This is of course a topic that many, many others have written about but here’s my quick take on what it means to be a Good Boss(tm).
I took the approach here of thinking first about what I like in a boss. Then I did a quick survey of the people that currently work for me at Razoo to see what they think it means. Here we go:
1. Listen, listen, listen
Sure, sometimes things just need to get done. However, we’re all human beings so we appreciate being heard and empathized with, even if there is nothing our boss can actually do to change the situation or our boss just simply disagrees.
One of my team looks for “quality in response – provide good responses showing understanding with empathy“.
As a boss, part of your role is to be a therapist, like it or not.
2. Set context
Management often focuses too much on the “what” and not enough on the “why”. Not only is the why vital for maintaining motivation – few people enjoy working on tasks that seem pointless or futile – but the context is also a big part of enabling people to think outside the box; it enables people to come up with a different “what” in the service of the same “why”.
As one of my team put it, a Good Boss(tm) “helps the team understand and focus on what’s important“.
3. Define success
As well as telling me what my role and activities mean in the context of the bigger picture, be specific in defining what achieving the objective actually means; the more specific, the better. That way, the danger of a misunderstanding is minimized and trust is maintained.
Couch this success both in terms of what it means for me, the team and for the company as a whole.
“Quantify results – provide measurable metrics for all my requirements,” said one of my team.
4. Give me what I need to be successful
Once you’ve told me what success means, if you’re not giving me the tools, information and support to be successful, you’re setting me up to fail. A Good Boss(tm) realizes that his or her role is to support the team; to be in service of the team, rather than the other way around.
5. Manage me at the right level for me
We’re all different. We arrive at our jobs with differing levels of preparedness for the role. Sometimes we’ve done a very similar job at a very similar company. Other times, it’s a step up for us in responsibility and/or a new industry.
Depending on who I am and my experience, I will need different levels of hand-holding.
By default, a good starting point and principle is to trust me to do the job that I was hired to do, unless and until you have evidence warranting otherwise.
I was also told that a Good Boss(tm) is “respectful of people’s abilities and aspirations but also of their limitations and reality“. Well said.
6. Understand what I need to be motivated in the long-term
A Good Boss(tm) understands that superficial carrots and sticks don’t motivate in the long-term. Doubly so in a knowledge-worker industry like IT, with 100% employment.
Most of the research that’s been done over the past 20-30 years has pretty categorically shown that knowledge workers actually do worse when working towards a reward/bonus. For an interesting and fun example, check out this TED talk on the “marshmallow challenge”. In the software development industry, there’s also this classic from Joel Spolsky.
Feeling like I’m doing a good job, adding value to the business and that my contribution is appreciated by my peers and superiors will motivate me much more in the long-term than any threat, reading of the riot act, bonus scheme or desk ornament.
For even more on this topic, read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
7. Give me candid and timely feedback
A Good Boss(tm) has to have the courage to tell it like it is. I would much rather you tell me about concerns or negative feedback immediately, before it festers. If you wait to say something until it has become a Big Issue but I have no idea, trust is lost and the results are almost always bad.
8. Inspire me to be better
A Good Boss(tm) pushes me to continuously improve what I do and how I do it.
As one of my team put it, a Good Boss(tm), “knows how to safely stretch people outside of their comfort zone”.
A good part of this is of course leading by example. A Good Boss(tm) needs to also be “passonate – show that you care about what you do“.
9. Build and nurture a high-performing team
The above points are more about the individual and the 1:1 relationship between boss and employee. Of course, a Good Boss(tm) is fundamentally in the business of building teams that function. This requires an understanding of many issues such as the differences in personality types, learning styles, backgrounds and experiences as well as being good at hiring and managing “up or out”.
A Good Boss(tm) “facilitates healthy discussions, defuses tense/poisonous situation” and “fosters a positive work atmosphere, favors collaboration“.
Again, you’re a therapist; get used to it.
10. Always try to be a better boss
It’s a two-way street. You have to help and inspire others to get better but you also have to continuously strive to get better yourself. A Good Boss(tm), “reaches out to the team constantly to get better at being their boss“.
Thanks to Patrick, Vince, Stephen and Alex who put up with me being their boss and contributed to this post.