What Skills are Important for a Department Leader?

Illustration of leader serving team

Are you ready to start thinking bigger than the project and about disciplines outside of your function? The transition from leading a team to leading a department begins to move you away from being a functional contributor and into more of a strategic and management role. You'll be asked to work on higher-level problems across a range of projects and organizational initiatives, and your time horizon will shift from quarters to years. If you're transitioning into a department manager or director role, these skills need to be in your toolbox.

Execution Strategy

Illustration of leader break large project into small projects

Your organization has a vision of how it wants to change the world and where it wants to be in a few years. Your job is to help its leaders break apart that long-range vision into executable projects and milestones. What are the key ways your department serves its organization?

Product Management

Illustration of leader deciding where to make big investment

Product management is a broad discipline encompassing customer discovery, product visioning, creation, marketing, support, and wind down, generally spanning multiple versions over several years. How well do you understand your organization's customers and how its products make their life better? Do you know the lifecycle of your organization's products and how to organize your teams' work accordingly?

Resource Planning

Illustration of leader gathering needed resources

To help your organization achieve its vision and execute your department's mid-range strategy, what resources do you need to assemble? What people, equipment, knowledge, facilities, materials, or outside help is needed? When do you need them?

Personnel Development

Illustration of leader helping teammate reach new level

Your organization will change over time, and your team's capabilities will need to change with it. The good news is most people are eager to learn new skills and grow; they just need help and direction from you. How will your department's needs change over time? How can you help your team members develop skills to meet those new needs?

Budgeting and Finance

Illustration of leader balancing resources

Wouldn't it be great to live in a world with unlimited time, cash, and resources, and your organization could pursue any initiative without the worry of cost or conflict? Unfortunately, few of us live in that world, so we make tradeoffs in what we undertake, the products we create, and the quality we strive for. Budgeting allows you to allocate your time, capital, cash flow, and resources on paper so you can make better decisions and strategic tradeoffs.


Illustration of leaders cooperating

Negotiation is the process used by people and organizations to arrive at agreements or settle disputes. Many of the department leaders' critical outputs are agreements between people and teams in the organization, partners, and vendors. How well can you negotiate? How good are you at helping people reach agreements or settle disputes?

Change Management

Illustration of people fighting over change

Change is hard, and many people and organizations fight change even when it would be good. Learning to shepherd people and organizations through transition is often the difference between the success and failure of an initiative. How can you help your organization, its people, and its customers change?

Thought Questions

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  • Does departmental leadership appeal to you? Why?
  • What department leaders do you know? Can you interview them to learn more about the role?
  • How would you rate your current knowledge and ability for these seven skills?
  • If you could only improve one skill in the next month, which one would it be, and what steps would you take?
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