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Excerpt from:

Skills of an Effective Administrator (Robert L. Katz, Harvard Business School Press, 1993)

Although the selection and training of good administrators is widely recognized as one of American industry's most pressing problems, there is surprisingly little agreement among executives or educators on what makes a good administrator. The executive development programs of some of the nation's leading corporations and colleges reflect a tremendous variation in objectives.

This quest for the executive stereotype has become so intense that many companies, in concentrating on certain specific traits or qualities, stand in danger of losing sight of their real concern: what a man can accomplish.

It is the purpose of this article to suggest what may be a more useful approach to the selection and development of administrators. This approach is based not on what good executives are (their innate traits and characteristics), but rather on what they do (the kind of skills which they exhibit in carrying out their jobs effectively). As used here, a skill implies an ability which can be developed, not necessarily inborn and which is manifested in performance, not merely in potential. So the principal criterion of skillfulness must be effective action under varying conditions.


It is assumed here that an administrator is one who (a) directs the activities of other persons and (b) undertakes the responsibility for achieving certain objectives through these efforts. Within this definition, successful administrators appears to rest on three basic skills, which we call technical, human and conceptual.

Technical skill:

As used here, technical skill implies an understanding of, and proficiency in, a specific kind of activity, particularly involving methods, process, procedures or techniques. It is relatively easy to for us to visualize the technical skill of the surgeon, the musician, the accountant or the engineer when each is performing his/her own special function. Technical skill involves special knowledge, analytical ability within that specialty and facility in the use of the tools and techniques of the specific discipline.

Of the three skills described in this article, technical skill is perhaps the most familiar because it is the most concrete and because of our age of specialization, it is the skill required of the greatest number of people. Most of our vocational and on-the-job training programs are largely concerned with developing this specialized technical skill.

Human skill:

As used here, human skill is the executive's ability to work effectively as a group member and to build cooperative effort within the team he leads. As technical skill is primarily concerned with working with "things" (process or physical objects), human skill is primarily concerned with working with people. This skill is demonstrated in the way the individual perceives (and recognizes the perception of) his superiors, equals, subordinates and the way he/she behaves subsequently.

The person with highly developed human skill is aware of his/her own attitudes, assumptions and beliefs about other individuals and groups, and they are able to see the usefulness and limitations of these feelings. By accepting the existence of viewpoints, perceptions and beliefs which are different from their own, they are skilled in understanding what others really mean by their words and behavior. This administrator is equally skillful in communicating with others in their own contexts.

Such a person works to create an atmosphere of approval and security in which subordinates feel free to express themselves without fear of censure or ridicule, by encouraging them to participate in the planning and carrying out of those things each directly affect them. He/she is sufficiently sensitive to the needs and motivations of others in his/her organization so the he/she can judge the possible reactions and outcomes of various courses of action he/she may undertake. Having this sensitivity, he/she is able and willing to act in a way which takes these perceptions by others in to account.

Real skill in working with others must become a natural, continuous activity, since it involves sensitivity not only at times of decision making, but also in the day-by-day behavior of the individual. Human behavior cannot be a "sometime thing." Techniques cannot be randomly applied, nor can personality traits be put on or removed like an overcoat, because everything an executive says or does (or leaves unsaid or undone) has an effect on his/her associate. His/her true self will, in time, show through. Thus, to be effective, this skill must be naturally developed and unconsciously, as well as consistently, demonstrated in the individuals every action. It must become an integral part of his/her whole being.

Conceptual Skill:

As used here, conceptual skill involves the ability to see the enterprise as a whole. It includes recognizing how the various functions of the organization depend on one and other and how changes in any one part affect all the others. It extends to visualizing the relationship of the individual business to the industry, the community and the political, social and economic forces of the nation as a whole. Recognizing these relationships and perceiving the significant elements in any situation, the administrator should then be able to act in a way which advances the overall welfare of the total organization.

Hence, the success of any decision depends on the conceptual skill of the people who make the decision and those who put it in action. When, for example, an important change in marketing policy is made, it is critical that the effects on production, control, finance, research and the people involved be considered. It remains critical right down to the last executive who must implement the new policy. If each executive recognizes the overall relationships and significance of change, he/she is almost certain to be more effective in administrating it. Consequently, the chances for succeeding are greatly increased.

Not only does the effective coordination of the various parts of the business depend on the conceptual skill of the administrators involved, but so also the whole future direction and tone of the organization. The attitude of top executive color the whole character of the organization's response and determine the "corporate personality" which distinguishes one company's way of doing business from another's. These attitudes are a reflection of the administrator's conceptual skill (referred to by some as his creative ability" - the way he/she perceives and responds to the direction in which the business should grow, company objectives and policies, and stockholders and employees interests.

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