Build Your Business:

Key Traits to Look for in a Manager

February 10, 2014

One of the most common mistakes decorated apparel industry companies make is not selecting the right people when broadening their management-level staff. All too often, the person who was a great press operator — or who has worked in a particular department the longest time period — is suddenly promoted to manager.

This person may have been outstanding at his former job, but he may not stand a chance when pushed into a new role that requires him to motivate and guide others while simultaneously handling the daily challenges in his department. That being said, promoting from within can be a great idea, as the person selected will completely understand the company, operating system, clientele and staff he is asked to supervise.

So, what do you look for when making that selection? Here are 12 things to keep in mind when looking for your next company leader:

1. Coaching. The best managers see themselves as a coach rather than “the boss.” Who would you rather work for: a mouthy dictator that is yelling at you constantly, or a coach that brings out your best and helps you solve problems? Managers with a coach mentality help develop your team to excel, asking powerful questions that allow employees to arrive at their own solutions. Your company can achieve more on a daily basis with a set of highly skilled, independent-thinking staff members. It’s the manager’s responsibility to develop and guide your staff to achieve greater performance results. Remember, managers aren’t babysitters — you have professionals working on your team, right?
Tip: Look for someone who is always helping other staff members resolve challenges by showing them how to achieve a skill. These individuals focus on training the fellow employee rather than just getting the task accomplished.

2. Focusing on the Detail. Great managers know the devil is always in the details. For example, a good art director will make sure the staff uses keyboard commands and shortcuts when designing, as it’s faster than using the mouse. A good production manager will worry about the details of how the next order is staged, as that directly affects daily output. Great customer service staff members always will include exemplary notes with orders that answer any possible questions. By keeping an eye on the minutiae, challenges can be averted, orders can be streamlined through the system and more can be accomplished.
Tip: Try to find someone that is quality minded and checks the detail in his own everyday tasks. These individuals ask great questions and always follow up on any concerns. Details matter.

3. Leadership. Great managers don’t shirk responsibilities or avoid challenges. They rise to the occasion, diving in to help with any challenging situation. A great personality trait to look for is someone who sets a great example for others to follow. Look around your company, as there always are a few people that stand out from the rest in how they behave and work. They show up early, and are always the ones who volunteer to stay late or come in on a Saturday if needed. Chances are their work usually is perfect and they see themselves as craftsmen.
Tip: Leadership is often asking “why” or suggesting new ways to do things. A good leader is interested in improvement and doing things correctly. Look for someone who is vocal about process improvement and always wants to make things better. A leader is “out in front,” not a wallflower.

4. Humor. Managing doesn’t involve just dealing with work; it is essentially centered on someone’s core people skills. Using humor to motivate others is a wonderful trait to possess. Staff that can laugh together and have fun while they work will do a better job, work faster and accomplish more than a staff that is driven by someone who approaches things in a humorless or stern fashion. If work can be fun, that’s a direction you should travel.
Tip: While you aren’t looking for stand-up comedians, search for some humor skills. How do they react or tell a story? Are they smiling and good-natured? Do they use humor to help sell an idea or motivate someone in your company to help them with a task?

5. Organization. Managers are basically in charge of all aspects of their departments. There is a lot of information, and multiple tasks, responsibilities, deadlines and other situational challenges that must be handled in a certain prescribed manner. This requires a higher degree of organization than your everyday employee may encounter. Think of it as juggling balls in the air. How will multiple tasks get accomplished simultaneously? How will that big project get finished by the due date? It’s easy for an organized individual. If you are constantly chasing even the simplest tasks from someone, it’s a potential clue that he is disorganized.
Tip: Look for someone who uses a to-do list, delegates tasks to others they work with, keeps his work area clean and ready for work, and always seems ahead of the curve with the workload. Organized people are very precise in how they accomplish their work, and if you ask them a question, they can find the answer easily and quickly.

6. Clear Expectations. Great managers give clear and easily understood expectations to their staff. Staff members should be about their daily goals or priorities. Think about your company. Usually, there is one department that has staff that works a little better than another. If you think about it, you may find that department’s supervisor is very precise in giving the expectations of what needs to be accomplished, sets goals for the department to achieve and understands deadlines. This trait, if replicated throughout your company, can lead to higher performance all around.
Tip: Observe how a potential candidate relates to others and motivates them to help with tasks. Do they give clear instructions? Do they follow up to see if the tasks were accomplished correctly and in a timely manner? If the delegated task wasn’t performed well, was there some training or follow up with the employee so they know how to perform the task correctly the next time?

7. Trust. This is a big factor for managers. To be trustworthy in the context of work means that people trust that managers will do what they say they will do, and that they can be consistently reliable. Would you give the person $50,000 to manage? Well, maybe not with a satchel of money, but that’s essentially what you are doing with your managers who oversee client orders. Not handled properly, they could cost you a pile of money. The hypothetical $50,000 may even be an underestimate. This usually is a gut feeling more than anything else. Over time, you will figure out whom you trust in your company. Here’s a clue: Who has a key to the shop door or a company credit card?
Tip: Give your staff the opportunity to earn trust by allowing them to manage or handle ever-increasing complex situations. Can they be relied upon to talk to customers, approve credit or special favors, travel to trade shows or make purchasing decisions? Start small.

8. Best Fit for Your Company Culture. Every company has its own culture. Employees can feel it, and the owners and top managers are the primary drivers of creating and maintaining it. Your management hiring decisions should reflect that culture and add to it. This is a very subjective idea and if you are promoting from within, it shouldn’t be a big factor. However, moving someone up the ladder can sometimes be difficult for individuals. Will your manager selection reflect your company’s morals and be seen in a positive light?
Tip: Discreetly talk to trusted staff members about your potential candidate and get the street-level point of view. Will your move be seen with a positive acknowledgement or a mutinous, disparaging growl?  

9. Positive Attitude and Enthusiasm. A person with a “Debbie Downer” mentality or someone who always complains is too divisive to push a department forward. Maybe the person you are thinking of promoting or hiring doesn’t have much management experience, but if he is a tornado of positive energy and can show that he truly want to make a difference for you, then management skills can be learned along the way.
Tip: Staff members with whom other people enjoy working and who  show up to work every day wanting to make a difference can make the best managers. Harness that positive energy and let it pull your company forward.

10. Experience.
To make a positive difference for your team, a manager must have a wealth of experience to draw upon to guide the department through challenges. Been there, done that, “got the T-shirt” — this will go a great distance when junior staff members need some help resolving tough situations.
Tip: Look for someone with broad experience who can calmly teach lessons to your staff. It also is a big plus if they will reach out and find answers for larger problems if they aren’t sure of the correct route to take. That being said, I’ve always liked the John Wooden quote: “I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience, than a lot of experience and a little talent.” Choose wisely.

11. Listening and Communication Skills. Great managers listen twice as much as they speak. Communication is at the core of human understanding, and motivating and teaching staff members to excel begins with active listening. This isn’t easy, as managers often fall into the trap of lecturing instead of asking questions.
Tip: Candidates that talk over others, interrupt or need to have points repeated may make poor managers. Look for people who are present in the moment, and can clearly communicate instructions and listen to others when problem solving.

12. Gets Things Done. I’m a big believer in establishing a “culture of execution” within a company. You need leaders that possess the drive to get things accomplished today, not tomorrow. Finding someone who can knock out today’s to-do list, and then come back asking for more is beneficial to your company. The opposite is someone who always makes excuses about why things aren’t getting accomplished. “We’re too busy” doesn’t cut it. To create success, key managers find ways to get everything accomplished — often early — because they know there will be more to do tomorrow.
Tip: Our industry is predicated on completing and shipping orders, so it pays to find a manager with this mentality. Completing orders early, and pushing for efficiencies, best industry practices and continuous improvement are the hallmarks of this trait.

Ray Kroc once said: “You’re only as good as the people you hire.” For a company’s leaders, this is a great rallying point, as your staff is the key to your success. Your management team has to lead that staff daily in order to keep your customers happy and coming back. Finding the right leaders to develop your staff makes all the difference.  

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.