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BW Businessworld

Assess Yourself: Are You a Good Boss?

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The next time you are with a group of co-workers — enjoying downtime at an annual meeting, convention, team-building retreat, or mandated training session — try this experiment. Start a round of story-telling. Ask your colleagues to think about, and then share, their most memorable career experience — the one that most impacted how they behave today as a manager. You may be surprised to discover that more than half the stories will be about a good or bad boss or about becoming a boss for the first time.

If you are a boss, you are much more influential than you realise. For better or worse, what you say and do will be observed and imitated.  “We had a boss who gave us the space because he trusted us …I learned the value of mentoring because he was a wonderful mentor. He spent time with us. That is something I try to do with my own people. I spent time with my young officers because he spent time with me – guiding me, teaching me,” said a senior manager from the public sector.

Another manager said: “I had an extremely good boss. She was very clear, very objective about things, and had a certain warmth about her. It’s not like she would tell you, ‘This is the leadership lesson.’ We watched and learned.”

These managers’ experiences are not unique. Four decades of research (across countries in Asia and North America) tell us that managers watch their own bosses; almost unconsciously, they absorb pointers about how to motivate, develop, and inspire subordinates.

We also know that to win the hearts of their employees, there are six priorities that bosses must set for themselves.  Moreover, according to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) researcher William Gentry’s analysis of survey results from over 30,000 managers from 30 countries, working for 4000 companies headquartered around the world — these six priorities correlate with managers getting a higher rating on their own leadership performance from their boss!

Here is what effective bosses aim to do.

Provide prompt feedback, both positive and negative. For example, this is how Sumita’s boss Mr Gambhir reacted to her handling technology poorly. Her computer malfunctioned in the middle of her slideshow presentation to senior managers. While the group waited for an IT technician to arrive, she commented, “Technology and I never see eye-to-eye.” 

When the meeting concluded, her boss took her aside to gently assert: “You better make it a point to see eye-to-eye with technology in the future, or you won’t have a future.” He went on to counsel her that she needed to stop giving herself a negative message about her ability to get along with technology.

Coach employees on how to meet expectations. Mr Gambhir did so. He reminded Sumita that technology would rule the future of their company, and she needed to get her technology act together. In another situation, Mr Ayer started by urging his subordinate Ram to take on an assignment at their company headquarters in Mumbai. Then he coached him on becoming comfortable with wearing suits and ties and learning to talk quietly.

Develop employees by providing challenge and opportunity. Push them to take on bigger responsibilities and perform at higher levels. As in the case of Ram, often subordinates do not want to be moved out of their comfort zone. But later, like Ram, they gratefully remember how their boss helped them to believe in themselves and become self-confident. 

There are many different ways to challenge employees, for example by encouraging them to accept a promotion for which they do not feel ready, speak up in meetings in which superiors are present, raise their hand for a regional or global move, improve a malfunctioning process such as sales orders fulfillment, or handle a negotiation or public relations initiative. Choosing to shove them out of their comfort zone is what matters.

Set a challenging climate to encourage individual growth. Effective bosses do more than take an interest in direct reports, cheering them on as they advance on their career path. Effective bosses also set and achieve ambitious group performance targets. Admittedly, working with people to achieve organisational goals calls for leadership artistry; and this artistry accrues slowly -- over years, not weeks or months. Regardless, to earn a seal-of-approval as a “good boss”, managers have to learn to create a performance-oriented climate and culture among their team or unit.

Help people learn from their mistakes. In today’s complex and chaotic business environment, honest mistakes are unavoidable. Scolding people for errors, rather than asking them to reflect and learn, discourages initiative and independent decision-making. Those who are afraid of making mistakes are not likely to take the initiative to be solutions-oriented, innovative, or entrepreneurial.

The reverse is also true: when managers are taught to be unafraid of making mistakes, they will take initiative. For example, here is a scenario described by one manager. “We were in the midst of negotiations,” he said. “I was with my boss and she kept silent, and left it to me. Her purpose was really to make me lead. It really struck home that you must give a person space, including the space to make mistakes, even if it is a major deal and it is a baptism by fire.”

The boss knew that a mistake was possible, but chose to give her subordinate the chance to exercise initiative and lead the negotiation anyway. She recognised that missteps and blunders are a part of learning and performing.

Actively promote his/her direct reports to senior management. A top executive at a bank confessed that she found it difficult to let her subordinates shine! As a high achiever, she was far happier with winning applause for her own successes. But over time, she taught herself to spotlight the achievements of her employees, taking quiet satisfaction and pride in their learning and performance.

Her turning point came when she realised that every person on her team wanted to make a contribution and be recognised for that. For example, a short acknowledgement of the fine efforts of the junior employee who compiled the statistics for a report would make him happy, feel like a part of the team, and guarantee his enthusiasm and hard work on future projects. Her attitude about publicising the good work of her subordinates changed 180 degrees.

Some bosses go further. To encourage their direct reports to take risks, they are willing to say: “If this experiment fails, the failure is mine. If we succeed, the credit is yours.”

A seasoned executive shared his belief that “a leader must take blame for everything and give credit for everything” rather than believing that “all credit is mine and all mistakes are due to the bunch of jokers that work with me.” A motto advocated by another mature manager is: You can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not care who gets the credit.

Given these six priorities that effective bosses work towards, ask yourself: Are your direct reports learning “good boss” behaviours from you? Someday, their experience of reporting in to you could turn into an inspiring or amusing story told to colleagues or good friends over a long dinner at a convention!

Meena Wilson is Senior Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and author of Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today: Insights from Corporate India (Wiley, 2010)