Being the boss is a pretty good feeling for most people. Those of you who own your business or have management authority draw a certain comfort from calling the shots and being able to tell subordinates what to do. The boss usually gets paid more than the people he or she supervises and has more leeway in determining when and how to do the work that needs to be done.
Being the boss also carries special burdens. You get the blame when things go wrong. Sometimes the boss has the unpleasant duty of telling people that they have to shape up. Worse, the boss may have to fire them when they don’t. Worst of all, you may have to let some people go even though they didn’t do anything wrong and may be good workers - even friends - simply because business conditions make it necessary to trim the payroll. Being the boss usually entails longer than normal working hours, and it’s not always possible to stop working or at least thinking about work after you go home at night. Being the boss is stressful.
So being the boss has its plusses and minuses. Good bosses tend to find a lot more plusses than minuses in their job. Bad bosses tend to be grumpy because they find the minuses outweigh the plusses.
What’s it mean to be a good boss? To my way of thinking, the simplest definition means finding the appropriate balance between the needs of the business and the needs of the employees you supervise. These are not mutually exclusive.
However, some bosses go so far overboard looking out for the bottom line of their businesses that they ride roughshod over their workers. This makes them bad bosses. Bosses that treat their people badly are hurting more than helping the business. This may not be apparent when business is booming and the company is making money even though employee morale may be low. But it usually comes back to bite the company when a downturn comes. Like now.
Even when business is good, a happy and motivated workforce will make even more money for the company than one that is demoralized and just going through the motions. Bad bosses increase employee turnover, and turnover exacts a severe cost. Each new person costs thousands of dollars to hire and train, and it may take months or even years for a new employee to become fully productive.
So what’s it take to be a good boss? In my estimation, the best bosses are leaders rather than managers. The difference has to do with a keen observation that I’ve heard expressed by various business experts - managers gain power from above, leaders from below.
The fact that you own your business or have a managerial position gives you the authority to tell people what to do, but it doesn’t guarantee maximum effort. People will perform tasks assigned by a manager because they have to. They’ll do it for a leader because they want to. The leader has a knack for convincing them that it’s in their best interest to perform to the max. Sometimes they’ll even go all out just to please a leader who is particularly revered, just like a child wanting to make mom and dad proud of him.
All of which begs the question, what makes for a good leader? Many books have been written about this subject, and I can’t hope to explain it all in a few sentences. But here are some elements of leadership that I believe are important.
- Never ask a subordinate to do something you can’t or won’t do yourself. Leaders project confidence that stems from knowing what they are talking about and how to do the job they ask others to do. In the construction trades, this usually isn’t a problem, since most contractors, project managers, supervisors and foremen rose through the trade ranks. Occasionally you find some large company sending some recent college graduate to supervise people in the field, seldom with good results.
- Be open to advice from below. People who are on the front lines, whether it’s your crews in the field or office staff processing the paperwork, often have the best feel for how to accomplish their work with greatest efficiency. Sometimes their ideas are unworkable or cost too much, but even if only one suggestion out of 10 pans out, they’re worth listening to.
- Give credit freely. One of the fastest ways for a boss to become disliked is to take credit for ideas or work contributed by subordinates. Top-notch quarterbacks always pay tribute to their receivers and offensive line. Be sure to single out every employee who had a hand in a job well done.
- Take the heat. A good leader never passes the buck. One of the best examples of this comes from the historical record:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air (corps) and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to that attempt, it is mine alone.”
This message was composed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the day of the D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944. It’s what he would have said had the invasion failed. Happily, he instead broadcast a different message to the troops and the public back home, announcing a successful landing on the beaches of Normandy. This note of failure, however, reveals much about the character of this great leader who subsequently became president of the United States. If the D-Day invasion had not succeeded, there would have been plenty of blame to go around since various people would have fed Ike wrong information or fallen short in military performance. Instead, he chose to take it all upon his shoulders, and this never-delivered message stands as a prime example of leadership.
- Praise in public, criticize in private. When someone does something well, say it out loud or put it in writing for the entire company to see. When it comes time to correct an employee, do it one-on-one and keep it between the two of you. If it’s a serious mistake that others need to be know about in order to avoid a repeat, focus on the incident, not the person who made the mistake, who should remain anonymous in any memos written about the event.
- Keep doors open. A complete open-door policy is impractical in a very large organization. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company can’t very well invite tens of thousands of employees to barge into his office whenever they feel like it. But if that CEO is a good leader, he’ll have systems in place to ensure that the concerns and ideas of even the lowliest employees have a way of filtering all the way to the top. There are no Fortune 500 companies in your field that I’m aware of. Most of you reading this work for businesses small enough that it is possible for the owner/CEO to speak directly with every employee from time to time. I’ve noticed that in the best small and medium-size companies I’ve visited the highest-ranking executives tend to know the names of all the people working in the organization, even those who drive trucks or toil in warehouses. While showing me around, frequently the big shots will stop to chat about work and personal matters with someone far down the corporate ladder. I’ve also noticed a correlation between this behavior and companies that are the best in their industry.
- Don’t get too close. Leaders need to be friendly and accessible to the people they supervise, but it’s awkward to become best buddies with them. This is why the U.S. military discourages off-duty fraternizing between officers and enlisted personnel. They know that severe conflicts can arise when someone is called upon to put a best friend in harm’s way. You’re not dealing with life and death matters in your business, but even appearances of favoritism can reduce a boss’s effectiveness.
- Cut some slack with personal issues. A good boss will do whatever he or she can to help out employees dealing with personal or family problems. We live in a world filled with working moms, people taking care of elderly parents or faced with various other difficulties outside of work. This doesn’t excuse people from doing the job they are paid to do, but if there is any way to accommodate them with time off, flexible hours, or other considerations consistent with company policy, it will pay off in the long run.
Keep in mind that you can’t show favoritism. If you make special allowances for one employee, you need to do it for everyone in similar circumstances. And you have to do it in a way that doesn’t impact business performance. All that being said, good leaders understand that cutting some slack on occasion usually results in those people paying back with extra effort at other times.
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