How to Help Managers Become Can-Do Leaders

By Frank Satterthwaite and Jamie MIllard March 1, 2017

Whether you are preparing someone to transition to a supervisor position or coaching a seasoned executive who wants to keep up with his or her field, helping managers learn when and how to take on duties they once might have delegated is a much-needed skill these days.

In our book, Becoming a Can-Do Leader: A Guide for the Busy Manager (Association for Talent Development Press, 2016), we offer advice on how to coach managers to effectively balance their dual roles as "leaders" and "doers." To help reinforce their leadership role, managers should engage in what we call "situational doing." Why "situational"? Because while delegating duties is an important part of being an effective manager, there also are situations when it can be productive for managers to be hands-on, such as when they want to:

  • Lead by example by demonstrating strategies and techniques useful for excelling at certain tasks.
  • Inspire team members who are facing a tough challenge by being willing to jump in and help out.
  • Assess team members' on-the-job strengths and weaknesses to determine both their learning needs and how best to deploy teammates now and in the future.
  • Build team capability by giving and getting real-time performance feedback and on-the-fly coaching.
  • Determine if systems and processes need to be improved to better support the functioning of the team.
  • Stay current in the technical aspects of the work they're managing so they can make helpful contributions and well-informed management decisions.

Based on our experience training and coaching managers in a wide range of situations, we have found that many managers today are being asked, told or forced to be player-managers. In addition to having formal management responsibilities, many managers are also continuing to perform work that requires their technical or functional knowledge and skills. This is happening because in today's knowledge-driven, cost-competitive work world, managers need to have advanced technical knowledge to properly manage the workers they supervise. And given the pressure to get more done with fewer people, they often need to roll up their sleeves and pitch in on assignments they once might have handed off to others.

Many player-managers often feel overworked and overwhelmed—too busy to succeed as either a leader or a doer. What's needed is for these managers to think differently about their role. Instead of being constrained by conventional management thinking that separates responsibilities into either leading or doing, player-managers need to understand that the two roles can be mutually reinforcing activities. Once they make this mind shift, player-managers can begin to recognize and take advantage of the many leadership opportunities associated with situational doing to keep up their own skills and to develop their team.

Our book provides protocols, self-assessments and strategies to help busy player-managers become can-do leaders. For managers, selectively choosing when to be hands-on becomes an effective strategy for contributing their professional expertise—and for becoming a better leader.


Frank Satterthwaite is a professor of organizational leadership and past director of the MBA program at Johnson & Wales University. Jamie Millard is the executive partner and co-founder of Lexington Leadership Partners, a consulting and leadership development firm.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Member Benefit: Ask-An-Advisor Service

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.