Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What Makes for a Great Boss?

I saw a link tweeted by Ron Edmondson about a Harvard Business Review article "12 Things Good Bosses Believe." The article, by Robert Sutton, asks what are some common traits or beliefs held by great bosses. It's an interesting article, and has some items there you may not have thought about. But half way through I was wondering if he was serious - the list was shaping up to be completely different from what I would consider crucial to being a great boss or leader. (Perhaps he's targeting a boss of an entry level position or shop foreman?) Nor did many of his comments address things I talked about in a recent post on the difference between a 'boss' and a 'leader'.

Some of the items on Sutton's list of 12 things good bosses believe:
  • My success depends largely on being the master of obvious and mundane things
  • Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much.
  • Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
  • How I do things is as important as what I do.
  • Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.
About five more on his list involve awareness of your limitations, trying not to be a jerk, and trying to shield your people from jerks. Hmmm... not bad beliefs - I would like my boss to be practical, down-to-earth, and trying to solve problems. But are these really among the very top beliefs or attitudes among truly great bosses?? Has corporate America really gotten so pathetic that avoiding being a Dilbert boss is the mark of greatness?!

The article did get me thinking though, what are some of the most crucial beliefs I would expect to see in a boss/leader that was great? Here's my short (and imperfect) list, phrased as things the boss' subordinates would say:
  1. They're crystal-clear on the mission of my organization and the role my team plays in it.
  2. They set clear expectations and give immediate feedback - both on things I'm doing well and on things that I need to do differently - I don't have to wonder where I stand.
  3. They care about me as an individual.
  4. They're actively trying to help me develop to be the best that I can be.
  5. Their main activity is supporting their team as they do the work, eliminating roadblocks and/or providing resources or training.
  6. They ask me what I think on decisions that are going to affect me.
  7. They're not afraid to defer to someone, including someone who reports to them, who knows more about the task at hand than they do.
  8. They strive to keep great people around by letting them work on things that utilize their greatest strengths while fostering a positive work environment.
  9. They don't ask me to do things they wouldn't do themselves.
  10. They listen to me and exhibit humility. (Sutton and I agree on this one!)
What beliefs do you think make for a great boss?


Anonymous said...

Why is #2 such a hard thing for leaders to accomplish? It seems I'm always in a state of "I have no idea what my boss thinks of me or my work." Clear and proper expectations of workers as well as informing them of how/when they over/under-achieve seems like such a basic thing. Maybe that's just my personality, though?

Larry Baxter said...

Good question! It is a basic thing but because it's so prevalent, many people never see it modeled, and so they don't do it themselves. For people doing well, sometimes bosses don't "want to give them a big head" by praising them. On the negative side, it's really uncomfortable for a lot of people to tell someone their quality of work is poor.

I see this a LOT in non-profits especially, where there is fear that telling a volunteer that they're not doing something well will result in them just quitting.