"What's Your Management Style?"
If you’re applying for a job in management, you’re bound to be asked one fundamental question: “What’s your management style?” It’s not necessarily a good question, but it’s an almost inevitable question when the job entails managing.
If the question is a difficult one for interviewees, that’s largely because there is no single best answer. In the real world, management styles differ among individuals and among organizations. And management styles aren’t static. They often have to change depending on who and what is being managed. All of this makes defining a single best style a challenging task.
When a subject involves this many variables, it’s a good idea to define the terms of your answer from the start, and it helps if you are the one providing the definition.
That definition, however, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If possible, research the organization doing the interviewing so that you can align your definition with the company’s management culture. If that culture’s management style is a mystery, consider the organization in a more general sense: Are you talking to a hip new app-developing startup, to a creative agency, or to General Motors? Different environments breed – and value – different styles.
Should the focus be on clear direction and professional development? Should it be free-wheeling and relatively hands-off? Should it be especially respectful of hierarchies and well-defined areas of responsibility? Again, the nature of the organization in question should influence the points you highlight in your answer.
But there are two overriding themes worth highlighting regardless of the situation.
- Remember the big picture. It’s all very well to talk about teamwork, accountability, and professional growth, but the best answer doesn’t treat those topics in isolation. Interviewers and their employers care about the business as a whole. They care about management that contributes to the company’s overall health.
No matter what you say specifically, keep the big picture in mind, so that your answer, at least by implication, acknowledges that managers manage in service to organizational priorities. Too often, interviewees tell stories that make the manager look good but that fail to tie that managerial goodness to a bigger picture. Given that it’s an oft-forgotten theme, connecting actions to that big picture can help to distinguish you from the competition. Let the interviewer know that you can see the forest for the trees.
- Remember that change is the only constant. It should be clear that there is no single best management style. Different industries, organizations, people, and changing circumstances call for different approaches. A good manager can be directive and authoritarian at a time of crisis. That same good manager can be democratic and inclusive when the crisis has passed.
Good management isn’t rigid. It can change in response to changing conditions. If there’s one quality that makes a manager good, it’s that ability to handle different situations in different ways. It’s a quality often called “flexibility.” A better name for it would be “adaptability,” a word with a more active, self-directed connotation. Whatever you call it, it’s the one quality that is critical to good management everywhere.
Important as those two big themes are, they’re clearly not the only qualities that make up a management style. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be so easy to assemble a list of all the apparently discrete styles that exist: Democratic, Autocratic, Coach-like, Affiliative, Authoritative, Hands-on, Hands-off, Reactive, Responsive.
That list could go on indefinitely, but it would still omit some styles. Anyone can answer the interviewer with an abstract, adjective-laden treatise on management theory. Anyone can claim to follow any management style under the sun.
But those claims won’t be convincing by themselves, because they miss a fundamental point about the question: It’s a behavioral question at heart.
In other words, this question, like so many interview questions, is best answered by specific, concrete examples of your own behavior in situations in which you were the manager. The interviewer may ask you to define your management, but what you should hear is a request for a real-world story that demonstrates your management style in action.
That’s the essence of the behavioral interview. The easiest way to approach it is with a structured answer, and one popular and effective model is the “STAR” approach: Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
To use the STAR method, talk about the situation you confronted, the task you were trying to achieve, the actions you took, and the result you reached.
You don’t have to present yourself as the manager who’s perfect in every way at all times. In fact, a better answer might include a mistake, an initiative that didn’t work immediately but that led you to try something new. And that new
approach was more effective. As a result, you became a better manager. You grew. If adaptability is a desirable trait, that scenario demonstrates first-rate managerial adaptability.
And in all cases, you should assume that the question will be asked in any management-centric interview. That gives you the opportunity to practice your answer in advance. Don’t rely on improvisation. Like any good manager, you know that the first rule in tackling a predictable situation is exemplified by the motto: Be Prepared.