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What makes a good boss?

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CRM calamityBest HR Strategy Feature 2008

Good bossTrying to define what makes a good boss is a bit like asking about the meaning of life – there are millions of theories, views and opinions on both. So, Lucie Benson sets about asking those in the know about what they think makes an outstanding manager.


OK, so asking what makes a good boss is a pretty huge question and it’s unlikely that there will ever be one definitive answer. However, creating an environment and culture that encourages managers to be the best they can be could have far-reaching benefits for your organisation, and could inspire your employees to be more productive, engaged and motivated.

Let’s start with the attributes that a boss needs in order to be great. “There are many attributes that make up a good boss,” says Richard Brown, director at consultancy North Star. “It’s quite simple though,” he adds. “Treat others like you would like to be treated. Be a coach, not a cop.”

Denis Barnard, director of HRmeansbusiness Ltd, lists three attributes that a boss must have: “Consistency, fairness, and deserving of respect,” he says. “Of course, a good boss is different things to different people – that is why so many trees are laid to waste every year by people writing books on management. There is no template.”

“A good boss is different things to different people – that is why so many trees are laid to waste every year by people writing books on management.”

Denis Barnard, HRmeansbusiness Ltd

Grant Weston, HR consultant at Integrated HR, also has a list of attributes, as follows: “Approachable, empathetic, supportive, challenging, firm, fair, a good listener, a coach, a mentor and a friend.” He goes on to describe the best boss that he has had in his career to date: “My best manager was one who refused to let me sit in my comfort zone and constantly challenged me to develop my skills, asking me to put myself into situations where I could grow personally and professionally.”

It is also important that a good boss helps to drive their team towards achieving common goals, says Simon Mitchell, director at business leadership consultancy DDI. “To do this, they must to some extent suspend their own ego by recognising the value of achieving results through other people. To ensure results are delivered by the team, leaders must first equip people with the skills needed to be successful.

“Crucially, a high level of integrity is required to build an environment of trust and motivation,” he adds. “Creating this environment also comes through tactics like coaching and leading effectively through change. A good boss must also be able to recognise the problems of the team and the organisation, and must be able to manage the individuals in the team who are underperforming.”

Management consultant John Pope conducted a small survey on the attributes of a good boss, and although the results varied slightly, the top four attributes, out of 10, were consistent. These were:

  • Focus on task and achievement

  • Initiative

  • Creation of vision

  • Drive and energy.

Pope adds that, unfortunately, communication and consideration for people came at the bottom of the list. “People come to work to get something done, they hate having their time wasted by managers who chop and change, dither, or cannot give a clear sense of direction,” he adds. “People would like to see a lasting result from their labours. They also like to be inspired by working towards a better future. And don’t forget that drive and energy are infectious diseases.”

Engagment and inspiration

One of the most crucial things that a good manager can do is to engage his/her employees. In order to inspire employees to achieve more, a boss must know how to motivate them and encourage them to realise their potential. Therefore, structured development processes which reflect the company values and characteristics must be implemented, says Brown.

“It’s not about being in charge,” he says. “It’s about being a leader. This involves assessing the state of your employment relationship and providing yourself with the tools required to improve communication and discover the benefits of securing an engaged team. In turn, you can then motivate your employees and provide them with the tools needed to get their job done.”

Mitchell agrees. “A good boss engages their team by motivating them to accomplish a common goal. They must be an excellent communicator and be able to clearly articulate the direction the company is taking, and the individuals’ roles in achieving the business goals. Understanding this is what motivates people to achieve their individual objectives. If a boss does that well, there will be higher levels of engagement.”

An engaged workforce also comes about through the promotion of teamwork. Brown remarks that the opportunity to work in a team environment must be maximised, whilst encouraging the team to make decisions as a group. “This helps promote teamwork, and an understanding of what is going on in the wider business, plus it improves communications. The boss should play the role of a good chairman – encourage contributions, spend most of the time listening, summarise and encourage the team to make a decision, and show leadership by making the decision where necessary.”

Training the boss

“While some people might have a natural talent to lead, nobody is born with inherent leadership skills.”

Simon Mitchell, DDI

If a boss needs to brush up on his or her management skills, is it possible to train them to be better at leading people? Can you actually shape their natural characteristics?

“It is absolutely possible to train bosses to be good,” says Mitchell. “While some people might have a natural talent to lead, nobody is born with inherent leadership skills. Everyone, no matter how naturally good they are at being a boss, can learn and be taught leadership skills to make them a ‘good’ boss.”

This is something that Pope agrees with in part, but adds that it can take time to get rid of long-standing bad habits and instil better ones: “Managers need constant support from their superiors and colleagues, sometimes even from their subordinates, in improving the way they manage. Unless a manager has some good basic characteristics, it is almost impossible to turn them into good ones in any reasonable time. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

Brown stresses the importance of coaching when training managers to develop their skills. “Training in core management skills is always good but there needs to be an emphasis on coaching – for many, this is a difficult skill to put into practice well. The boss often knows the answer to subordinates’ questions. It is natural to impart that knowledge and give instructions to solve a problem quickly; far better for the long-term health of the organisation and growth of the people within it that wisdom is learnt rather than received.”

Perhaps Barnard sums it up nicely – he points out that, over the decades, he has found only one way that really works when it comes to training bosses to be good: “By seeing good management in action in real life,” he remarks. “Good management can be likened to leadership and pornography – impossible to describe, but you sure know it when you see it.”

Encouraging managers to be great can strengthen your organisation as well as inspire your employees to want to achieve their best and more. The main thing to remember is that everyone in the company – from the board level downwards – must have a shared understanding of the vision, mission and goals of the business. This will enable employees to feel valued and worthy, which can, in turn, have a positive effect on the bottom line.

2 Responses

  1. Haute cuisine
    I suppose a good analogy would be a Chef.

    They don’t assume the ingredients all taste like standard ingredients. They vary the recipe according to the taste of what is at hand.

    Of course the final dish may taste slightly different depending on the ingredients. But you know it will be a stunningly tasty concoction!

  2. Simple exercise
    I agree that too many trees have been cut down in the production of books about leaders/managers/bosses. There is a very simple exercise which works in most group sizes to elucidate what a good boss does. Even senior bosses enjoy doing it! Quite simply, you ask everyone present to think about their own best boss and their own worst boss. Then, (in sub-groups if necessary) you ask them to talk about what each “boss” actually did – in terms which are as specific as possible – to be great, and to be awful. This is then shared and discussed. Those bosses present who are likely to develop quite quickly realise the “good” behaviours versus the “bad” behaviours, recognise that circumstances might require different behaviours, and realise the importance of their own behaviour in setting the climate/culture.

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