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Skills needed in trainee managers

The top skills wanted in trainee managers

For graduate management jobs, having the right skills is more highly valued than your degree subject. We look at what skills you need, how to get them and how to show them off.
Your interpersonal skills are a key consideration for employers when they're sizing up your management potential.

Many students think a degree in management or business is essential for management training schemes. While it can be advantageous, it’s not a definite requirement, especially in sectors such as construction or retail. Kate Hurles, head of graduate development at estate agency group Spicerhaart Residential Lettings, makes it clear that having the right skills and attitude is often more attractive to employers than qualifications.

What skills you need and why you need them

Your interpersonal skills are a key consideration for employers when they're sizing up your management potential. According to Kate, ‘Many graduates are surprised by exactly how important the ability to get on with people and enjoy social interaction is.’

One aspect of this is diplomacy, as you need to be able to deal with people tactfully in difficult situations.

Equally, emotional intelligence is highly regarded; Kate explains that ‘Good managers also have an instinctive understanding that everything worthwhile takes enormous hard work to achieve.’ Being able to empathise and understand other people's perspectives helps to build strong working relationships. Flexibility and listening skills tie in with this: managers need to be open to change and new ideas from others, to show that staff members are valued.

On the other hand, managers have the ultimate responsibility to weigh up which decisions are best, so they need to be persuasive and have confidence in their decision-making. This goes hand in hand with having excellent communication skills to express directions clearly.

The ability to motivate others is a particularly valued interpersonal skill; great leaders inspire others to be great at what they do too.

Kate explains that a great manager is also ‘someone who really thrives on being busy; someone who has a positive attitude and always sees challenges rather than problems.’ The work can be stressful, with a lot of responsibility, so resilience and a calm attitude under pressure are essential.

One of those challenges is having to make decisions based on the information you’ve been given, even if it’s not the whole picture. Being able to manage ambiguity is a competency often overlooked by jobseekers but it shows that you can adapt to change and cope with uncertainty.

Similarly, job-hunters often think good organisation and time management are obvious skills for many jobs but they’re especially vital for managers, who have to organise, delegate and set deadlines for other employees' work, not just their own.

Finally, employers are increasingly looking for managers who are commercially aware and customer focused, as the people who know the ins and outs of the business, industry, competitors and customers will help lead the organisation in the right direction for the future.

How to get the skills you need

It's unlikely that you'll pick up the skills you need to get a management job purely from your university studies, so you’ll have to get plenty of experience from elsewhere.

Volunteering can be helpful, especially if you choose a role dealing with people. Alternatively, you could offer to manage a specific project in your part-time job or take up a new position of responsibility in a society or sports club. Another option is to find a mentor, job-shadowing placement or even ask for advice from your boss. You can learn specific techniques by analysing the way they do it and asking for tips.

Bear in mind that you don’t always need to have held a role with the title of ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or ‘president’ to show you have what it takes to be those things. Even if you were the publicity officer of a society, people still came to you with questions and you were still responsible for making the decisions in your area. Equally, if you’ve only studied and travelled, that travelling involved planning and going out of your comfort zone. This shows organisation and emotional maturity, key skills of good leaders even without the title.

How to show off your skills

Make a list of all the skills the job advertisement asks for and write down an example of when you’ve used each skill. Make sure you explain your point: say how you learned from the experience, how well you did the tasks or how this skill will be useful in management jobs. Then add on skills that are not advertised but are still important for managers (make sure you have all of those mentioned in this article!). You can then use this document as a reference for writing CVs and covering letters, and preparing for interviews.

You should consider your vocabulary too, responding with the right skill: for interpersonal skills use terms like ‘encouraged’ and ‘supported’, but for leadership use more authoritative terms like ‘delegated’ and ‘directed’.

Try to get job-hunting savvy; read our applications and interviews advice and sample CVs to learn more about how to make the most of your skills. You can read a lot more about each individual skill too. Plus, there are management roles in all sorts of work sectors, so learn about the industry you’re most interested in, whether it’s construction, hospitality or retail. That way, you’ll understand the employer’s place within the industry as a whole.

One of the most important things is to practice what you preach. It’s no use saying you’ve got great organisation and time management skills, and then showing up late for the interview. Equally, there’s no point telling the employer you stay calm under pressure and can manage ambiguity if you panic and don’t follow instructions at an assessment centre. It’s not just about telling them you’ve got what it takes: show them too.