Three Must-Have Leadership Traits—and How to Use Them

There’s a talent war on the horizon for skilled managers.

August 01, 2012
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In my work at the Filene Research Institute, I spend my time as a business strategist and change agent.

I look outside the credit union cul-de-sac every day—and the more I look, the more I see a talent war on the horizon.

People have a primary effect on the success of any business. Sure, things like strategy, competitive forces, and technology play a role. But when you get deep into the playbook you’ll always find people.

Perhaps you share my fascination with human behavior. Think of it as a book without a straightforward plot.

Instead, it reads like an adventure-packed series where unpredictability rules the page and the story rarely turns out the same each time. There is no one, single handbook for managing people.

However, according to a recent Filene study, “Attributes and Skills of Highly Effective Middle Managers,” when it comes to identifying and enabling high-performing mid-level managers, there are three key personality traits—and several secret weapons—we can use to tip success in our favor.

They three personality traits:

1. Learning

It turns out that 87% of highly effective middle managers fall at or above average in their thirst for learning. This means that active learners will come up to speed quickly to understand the business.

Look for people who demonstrate an independent thirst for learning. Ask what they’re reading or what was the most interesting piece of news they took in this week.

2. Energy

Interestingly, the “tendency to display endurance and capacity for a fast pace” is a key characteristic, with 86% of middle managers scoring above average.

This points to the importance of being able to survive the “stuck in the middle” challenges mid-level managers face.

Can you feel a candidate’s energy during an interview? Do you notice mid-level employees that can’t be kept down?

3. Decisiveness

Using available information to make decisions is critical, with 80% of superior mid-level managers we surveyed reporting above-average levels of “just do it” initiative.

It’s no surprise that employees look to mid-level managers to make quick, quality decisions as a way to increase productivity. Ask candidates to share how they make decisions—and especially how quickly.

Your secret weapons:

Hiring. One of the most significant implications for hiring is that pre-employment assessments are crucial in determining whether the applicant for the mid-level position will be successful.

Hire people who naturally have the three personality traits listed previously. Hire for these because you can always train for skills.

Engagement. The three primary drivers of employee engagement are trust in management, management’s handling of change, and the employee’s connection with management.

In world-class organizations, the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is about 10 to 1, versus only 2 to 1 in average organizations, Gallup reports.

Set them free. Retaining high-performing middle managers requires the leader to give them the vision and mission, enable their participation in goal development, and then allow them to do their thing.

High-performing mid-level managers want to view their departments as their own small business for both risk and rewards.

Leaders: Do you see a talent war on the horizon?

Mid-level managers: Are the study findings correct? Let us know.

DENISE GABEL is chief finance and strategy officer for the Filene Research Institute. Contact her at 608-661-3751.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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