Incompetent bosses, poor managers, and lousy leaders are easy to identify when you work for one. However, quantifying what makes the good ones great isn’t nearly as simple. Employees know that they are respected, rewarded, and that work is more enjoyable and gratifying when their boss is at his/her best.
While most people will use the terms interchangeably, management and leadership are not the same. There is a whole host of definitions to explain the difference, but it truly boils down to this: Managers are tactical, and leaders are strategic. Managers must recognize, understand, and utilize employee differences in order to optimize individual performance. Leaders conceptualize a vision for the future and organize employees into teams/groups in order to accomplish a defined mission. It goes without saying that both sets of skills are desirable. The success of any manager or leader is the result of individuals and teams that are motivated and empowered to apply talent, discipline, and problem-solving in the workplace.
Becoming a better boss is an enormous goal. The true measure of your success can be recognized in the attitudes and performance of subordinates. Discover how you measure up by reviewing some of the traits effective managers and leaders have perfected.
1. A great boss is accessible.
Do you have an open-door policy? Individuals that make this standard practice are knowledgeable about their team’s successes, are aware of which employees are working hard (and which are hardly working), and are keen to complaints and criticisms. “A lot of managers who aren’t connected with what’s going on in the workplace stay in their office(s). Then, once in awhile, they walk out and pat somebody on the back. Everybody knows the guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” says Larry Johnson, president, Johnson Training Group, Scottsdale, AZ. To avoid this, consider using the MBWA (management by walking around) strategy.
Make sure subordinates know that you consider their concerns and needs important. According to authors Bob Nelson and Peter Economy in Managing for Dummies, 2nd edition, “Part of being a good manager and coach is being available to your employees when they need your help.”
2. A great boss develops healthy relationships with employees.
Take a genuine interest in your employees’ lives, find out what skills they have, discover what motivates them, and inquire about what personal and professional aspirations they have. In the book First, Break All the Rules, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman discuss the reason this relationship is so important: “The talented employee may join a company because of its charismatic leaders, its generous benefits, and its world-class training programs, but how long that employee stays and how productive he is while he is there is determined by his relationship with his immediate supervisor.”
To set employees at ease and help you connect better, Mark R. Sekula and Jeffrey T. Neidorfler of Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater Inc., in an IFMA World Workplace 2004 presentation on Grassroots Leadership, offered the following advice: “Occasionally disclose personal information. It will help people understand you better.”
3. A great boss customizes his/her approach for individuals.
In an effort to be fair, it’s natural to assume that every one of your employees should be treated the same. However well-intentioned this thought may be, it isn’t - and shouldn’t be - standard practice. In Michael Feiner’s book The Feiner Points of Leadership, he explains, “Some of your subordinates need a short leash, some a long leash. Some need lots of freedom to perform best, some prefer structure. Equity comes from giving each subordinate what he or she needs to perform, even though these needs may be different.”
Favoritism, when administered for the right reasons, is acceptable. “If individuals are your favorites because they’re the best performers on your team, are easy to work with, contribute a huge amount, are there every day, and go the extra mile - then that’s perfectly valid favoritism,” says Johnson. “Those are the individuals you give the raises to. That’s who you put on the best committees, and that’s who you send to the annual conference in Hawaii. They’ve earned it.”
4. A great boss recognizes accomplishments and issues praise regularly.
How often are you recognized for a job well done? Chances are good that your answer is “not enough.” Your employees probably feel the same way. However, it may be hard to strike a balance between “too much” and “not enough.” “My encouragement to the managers at my workshops is, ‘Don’t worry about praising people too much.’ What you have to be careful about is making sure that the praise is based on reality and is something the recipient can respect you for giving to him or her,” Johnson says.
Bob Nelson, in Managing for Dummies, shares the following insight: “Praising employees only takes a moment, but the benefits - to your employees and to your organization - will last for years.” He recommends you recognize employees promptly, sincerely, and in person, and that your compliments be specific and remain positive (don’t include a “but”). Lastly, be proactive and try to “catch people doing things right.”
5. A great boss coaches employees and addresses under-performers.
Assuming every employee has a clear understanding of what is expected of them, there are two reasons individuals under-perform. They are either not equipped for success (e.g. employees may not have the resources - cooperation, training, equipment, etc. - or adequate time to complete quality work) or do not possess the desire to succeed. In order to manage these situations and individuals, you must first assess which of these reasons apply. Those individuals who lack motivation or fail repeatedly require coaching.
However, you should not exhaust all your time on the team’s under-performers. Individuals that consistently demonstrate a strong work ethic and above-average skills need feedback and guidance as well. If you ignore them - or worse yet, “reward” their hard work by strapping them with more responsibility - they won’t remain your top performers for long. In Feiner’s book, he explains that feedback is a gift and coaching is too frequently relegated to the bottom of a boss’ list of priorities. “Too often those same leaders - those who complain about not having the time - want to know why they find it necessary to replace a subordinate, whose performance has been unsatisfactory, after only a year on the job.” Conduct regular reviews of employees’ performance. And be aware of the message you’re sending by letting an individual’s bad performance become habitual. “Sometimes by postponing firing somebody, a manager is communicating that [his/her] behavior is okay,” explains Johnson.
6. A great boss delegates work and trusts employees to use the skills/strengths they were hired for.
While micromanagement is one strategy for overseeing personnel, it’s rarely effective. Most employees feel empowered when a boss trusts them enough to make wise decisions and apply their knowledge and skills toward a goal. In discussing The Law of Expectations in his book, Feiner illustrates the point by stating, “People respond to the level of confidence you show in them.”
Managers who do not provide employees the opportunity to make decisions, fail to acknowledge the valuable opinions and ideas of subordinates who are on the front lines. It also sends a message of distrust. Nelson and Economy illustrate this in Managing for Dummies by explaining, “By empowering workers, managers place the responsibility for decision-making with the employees who are in the best position to make the decision.”
7. A great boss is a great communicator (and listener).
The more succinctly - and more often - you communicate goals, the more likely your employees are to rally around them. The best way to communicate clearly is to follow some simple guidelines. John P. Kotter, in his book titled Leading Change, identifies the following characteristics of effective communication and recommends that you:
- Keep it simple (avoid jargon).
- Use metaphors, analogies, and examples.
- Communicate in multiple forums (i.e. memos, meetings, informal interactions, etc.)
- Be repetitive.
- Back up your statements with actions.
- Address any inconsistencies.
- Encourage two-way communication.
The most effective way to manage relationships with your staff is through frequent, formal and informal, and in-person interactions. Whether you practice the MBWA strategy, implement regular lunch outings, or conduct feedback meetings (sometimes referred to as pow-wows or workouts), it’s important that, as a boss, you are not the only one talking. The art of listening is a skill that effective managers and leaders have mastered. If you’re thinking about how to address an HVAC system failure while an employee is expressing frustrations to you, then you’re not listening. Give employees your full attention and recognize that you’re not the only one with concerns and ideas worthy of discussion.
8. A great boss has vision and the ability to rally individuals or teams.
Employees who are excited and inspired are more likely to devote extra time, energy, and brainpower on the job. Visionary leaders explain to employees the future of the organization and clearly articulate its goals and mission. They understand how to motivate individuals, and not only present ideas and plans with energy but have conviction that is evident in all their actions.
9. A great boss leads by example.
Actions speak louder than words. Employees expect you to set the example. Recognize that, as a boss, you are setting an example for employees. In First, Break All the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman excerpt insights from a conversation with Michael, a successful restaurant manager. “A manager has got to remember that he is on stage every day. His people are watching him. Everything he does, everything he says, and the way he says it, sends off clues to his employees. These clues affect performance. So never forget you are on that stage,” he advises.
10. A great boss is ethical.
Bosses can apply any number of management styles, but one common attribute of individuals that excel at managing people, projects, and processes is ethics. With so many corporate scandals, it’s easy to assume that ethics are an old-fashioned value. This is simply not so. “Now more than ever, businesses and the leaders who run them are trying to do the right thing, not just because the right thing is politically correct, but also because it’s good for the bottom line,” say the authors of Managing for Dummies. Great leaders understand the difference between right and wrong and value employees with this same propensity.
Becoming a better boss requires that you apply the skills and tactics of great managers and leaders every day. It necessitates making tough decisions, understanding employees, and practicing what you preach. However, great bosses make mistakes. They are not without flaws. What’s important is that you recognize there is always room for improvement. You owe it to your subordinates to make becoming a better boss a priority - not just for your sake, but for theirs as well.
Jana J. Madsen (jana.madsen @buildings.com) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.