3 Ways to Become a Better Boss
The last thing you need between the Christmas roast beef and the New Year's black-eyed peas is someone else's set of resolutions to pile on top of the ones you're about to make and break for yourself. So this isn't that. Instead, after four months in which I've written mostly about strategy, I'm taking is a chance-while our office is closed for the week between Christmas and New Year's-to brood a bit about how to be a better boss.
That is-not to apologize for the topic-a profoundly strategic issue. In one of the wisest articles we published when I was at the Harvard Business Review, Professor Cynthia Montgomery lamented the quantification and dehumanization of strategy, as it is often taught and practiced. Rigorous analysis of strategic positions and alternatives is no small thing, but it may be less important, and ultimately less rewarding, than debates about strategic identity, a topic that has to start with people. As my colleague Cesare Mainardi, co-author of a new book called The Essential Advantage, puts it, "Companies have been asking , ‘Where do we want to go?' but should be asking, ‘Who do we want to be?'"
Similarly, carrying out strategy depends on good bosses. Data from more than 60,000 people from thousands of companies shows that great strategies fail to be executed primarily because of the human side of strategy, particularly how information flows and how decision rights are allocated. These are much more important for strategy execution than "hard side" tools like changing org charts or redesigning incentives.
In the movie "You've Got Mail," when Tom Hanks's predatory bookseller (now, there's an oxymoron, like irate sheep) tells Meg Ryan, "It's not personal. It's business." She retorts: "What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All it means is it's not personal to you." What study after study shows, you know yourself: Your relationship with your boss is single most important factor determining how engaged you are-or aren't-at work. Flip that on its head: If your team thinks you're a good boss, you have the most priceless asset a leader can have.
Here are three things I've been thinking about:
Play favorites.-It can be the right thing to do. There are a couple of junior people in my organization who I think have tremendous potential. One of them knows it-though I haven't said it in so many words. I'm pretty sure the other doesn't, though I dropped what I thought was a hint. In my experience, most bosses do a lousy job of letting their best people know they've been spotted, making them feel special, and working with them to help them grow. It's not always easy to single out your best performers-you may not be sure, it may not feel fair to the others. But nothing defines a good boss better than his or her ability to spot and develop talent.
Game the system. In my old shop, goals were a big deal. There were problems, of course. Among other things, everyone learned the art of writing goals that appear ambitious to higher-ups but aren't all that hard; and the higher-ups learned the skill of recognizing them and sending fake goals back.
The real value of the goals was the process of setting them. The goals were team goals; and we set them as a team. That always provoked a team discussion about what they should be, and what would be the difference between meeting the goal and hitting it out of the park. Every year, those discussions gave the team a chance to talk together and agree about our most important problems and opportunities. Achieving the goals-that was worth money. Having that conversation about the difference between real goals and bullshit-priceless.
Play politics. The best gift you can give to your staff may be your own political astuteness and your ability to protect your own position. In bad times, political sensitivity can protect them. In better times, your reputation, sway, and knowledge of the organization will help get them the resources they need to do their jobs, lower the friction they encounter, and give them access to people and opportunities that can advance their careers.
That is a win-win, both for their advancement and your reputation as someone who can get things done. I'm not talking about playing politics for politics' sake; I'm talking about, for example, finding ways to keep yourself and your people from stepping onto organizational landmines or getting stuck with no-win projects. A good boss doesn't send his troops on suicide missions.
What would make your boss better, or you a better boss?