Managers get things done through other people. They make decisions, allocate resources, and direct the activities of others to attain goals. They do this in an organization, which is a consciously coordinated social unit, composed of two or more people, that functions on a relatively continuous basis to achieve a common goal or set of goals. Management is work, albeit mental work, which is accomplished through what Henri Fayol identified as "management functions." According to Fayol: managers plan, organize, command, coordinate, and control. Texts often condense these to four: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Using the functional approach, first proposed by Fayol, what managers do is plan, organize, lead, and control. 

Henry Mintzberg, beginning in the late 1960s after careful study of what managers actually do, has concluded that they perform ten different, highly interrelated roles, or sets of behaviors attributable to their jobs. These roles can be grouped as being primarily interpersonal, informational, and decision making. The interpersonal roles include figurehead, leadership, and liaison activities. The informational roles include monitoring, disseminating, and spokesperson activities. The decision making roles include those of entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator, and negotiator. Using the roles approach, as postulated by Mintzberg, what managers do, then, is perform ten different, highly interrelated behaviors attributable to their jobs. 

Another way to understand what managers do is to look at the skills or competencies required to successfully achieve their goals. Robert Katz has identified and classified three essential management skills. These are: technical, human, and conceptual skills. Technical skills encompass the ability to apply specialized knowledge or expertise. Human skills relate to the ability to work with, understand, and motivate other people, both individually and in groups. Conceptual skills refer to the mental ability to analyze and diagnose complex situations. 

A common thread runs through these three approaches to management. Each recognizes the paramount importance of managing people. Regardless of a manager's level in the organization, recent studies support the conclusion that human skills must be rated as most important for his or her success.

Fred Luthans and his associates looked at the issue from a somewhat different perspective. They asked, "Do managers who move up most quickly in an organization do the same activities and with the same emphasis as those managers who do the best job?" They found that managers engaged in four managerial activities: traditional management, communication, human resource management, and networking. Managers who were successful allocated their time very differently from managers who were effective. The study challenges the historical assumption that promotions are based on performance and illustrates the importance of social and political skills in getting ahead in an organization.