I got my first job at age 16. I was a clerk at a locally-owned grocery store in my hometown of Winchester, Kentucky, happy with the $1.60 per hour starting salary. I did my work to the best of my ability. I was thrilled when I got my first raise of five cents per hour. I got along with the owners and the extended family that ran the store. They were each different with their own personalities and ways of doing things. In that environment, I got my first taste of the differences that bosses can bring to the workplace.
That was 40 years ago. Over four decades of working, I’ve had experience with a lot of different bosses – some great, some mediocre, some awful. In this post, I will share with you the characteristics and practices demonstrated by the bosses I consider to be the best that I’ve had the privilege to work with. My next post will discuss the flip side – those dreadful characteristics and practices that have made working under some bosses a painful time of endurance testing.
The best bosses I’ve ever had:
Are encouragers. We like to be encouraged with kind words and with recognition of a job well done. We like to know that others have confidence in us even if we aren’t quite as confident in ourselves at times, especially when tackling something new. If you tell me you know I can do something, I will do everything in my power not to let you down.
Are approachable. Whether via an open door policy or by ample other opportunities to engage with employees, bosses must create an environment where their direct reports know that they are welcome and encouraged to approach them any time with questions, concerns, suggestions, complaints, etc. An unapproachable boss will be detached from the team and woefully unaware of the reality around him/her.
Are organized. A boss who knows how to set priorities, plan and successfully execute sets a great example for those who report to him/her. On the contrary, unorganized bosses can leave a whole team disorganized and discouraged by the constant chaos.
Are willing to do grunt work if needed. I appreciate bosses who don’t mind getting their hands dirty, digging in when necessary to help the team churn out what needs to be done. This can’t be the primary role of a boss, of course, but in those times when extreme work loads or looming deadlines tax the ability of others to get it all done, this is a great gesture of teamwork that goes a long way in developing good will.
Give me a job to do and turn me loose to do it. I work best when I’m left alone to get things done without anyone peering over my shoulder or constantly checking up on how things are going. If I need help or hit a roadblock that will take a boss to overcome, I’ll let the boss know. Until then, he/she can assume all is well and on schedule – maybe even ahead of schedule and expectations.
Help me understand the big picture. I don’t want to just know how to do tasks A, B,and C. I want to know how the work I do fits into the overall purpose of the company and its larger mission. I don’t want to just be good at tactics; I want to understand strategy. I am helped by having core values that underlie the business reinforced in word and deed by people at all levels of the org chart. I want a leader who can help a team take a step back when needed and help us remember why we do what we do.
Exercise fairness in how each employee is treated. Any hint of favoritism from a boss toward one employee over another creates a very dysfunctional team. If some employees seem to get away with poor work performance, excessive absences, or inappropriate behavior that is not tolerated in others, fellow workers are potentially demotivated from doing their best because of the disparity. I don’t expect better treatment than other employees, but I do at least expect equal treatment.
Address personnel issues quickly. This may be with an under-performing employee or it may mean stepping in to mediate interpersonal tensions between two or more employees. Regardless, issues cannot fester or they do more damage the longer they are ignored. Dealing with conflict or difficult situations must surely be among the least favorite roles a boss has to play, but it is an essential one that pays big dividends in the long run.
Tangibly reward top performers. While recognition and encouragement go a long way toward job satisfaction, it is also true that none of us are employed full-time merely for the fun of it or the kind words that may come our way. We work to earn a living, and if we go above and beyond what is expected, then we should be compensated accordingly. Any business that places arbitrary limits on how much people can earn in certain roles or who do not allocate funds for increased salaries and bonuses only demotivate employees who feel like they have maxed out their earning and growth potential in a role.
Expect accountability. My first boss at my current employer ten years ago was as good at this as any I’ve ever had. Like clockwork, we had one-on-ones with a common, simple agenda that showed what we had accomplished since the last meeting, what we would do before the next one, and any issues standing in the way that we might need her to run interference regarding. There’s something about knowing that periodic check-in with the boss is coming up to sometimes light a fire under you to get things done.
Do what they say they’ll do. Just as I expect to be accountable to my boss, I expect my bosses to follow through and do what they say they’ll do without needing frequent reminders from others. I know schedules can be crazy and demands from above and below in the org chart can be hard to juggle, but failing to follow through on commitments is discouraging to those impacted.
Challenge me to do better. Regardless of how well I may perform my duties, I know there is always room for improvement. When I was a training manager for about two dozen trainers at a previous company, I took seriously sitting in on the classes they taught and meeting with them afterward to discuss what they did well and what they might work to improve. If someone comes to me and praises me for how I do A, B, and C, but suggests that I might consider some suggested changes to improve how I do D, E, and F, I’m going to value that information and take it to heart, trying to improve in those areas.
Welcome innovation and initiative. I can’t think of a job I’ve had in 40 years where I did not go above and beyond what was expected, voluntarily taking on new responsibilities and attempting new things that I thought would be beneficial to the business and/or its customers. That doesn’t mean that I was in a role where such was expected or demanded, however. Good ideas can come from any level of the org chart at any time. Good bosses hear those ideas, weigh them, give guidance, and, where appropriate, approval.
Delegate authority – not just responsibility. There is not much more frustrating in a role than having responsibilities without the accompanying authority. The power to make decisions and implement them needs to be pushed as far down the org chart as possible instead of being concentrated up the chain. Work gets done more effectively and efficiently when this is the case.
Have my back. Nobody likes being thrown under the bus by anyone, but especially by your boss. I appreciate bosses who have gone to bat for me, defending decisions made and actions taken when challenged by others. It’s like having an older sibling step up to a playground bully and say, “If you want to get to him, you’ll have to go through me first.” Of course, it won’t be in those exact words in a business conversation or email (although that would be awesome!), but the positive emotional impact is the same when a boss takes up for you in discussion with others.
Show a sense of humor. Humor goes such a long way in strengthening relationships, in making an environment fun, and in showing someone’s personal, human side. Work days can get long and stress can take its toll, but if days are broken up with regular moments of laughter and fun, it makes them seem shorter and the stress more bearable.
So, there you have a number of characteristics or practices that I consider to be among the most admirable I’ve seen in the best bosses I’ve had through the years. What about you? Which of the above resonates with your experience? Do you have additional ones from your work life you could add to the list? If so, let me know in a comment.
(Side note: Some may question why I use the term “bosses” throughout this post and not something more positive or official sounding like “supervisor,” “manager” or “leader.” Nothing negative or insulting is intended. Any of the terms could have been used. I chose the shortest. Actually, I like the term and have on many occasions affectionately referred to various managers as “boss man.”)