The Dullest, Most Vital Skill You Need to Become a Successful Manager

The exemplary manager is often shown delivering a rousing speech that inspires her troops to achieve ever greater heights. But the truth is a lot less exciting than that.

To three highly effective and successful managers and executives, a boring, often-overlooked ability is one of the most vital skills you can have as a manager — the ability to write.

“Written communication to engineering is superior [to verbal communication] because it is more consistent across an entire product team, it is more lasting, it raises accountability.”

— Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz

Ben Horowitz on what makes a successful manager

Written communication creates lasting consistency across an entire team because a piece of writing is leveragable collateral from which everyone, from marketing to sales to QA to engineering, can work and consult.

Accountability spreads as a manager’s written work product — product requirement documents, FAQs, presentations, white papers — holds the manager responsible for what happens when the rest of the team executes on the clearly articulated, unambiguous vision described by the documents.

To Horowitz, the distinction between written and verbal communication is stark and in fact is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility. And so, good managers write, while “[b]ad product managers voice their opinion verbally and lament … the ‘powers that be’.

“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

—Jeff Bezos, Amazon

Jeff Bezos on what makes a successful manager

Jeff Bezos values writing over talking to such an extreme that in Amazon senior executive meetings, “before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos.”

Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking, but more than that, it’s a compelling method to drive memo authors to write in a narrative structure that reinforces a distinctly Amazon way of thinking—its obsession with the customer. In every memo that could potentially address any issue in the company, the memo author must answer the question: “What’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?”

“Reports are more a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information.”

— Andy Grove, Intel

Andy Grove on what makes a successful manager

Like Bezos, Grove finds value in the process of writing. The surprising thing, then, is that reading what’s written isn’t important to Grove. The main point of this self-disciplinary process is to force yourself “to be more precise than [you] might be verbally”, creating “an archive of data” that can “help to validate ad hoc inputs” and to reflect with precision on your thought and approach.

Writing, according to Grove, is a “safety-net” for your thought process that you should always be doing to “catch … anything you may have missed.

Accountability, coherence of thought and planning, and commitment to vision and mission are amazing benefits of what too many consider a ho-hum, even old-fashioned, tool.

How do you use the management and work skills of writing to become a successful manager?

Images: [1] TechCrunch; [2] Steve Jurvetson; [3] Berkeley Engineering

  • PJ

    If you get hung up on the title of this article, you missed the message. Good, clear communication skills are vital to anything we do in life, and being able to communicate clearly in a written form is too often an overlooked skill. As a person who has been in a corporate setting for 20 years, it is irritating to me when an email is sent out from an executive, who is making triple my salary and would never accept an unclear or poorly worded email from me, can’t put a cohesive sentence together, let alone use capitalization and punctuation. It doesn’t give me any confidence in their leadership.

  • Channing Reis

    Integrating what Andy Grove says about the purpose of writing (self discipline; forcing yourself to be more precise; creating an archive of data) with what Jeff Bezos says (“enforces clear thinking”; the emphasis on careful reading in total silence) provides adequate justification for our long memos
    and email messages assuming they deliver cogent argument, valid data and clear insight. Add what Horowitz says (consistency and accountability) and you have an indispensable tool for the manager’s toolbox. I would add what the famous English essayist John Ruskin said: “—that you might read all the books in the British Museum (if you could live long enough) and remain an utterly “illiterate,” uneducated person; but that if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by letter,—that is to say, with real accuracy,—you are forevermore in some measure an educated person. The entire difference between education and non-education (as regards the merely intellectual part of it) consists in this accuracy.”

  • veylen

    as leaders, both verbal and written skills are equally important depending on the situation. In some cases, the leader has to deliver touching speeches and in others, he needs to be able to clearly and concisely articulate messages in writing.