What Great Managers Do

The best managers figure out what makes individual employees tick and how those qualities can best be used for the worker's and the company's success

The Idea in Brief

You've spent months coaching that employee to treat customers better, work more independently, or get organized—all to no avail.

How to make better use of your precious time? Do what great managers do: Instead of trying to change your employees, identify their unique abilities (and even their eccentricities)—then help them use those qualities to excel in their own way.

You'll need these three tactics:

Continuously tweak roles to capitalize on individual strengths. One Walgreens store manager put a laconic but highly organized employee in charge of restocking aisles—freeing up more sociable employees to serve customers.

Pull the triggers that activate employees' strengths. Offer incentives such as time spent with you, opportunities to work independently, and recognition in forms each employee values most.

Tailor coaching to unique learning styles. Give "analyzers" the information they need before starting a task. Start "doers" off with simple tasks, then gradually raise the bar. Let "watchers" ride shotgun with your most experienced performers.

The payoff for capitalizing on employees' unique strengths? You save time. Your people take ownership for improving their skills. And you teach employees to value differences—building a powerful sense of team.

The Idea in Practice

First identify each employee's unique strengths: Walk around, observing people's reactions to events. Note activities each employee is drawn to. Ask "What was the best day at work you've had in the past three months?" Listen for activities people find intrinsically satisfying.

Watch for weaknesses, too, but downplay them in your communications with employees. Offer training to help employees overcome shortcomings stemming from lack of skills or knowledge. Otherwise, apply these strategies:

Find the employee a partner with complementary talents. A merchandising manager who couldn't start tasks without exhaustive information performed superbly once her supervisor (the VP) began acting as her "information partner." The VP committed to leaving the manager a brief voicemail update daily and arranging two "touch base" conversations weekly.

Reconfigure work to neutralize weaknesses. Use your creativity to envision more effective work arrangements, and be courageous about adopting unconventional job designs.

Activate Employees' Strengths

The ultimate trigger for activating an employee's strengths is recognition. But each employee plays to a different audience. So tailor your praise accordingly.

If an employee values recognition from…

His peers. Praise him by: Publicly celebrating his achievement in front of coworkers.

You. Praise him by: Telling him privately but vividly why he's such a valuable team member.

Others with similar expertise. Praise him by: Giving him a professional or technical award.

Customers. Praise him by: Posting a photo of him and his best customer in the office.

Tailor Coaching to Learning Style

Adapt your coaching efforts to each employee's unique learning style:

If an employee is…

• An "analyzer"—he requires extensive information before taking on a task, and he hates making mistakes. Coach him by:

Giving him ample classroom timeRole-playing with himGiving him time to prepare for challenges

• A "doer"—he uses trial and error to enhance his skills while grappling with tasks. Coach him by:

Assigning him a simple task, explaining the desired outcomes, and getting out of his wayGradually increasing a tasks complexity until he masters his role

• A "watcher"—he hones his skills by watching other people in action. Coach him by:

Having him "shadow" top performers