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2015: Year of the Great Boss

I’m a sucker for New Year’s resolutions. January is a perfect time to start something new. We’ve topped off our tanks with good holiday cheer and there’s a palpable buzz of optimism everywhere. We are ready and—this is important—so is everyone else.

You can set a goal for yourself any day of the year, but maintaining motivation is hard work. It’s easier to achieve when we share a goal and intention with others on the same track. This is why Team in Training, 12 Step programs and NaNoWriMo work.

So I want make 2015 the Year of the Great Boss—for myself and others who want to lead more effectively. Here’s why, what I mean and how.

Great Bosses Are the Linchpin

First, great bosses have greater impact. Fewer things affect quality of work more than someone’s relationship with his or her immediate supervisor. A boss has great creative potential for making someone’s experience excellent or mediocre and this translates directly to the work itself. Not to mention retention.

Second, being a great boss makes work more fulfilling … for you. It’s an opportunity to have a meaningful effect and to develop stronger, mutually beneficial relationships with people who really matter to your bottom line.

Third, the boss—employee relationship is where the magic happens if you care about development of talent. Any investment in becoming or making a great boss pays dividends all the way down the line.

The Hallmarks of a Great Boss

At minimum, the job of a boss is to marshall their authority, experience and wisdom to get things done.  A boss’s ability to communicate clearly, delegate effectively and manage performance has a direct effect on how well his or her team meets its goals.

But great bosses aren’t just concerned about getting things done. They take an active role in developing talent and grooming their direct reports for bigger roles.

Great Bosses are Coaches

Great bosses act as coaches with one eye on the current capabilities of their employee and another on the potential waiting to be unlocked. They seek to understand each individual’s motivations, strengths and blind spots and find ways to bring out the best. There’s no cookie cutter here. This is about getting to know your people and developing mutually beneficial relationships.

Great Bosses are Advocates

An employee’s potential extends beyond his or her personal talents and capabilities and to relationships with other stakeholders in the organization. Great bosses take extra steps to make introductions and cultivate relationships that will support employee growth and the organizational goals.

Furthermore, great bosses teach their employees to advocate for themselves. Instead of asking whether people value what they do, their employees begin to develop strategies to demonstrate their contributions and get good feedback from stakeholders.

Great Bosses are Growth-Oriented

To be a great boss you have to possess what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”  A growth mindset holds—ta da!—that people can grow.  They can improve o matter their starting place.  Mistakes don’t reveal character flaws, they are situations from which someone learns.

The opposite of a growth mindset is a “fixed mindset” which is centered on the belief that you are either capable or not. It holds that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. (The latest neuroscience research has shown that old dogs do indeed learn, but that’s for another post.) If you have a fixed mindset about people, you might be a halfway effective taskmaster, but you will never be a great boss.

Great Bosses are Leaders

Clear, direct communication and self-management are two of the most important leadership skills that great bosses possess.

When under stress, it’s common for bosses to either over-communicate or under-communicate. Think of the times you’ve wanted to soften a blow or toss something over the wall. The result is confusion, at best. Communicating clearly and directly can be difficult, but great bosses do it consistently.

Self-management comes into play because it’s not easy to be a boss. People complain, disagree and don’t always appreciate their bosses. At the same time, they pay very close attention to the boss and read subtle cues to discern unspoken expectations and limits. No matter how frustrated or anxious great bosses feel, they resist the urge to let it all hang out, knowing that getting things done requires calm, unwavering direction.

Year of the Great Boss

Becoming a Great Boss

Being a great boss is a noble and rewarding goal, but a big challenge for most of us. A precious few are naturals. These folks possess a tremendously high degree of Emotional Intelligence—typically the result of strong and healthy relationships in their family of origin. Also, if you were lucky enough to have a great boss yourself, you know the behavior to model and can start from there.

The Self-Educated Boss

Most of us must actively endeavor to learn how to be a great boss. (And yes, I have a growth mindset and know from experience with many clients that this can be learned). You can take the DIY route of reading leadership books and then methodically experimenting with different approaches.

First, Break All the Rules is a good place to start your reading. You might consider incorporating the survey questions the Gallup Organization posed to identify great bosses into your conversations with direct reports.

The Resources section of our site offers other recommended media for people who want to improve their leadership skills.

In my book, The Creative Lawyer, I offer a series of questions that can help lay the foundation for a coaching relationship with your direct reports:

    1. What does the person like most about his or her job?
    2. What is he or she proud of?
    3. What demotivates him or her?
    4. What makes his or her day?
    5. What misconceptions, if any, do others have about him or her?
    6. How would he or she like to grow?
    7. What is a skill he or she has that everyone can benefit from?
    8. When is his or her birthday?

Download this chapter of The Creative Lawyer by clicking on the DOWNLOAD button at the bottom of this post.

As you try different leadership development techniques, you’ll need to ask for feedback from your colleagues, bosses and your direct reports all along the way. Two questions to get you started are:

  • What do I do well?
  • What can I do better?

Executive Coaching to Be a Great Boss

If you are really serious about becoming a great boss, your fastest route is to work with an executive coach. This is because it’s a one-on-one relationship with someone who has the expertise to cut through the complexity of your situation, identify where to focus for the most valuable results and tailor the work to you.

Good executive coaches are like good lawyers, doctors, business analysts and therapists in that they have training, processes and heaps of experience that allow them to quickly diagnose and methodically address the root cause.

Likewise, a coaching relationship is objective and confidential. With your colleagues and direct reports, you need to be a leader and uphold an image. With your coach you can be open about your frustrations, anxieties and goals. You don’t have to be impressive. And the coaching relationship itself serves not only as a testing ground, but a model for the behaviors that make a great boss.

What to Look for in a Coach

A good coach is honest and serves as a clear, unstreaked mirror. The higher you go in an organization, the less honest feedback you tend to receive. So it’s important to find a coach who is capable of standing toe-to-toe with you and will call it straight.

In our experience, real and lasting change requires that coaching focus on a small set of goals. For example: how do I develop people better? Look for a coach who has a solid approach to help you zero in on the one thing that will make the biggest difference to you.

There have been a fair number of studies that show coaching is effective, but there’s no magic methodology. The most important thing is to select someone who you like, trust and respect. Do they “get” you and your organization? Look carefully at experience and background, but pay attention to your gut. Can you be totally open with this person and trust their guidance?

Are you in?

So, what do you say? Are you in to make 2015 the Year of the Great Boss? Share your thoughts, questions, resources and ideas here.

Download The Creative Lawyer Book Chapter