Do we still need managers? The necessary functions of management

February 15, 2021 - 14 min read

Every few years, it seems like some headline will suggest that the age of management is over. It has, undoubtedly, changed.

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What are the most valuable management functions?

Critical management skill #1: establishing trust

Critical management skill #2: Guiding problem solving

Critical management skill #3: Using influence well

Future-ready management

In my work with so many leaders and high-potential managers, the core truth is that management has always been a demanding and evolving profession. Witness the variety of management approaches and styles that reflect different priorities about what managers should do for the organization. 

Over the last few years, management has become even more complex due to increased competition, escalating market complexity, high volatility, and sustained uncertainty and ambiguity. At the same time, the expectations and preferences of talent have evolved--people want opportunities to take on more responsibility in order to grow and develop and often also expect supportive coaching and guidance from management.  

Managers must adapt. They have to be open to constant learning. They have to learn from the people they manage. Managers need to develop and reinforce certain skills to prosper in today’s business environment. 

Good managers recognize the changing world and demands around them and frequently reevaluate whether the expertise and skills they have are still relevant. Is what they “know to be true” still true? Are the management functions they perform still the most important functions of management for the organization? 

What are the most valuable management functions?

I like to classify value-adding management functions in four distinctive categories: 

  1. Personal Image, with functions such as: learning and growth, establishing trust, and cognitive agility.
  2. Results Delivery. Some sample functions are: problem solving, decision making, financial planning, business acumen, and customer focus.
  3. Talent Management and Development. Some examples include: influence, motivation, communication, team building, and coaching.
  4. Contextual and Thought Leadership. This can involve: strategic thinking, sensemaking, or trends and pattern recognition.

In addition to these traditional functions, new skills must be constantly learned in this rapidly evolving context. Some of these skills are technology savviness, agile management, data driven decision making, and purpose driven leadership. 

I would like to focus on three traditional basic management skills that — based on my experience from many years in the corporate world as a management consultant and several more as an executive coach — are somewhat underdeveloped or misused and are critical for any successful manager.

They are:

  • Establishing trust
  • Problem solving
  • Influence 

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Critical management skill #1: establishing trust

Trust is the assurance of reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something. 

Simply put, Trust is built on integrity.

Business success requires trust and yet we are in a trust crisis. Many traditional institutions, ideas, and beliefs are under constant question and attack regarding their validity. 

Unfortunately, in the business world we have seen recent events and institutions that have shaken trust in the overall system. 

But how do you develop and manage trust? 

There are a number of frameworks that attempt to understand and clarify how to achieve this. Many of them are very useful. My personal favorite is “8 Pillars of Trust” by David Horsager. 

It is thorough, fact-based and easy to understand, rate, and follow. 

The 8 pillars of Trust are:

  1. Clarity: People trust the clear and mistrust the ambiguous.
  2. Compassion: People put faith in those who care beyond themselves.
  3. Character: People notice those who do what is right ahead of what is easy.
  4. Contribution: Results build trust, lack of them destroys it. 
  5. Competency: People have confidence in those who stay fresh, relevant and capable.
  6. Connection: People want to follow, buy from, and be around friends, and friendship is all about building connections.
  7. Commitment: People believe in those who stand through adversity.
  8. Consistency: It is the little things done consistently that make the biggest difference.

Critical management skill #2: Guiding problem solving

Problem solving is the art, and process, of defining a problem. Determining its root cause by identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution and later implement that solution.

As Daniel Kahneman presents in his book, “Thinking Fast & Slow,” we have two ways of thinking. 

One is the highly efficient and automatic System 1. It is based on intuition and requires little conscious thought. 

The other one, more deliberate and highly demanding of energy and focus, is System 2. 

The latter is developed in humans much later in life. It is less efficient but much more thorough and analytical.

In today’s fast-moving working environment, we tend to default to System 1, a quick and efficient approach to our problem-solving function. We jump from a few sketched details of what the problem might be, to a solution and implementation phase. In many instances we do not stop to define in detail what the real problem is, or to consider the conditions that generated the problem at hand, the why. 

We do not consider the real implications that the problem might have. We skim without a thorough understanding and statement of the problem to be resolved, with no clarity of the ideal outcome and the constraints we face. 

Although this process might be extremely quick and efficient, using by default System 1 thinking in problem solving leads in many instances to a wonderful solution for the wrong problem. For complex problem solving, we need to pause and use our System 2 thinking and follow a more structured approach.

The way we state the problem could be crucial to the solution we come up with. Reframing the problem is a significant and highly valuable part of a problem definition process. Identifying a different aspect of the problem can sometimes deliver radical improvements and even spark solutions to difficult problems.

As Albert Einstein said “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” 

Determining what is causing the problem is the next phase. 

It is important to understand what changes in the internal and external environment are driving the problem. By doing so, we not only gain a deeper and more thorough understanding of the issue, but it allows us to identify and solve the root cause.

Identifying the type of problem we are solving is an essential step. Is it a simple problem with a clear relationship between cause-and-effect? Is it a complicated one where the cause-and-effect relationship needs further analysis and the application of expert knowledge is required? Is it a complex issue with unclear cause and effect relationship, multiple potential solutions and diverse expertise needed? Or are we dealing with a situation of chaos where we need to react immediately without any analysis?

Once the problem at hand is clearly stated, reframed and determined the root cause of it, it’s time to proceed to the solution phase.  

At this stage, a decision must be made on which route to take to find a solution. Do we have a sound hypothesis to use in solving it? Are we going through the hypothesis driven solution, applying the Scientific Method? Is it our best option going through the decomposing the problem way, breaking down the problem into more manageable parts? Is the issue at hand able to be solved by Design Thinking? 

Using established and proven frameworks is very useful in the solution phase. The key consideration is deciding what is the right framework to use. Choosing from the numerous frameworks available requires experience and good understanding. 

Problem Solving is not a simple function to master, it requires following a well established process, expertise, and critical thinking, plus an acute awareness of potential and common frameworks and biases.

Critical management skill #3: Using influence well

Most people would rather be persuaded than told what to do. As a manager, you will be required to influence others to accept and support new proposals, ideas, initiatives, and changes. 

The times of command-and-control style management are becoming a thing from the past. It is true that in certain environments or situations, this leadership style is probably still the best way to drive people forward. But it has been much less so in the recent past. 

I cannot imagine going into a rapid and profound business restructuring in any other way but the old style of command-and-control. For management, it’s important to discern when to apply power and when to use persuasion.

In today’s business environment — with complex matrix organizations, new generations of better educated collaborators, and fluid teams that come together for short periods of time without clear hierarchical structures — we need to drive people through influence and persuasion, rather than the traditional use of power.

But how do we influence people? Some steps to consider would be:

  • Build rapport. Intrapersonal connections work. Getting to know your team and your stakeholders helps develop tighter relationships through better understanding of their motives, drives, and intentions. This requires a relationship-building approach, not just a transactional one. As the saying goes, “You do not want to meet the next-door neighbor when your house is on fire.” 
  • Active listening. To better develop your communication skills and empathy toward others be sure to be an active listener. “Seek first to understand before being understood.” Active listening means being engaged and acting on what you listen to, not just hearing others. Active listening also creates empathy.
  • Create a vision aligned with purpose and values. If you want to influence, avoid ambiguity at all costs. To persuade and influence people, you need to have a clear vision of the future, of what success looks like to the team members and the organization. To be able to influence, the vision needs to be consistent and align with a common and explicit higher purpose and common values. To influence, you should be skilled in articulating and communicating the vision in a professional, memorable and engaging way.
  • Develop Executive Presence. As a leader manager, you are constantly under the spotlight. People are always looking at you, how you react, how you behave, and how you act. To influence others, you must be consistent with your predicament, your values, and your purpose. Executive presence is built on gravitas. Having gravitas means that you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are trusted and respected. Gravitas comes from authenticity, from deep interpersonal trust that you build by being clear about your intentions, empathizing and finding out about the people you work with, and adhering to your sense of integrity. 

The ability to influence is a function that can be learned and developed. It takes time and persistence. This is dynamic and situational, so it requires continuous learning and adaptability.


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Future-ready management

Management is a challenging job with ever-increasing demands in a fluid and unpredictable environment. To be a good manager today, you need to develop many varied skills. But it is probably wise to concentrate on mastering a few key functions that would serve you as a solid base platform to develop from.

Published February 15, 2021

Ignacio Fernandez Morodo

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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