What Makes a Great Manager?

5 traits the best have in common.

Hey folks 👋, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.

The difference between a mediocre manager and a top tier leader is staggering. The resumes may not look that different, but you feel it in almost every day-to-day interaction and in company performance.

As someone who’s fascinated by people and who’s been climbing the ranks but still has so much to learn, I’m constantly looking for what makes an average manager a top tier leader.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten to meet and learn from many truly great leaders, and even work for a few of them. Some seem like average joes on the surface while others are running multi-billion-dollar companies, but they all have these 5 traits in common.

They do tons of other things with excellence, too, but these 5 are things that stand out to me, that you probably won’t find on other “how to be a great leader” lists.

1. They just get more done.

The best managers are also, somehow, top producers. They complete more tasks, solve more problems, create more content, bring in more leads, create more revenue than anyone else.

Some of this is part of the job—you still have to be able to do things yourself, not just tell people what to do—but the best managers go above and beyond. They enjoy producing at a high level.

So on top of their managerial and company admin duties, which can easily take up a full 40-hr week, the best managers are still producing more and more efficiently than others. They make it happen.

Part of what makes this one interesting to me is that the skills it takes to be a good producer are entirely different from what it takes to be a good people manager. And yet, the best are great at both.

2. They’re eternally curious.

Lots of people talk about constant learning as criteria for a successful career, but there’s a big difference between reading reports about the latest trends because you feel like you’re supposed to, and relentlessly asking questions because you’re genuinely interested.

And it shows.

The best managers and leaders I’ve met are quick to say “I don’t know xyz, tell me more about it.” They’ll ask a million questions, and still be a little bummed out when the conversation ends.

They’ll spend their free time reading books, watching documentaries, and talking to peers about—in some way, shape, or form—how something works or how to improve.

For the best managers, learning is not an obligation. It’s a hobby.

3. They’re exceptional communicators, internally and externally.

Most marketers have heard the adage “clear writing is clear thinking.”

The best managers are so good at both that they can instantly tell you what matters, why it matters, who should care about it, and how to convey that message so it’s best received by the audience.

Great marketers excel at this when communicating with customers. Great leaders also excel at this when communicating internally—and they know that successful “internal marketing” is crucial to hitting both departmental goals and company-wide objectives.

4. They’re competent, but stressed.

I’ve said for years, “Everything’s easy when you know what you’re doing. The hard part is figuring it out.”

The act itself isn’t that tough, but knowing what to do? That’s a big challenge. Except, what I’m learning from these top leaders is making me rethink it.

These people are the best at what they do—they’re really freakin’ good—but they’re still stressed. They still feel a ton of pressure. They have decades of experiences and refined skills to fall back on, but they’re still having to figure it out as they go.

It doesn’t really get easier.

This makes sense once you think through it—the reward for good work is always more work, after all. Did something well? Here’s more responsibility.

The ship gets bigger. Steering it gets tougher and takes longer. Every action or inaction has larger and more complex consequences. The best leaders aren’t any less stressed about it—they just handle hard better.

5. They bring people together.

Leaders have to lead, but the best intentionally bring people together and even step into the background.

They bring employees on their team together to collaborate on projects. They crowdsource ideas to find the best solutions. They bring other departments together to execute on cross-functional synergies (that’s my corporate jargon quota for the day). They rally customers together around a cause or a product. And they know how to throw a great employee or customer event.

Wherever they go, the best managers are top tier community builders.

To be clear, building a community is different than building an audience. An audience is what happens when value is shared from one to many. That’s table stakes in marketing.

A community comes from value being shared from many to many. That’s really tough to create. Yet the best managers create environments where communities thrive.

TL;DR: The best managers do more, bring people together, and stay curious.

What would you add?

Was this helpful or interesting? Who else should see it? Be sure to subscribe and share it with them.

Have questions about this topic or something you’re working on? Ask away! I’m an open book and happy to help.