Power to the People: Why Self-Management Is Important

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Today, I want to focus on the skill of self-management, something that I believe is the fundamental requirement for empowering both people and organizational success in the knowledge economy.

Before jumping in to discuss this skill, I think it is important to try to define self-management. There is ambiguity about the term, and in most discussions, self-management refers to a combination of behaviors that focus on how people manage themselves in their work and their life. For example, Daniel Goleman and his co-authors define self-management through these six traits: self-control, transparency, adaptability, achievement, initiative, and optimism.1 Robert Kelley includes a full chapter on self-management in his book How to Be a STAR at Work.2 Kelley’s research highlights the following key elements in self-management:

  • Making a commitment to lifelong learning in support of both the organization’s goals and your own goals
  • Learning how to make certain that your projects add value to the organization
  • Developing your personal productivity skills to manage both your time and your commitments
  • Building broad personal networks that allow you to tap expertise in and out of the organization for complex problems
  • Being willing to embrace change and rethink both organizational structures and work definitions as new opportunities arise

Kelley emphasizes that star employees are intrinsically managing both their work and their career. By providing high value to the organization, stars get more opportunity to select which projects they work on and are instinctively building new skills to further their career prospects.

At the core of self-management are three skills everyone must develop: (1) learning to manage your commitments and time; (2) cultivating the motivation and capability to learn new things on your own in support of your work; and (3) building and nurturing your personal network. With those three skills, you will be successful, though they may not make you a star.

In my opinion, to move from a good employee to a star employee, you must build on those skills in the following three ways: (1) add value by understanding your organization’s key success factors and learning how similar organizations are achieving success in those areas; (2) identify your long-term goals for your career and seek projects that both add value to the organization and advance your career goals; and (3) be willing to share in your success and help others achieve their goals. 

A key question is whether these skills are something you are born with or whether they can be developed and honed with practice and time. Although some people are lucky to be born with these skills, most of us are forced to develop them through practice and reflection. Kelley notes that learning to manage your commitments is unique to each person: there is no single approach that works for everyone. This is an area that Kelley feels you must experiment with to find what works best for you. He also notes that as your duties change, you are likely going to need to evolve how you manage your commitments. For me, learning to manage my calendar was the essential skill I needed to learn as I advanced in management. Today, I live and die by my calendar, and I have learned to use my calendar to build in dedicated work time to complete my commitments.

Understanding how to add value to the organization is critical to being a star. Higher education is a complex system, and each college/university differs in how information flows and decisions are made. To learn how your institution works, and where there are opportunities to add value, you have to understand it from different perspectives or viewpoints outside of your department. I found two different activities were important to my success at understanding UMBC; however, when I started them, I had no idea they would provide the keys to unlock the secrets of the university. First, for many years of my career, I played pickup basketball at lunch with other faculty and staff. I was the only one from the IT organization, and I became friends with faculty and staff from many other areas. We would talk about work, and those conversations gave me insight into how technology could help them and helped me prototype solutions for others. Second, after ten years at UMBC, I had the opportunity to serve in our professional staff senate. I met staff leaders from all over the university and was briefed on topics and activities that had nothing to do with technology but were at the core of the university’s mission. This was my higher education 101 course! One of my greatest accomplishments was chairing the campus parking committee. Working across groups, I was able to partner with leaders to develop a long-term plan for parking.

Building self-management skills takes time and is a multi-year process. It requires time for people to find what works for them and to be given more autonomy and opportunity as they grow professionally. To do this at UMBC, we have tried to rethink performance evaluations. I became a Marcus Buckingham fan when I heard him speak at the EDUCAUSE 2004 annual meeting. I hadn’t intended to listen to this keynote session, but I found his talk inspirational and bought his book The One Thing You Need to Know.3 After reading it, I bought multiple copies and assigned it to all my leaders for a book discussion.

Buckingham emphasizes the obvious fact that employees have strengths and weaknesses. What was eye-opening to me was his analysis that we, as managers, often spend much more of our time trying to improve employees’ weaknesses than we spend on trying to enhance their strengths! Buckingham noted that most managers spend more time trying to improve people in some category of weakness, say from a “D” to a “C,” when the best option for business should be focused on improving people from a “B” to an “A” and giving them more responsibility in an area in which they excel. By rethinking evaluations to focus on strengths, we are empowering workers to focus on developing their strengths—something they were naturally inclined to do.

For employees’ weaknesses, we need to do one or more of three things: (1) assume they will struggle from time to time in this aspect of work; (2) realign job duties to lessen this activity; or (3) provide additional support to help. However, instead of spending all our discussion time and mentoring time on improving weaknesses, it is much more beneficial to focus on building strengths! This approach is not universally acknowledged, but I believe that for knowledge workers in the IT field, it has proved very positive.

I’ll end by talking about myself and four lessons I have learned about self-management during my career.

First, take advantage of rare opportunities. Early in my career, due to an instructor’s illness, I was asked (at the last minute) to teach a computer science course, “Machine Organization and Assembly Language Programming.” I could have said no, but I took advantage of the fact that either I would teach the course or the class would be canceled. Teaching a university course did two things for me: it allowed me to see how hard it is to teach a college-level course; and it gave me an appreciation of what mastery of a topic truly required. I thought I was an expert until I began to get questions from smart students in class. That helped me to understand that there was another level of learning necessary for mastery. If you are interested in higher education IT, teaching a class is an incredible opportunity that will give you a new appreciation for faculty and a much deeper mastery of the topic. Whatever that rare opportunity is for you, don’t doubt yourself. Use it to challenge yourself and grow.

Second, become comfortable with delegating your work and managing your time. Early in my career I was always working. After my wife and I had children, I found that I could not do all that I was doing at work and still be a good husband and father. That forced me to realize that I had to learn to delegate and trust my team. At the same time, I had to be much more planful in allocating my time to projects. I could no longer simply pull an all-nighter to finish a project because that would affect my family. I remember that when I coached sports for my sons, in September I would clear my calendar for late afternoons in the spring for practices so that I could lessen potential conflicts before they occurred. Control your calendar, and you control your life!

Third, take care of yourself and find time to think. As I age, I find that to produce at a high level of work, I need to exercise regularly. This does two things for me. First it allows me to remove stress and stay on an even level emotionally, and second, I find that when exercising (I like to run and swim), I am able to let my subconscious work on those bigger tasks behind the scenes. Often, I will finish exercising with the realization for how to proceed on something that has been stumping me. Whether your choice is running, yoga, walking, or something else, what is important is building this time into your schedules early in your career. I always prioritize exercise and family over my work by controlling my calendar.

Fourth, identify broad goals to pursue. Ideally, self-management should allow you to align your work, career, and personal life. When I hit fifty, I tried to be more conscious about this integration. Now every year or two, I step back and think about what I want to accomplish. I took something I did earlier this year and put it on Trello to share as an example of thinking holistically.

I encourage everyone who is reading this blog post to think about your goals and about what you can do to improve self-management in support of those goals.


  1. Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002).
  2. Robert E. Kelley, How to Be a STAR at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed (New York: Times Books, 1998).
  3. Marcus Buckingham, The One Thing You Need to Know: About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success (New York: Free Press, 2005).

Jack Suess is Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).