to improve future team performance. Doing all of these requires both the manager - and their own supervisor - to prioritize developing these skills as much as meeting other productivity requirements and deadlines.
Management as Tradecraft isn’t just a motto for our company - it’s a philosophy or mindset. Organizational leaders need to understand that management itself is a craft worthy of its own focus. Most people believe that leadership development is something worth pursuing, while management tends to get a bad rap. Who wants to tell others what to do, right? Until we shift our mindset and commit to investing as much time, energy, and resources into creating strong, effective managers as developing inspirational future leaders, most organizations will continue to be stunted in their performance with team members leaving for organizations that do focus on their managers’ craft.
Management vs. Leadership
I spent the last 15 years thinking about leadership and the competencies of leaders through my doctoral dissertation and in my time as a leadership faculty member. But Tractus’ mission is to help those leaders be better managers. Some key questions that I want to explore this year include:
In what ways is management similar to and/or different than leadership?
Do managers and leaders have the same competencies but wield them in different ways?
How can leaders develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities to be better managers?
My questions are not unique; many researchers have explored them but seemed to have reached a range of conclusions, such as:
There is a difference between managers and leaders.
Managing and leading draw from the same core competencies.
Leading is one of the four functions of management, so therefore leadership and management are the same.
Beyond the scholarly argument, I want to examine how management competencies are applied in a practical organizational setting. Thinking about our own experiences in organizations across multiple sectors – public, private, and nonprofit organizations – Charity and I both believe that management and leadership are similar, and that managing and leading require similar competencies. Just as one works to be a better leader, we believe that managers, too, can and should work on their skills to be better managers.
During my dissertation research, I found many leadership competencies that can be grouped into eight overarching categories: (1) ethical reasoning; (2) holistic thinking; (3) creativity and innovation: (4) strategic thinking; (5) critical analysis; (6) interpersonal interactions; (7) communication; (8) and technical skills. While in academia, I explored what it takes to develop these competencies over time, setting up an academic minor in leadership to help undergraduate students begin to develop their own KSAs across these categories. Every semester, I remind students that leadership development is a lifelong pursuit. This year, I want to delve into what that pursuit looks like throughout one’s career. How can managers improve their KSAs in their everyday work within their organizations?
To start, let’s look at what we mean by these categories:
Ethical Reasoning is knowing the values and principles that you as an individual, team and organization hold, and understanding how those values drive decision-making. It also involves understanding different ethical perspectives and how those perspectives might impact decisions that might be made.
Holistic Thinking is both future-oriented and systems level thinking. Managers can see the bigger picture and know how all the elements work together to envision a better future for their organization.
Creativity and Innovation are competencies that allow a manager to approach situations and problems in new ways, so that the team can develop solutions to complex problems.
Strategic Thinking are competencies that help a manager decide on the path to accomplish team and organizational goals.
Critical Analysis is the ability to analyze situations and consequences of decisions to confirm that the team and organization are being effective and successful in accomplishing goals. This analysis can and should look at both quantitative and qualitative data.
Interpersonal Interactions are the competencies that managers must have to work with and inspire others within diverse and inclusive team settings.
Communication is the ability to understand and exchange information so that team members have the same expectations and can leverage team and individual strengths.
Technical skills are the competencies managers need to be successful in their field. It is the ability to understand and perform tasks, and to use tools that are relevant to one’s industry.
Each category listed above has a handful of competencies that we will explore over the next few months. We assigned a competency to a particular category because it seems to relate to the other competencies within that category. However, we acknowledge that there is some overlap – several competencies could fall under multiple categories. This method of organizing is a way to have a conversation to better understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities that managers need to be successful.
But what about followers?
In any managerial situation, there are other people beyond the manager who need to be considered: the followers. You can’t be a manager without people to manage, and having followers is the prerequisite for being a leader. In 2022, Charity and I began to explore what it means to be a follower. In our paper presentation for the 24th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference in Washington, DC, we argued that the manager-follower connection is a partnership, which in turn sets up power and authority on both sides of that relationship. Viewing the relationship as a bidirectional one necessitates considering the followers with the same vigor as we do the leader/manager. If we acknowledge that followers have power – they are partners who co-produce, choose to engage, and enable the organizational success – then we need to understand what they bring to the organization and contribute to its performance. In turn, we must also examine what competencies they need to possess to be successful in their roles.
Throughout this year, we’ll search for how followers fit within these competency categories. If they are truly partners, shouldn't we expect them to have similar (or corollary) knowledge, skills, and abilities? Are there different competencies that managers need to develop once they are placed into a leadership role? Or are the existing competencies similar just applied in different ways depending on the viewpoint of the position in which they sit?
I am looking forward to exploring these competency categories and how they apply to both managers and followers. While I don’t think a year is long enough to truly understand the idiosyncrasies of managing others in a complex world, I resolve to better understand management; the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to be a better manager; and how followers can be better employees and team members. I hope you’ll join in our journey and learn a little more about management as tradecraft, too.