I coach and consult with bosses all the time. If I’m being brought in by someone who is a not a boss, I get face time with the boss immediately, and if I can’t I don’t do the project. Trying to create long-lasting change in an organization without the consent of the boss, or the person who ultimately makes decisions regarding behavior, expectations, and, always, money, is fruitless.
As a result, I have a pretty clear idea of what makes a good boss by observation and research. Various schools of thoughts call the main tenants of management different things, but what it ultimately comes down to are these three things:
- Good communication
- Clear direction
- Protection from rolling bullshit
I think if any of these are missing, employees start to feel it immediately, though they might not be able to pinpoint exactly what is up. Let me break these down a little further.
Good communication means not only does the boss articulate wants clearly, but does so in a way that works for the style of communication of the direct report. Some people prefer in-person conversations, others prefer clearly written expectations via email. We know now that not only can people’s working styles be different depending upon where they fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, but they also can be better auditory, visual, or kinesthetic processors. Meaning they might need information in forms that work with their particular styles if it needs to stick.
As a boss, one might think, “That’s a hell of a lot of stuff to track.” Yes, it is.
You aren’t a boss because life is easy. People are hard and it is a boss’s job to get information to their direct reports in ways they know will help them succeed. In an increasingly digital, remote workplace we rely heavily on email and written communication. This works great for a majority of the population, but some people need phone calls or the experience of sitting across from someone. Some people even require communication while they are in motion which is why we have some employees who are severe fidgeters.
Good communication also means that the boss gives guidelines on timelines, resources, and expectations for how to complete tasks. They follow up to keep people accountable and help guide them if they are straying from due dates.
Clear direction is most evident when a boss’s direct reports know how to prioritize projects.
Often everyone has multiple projects and tasks on their plate. If a boss is giving good direction, a direct report can avoid having to use extra energy (a very valuable resource) making decisions about what is important because it is evident what the top priorities are. If they don’t know what is important, a good boss can easily articulate what is and why, giving the direct report the criteria by which they judge importance.
This is a skill people are often told to suss out with their bosses–“Find out how to make their job easier/make them look good.” Sometimes people think this means reading your boss’s mind and preempting their needs, but it mostly comes down to knowing what is a priority and why.
Finally, protecting people from rolling bullshit means a boss keeps the politics, drama, and incomplete thoughts from their bosses from hitting their direct reports.
Many bosses are middle managers so they are sandwiched between many layers of hierarchy and are always dealing with some level of bullshit. By the time work has trickled down to those on the lowest part of the org chart, they should have little extraneous bullshit to deal with from those above them.
For example, as a managing director, I only have a board of directors above me. It is my job to keep my board’s politics, wants, or whims from interfering with my staff’s day-to-day workload. If I don’t do this well, I can expect to hear the names of my board members more often or start to notice my board’s concerns are becoming my staff’s concerns, too, as opposed to the other way around (if my staff’s concerns become my board’s concerns, then I am doing my job well). If I do a good job keeping bullshit from my staff, they clearly know to come to me if they have questions and don’t have to worry about board members giving them projects or tasks without my heads up or clear communication first.
With rolling bullshit, I often picture a boss holding a large wooden pallet overhead with literal piles of shit on top of it. Sometimes the shit falls over the edge and hits those further down on the org chart. Sometimes it becomes too heavy and the whole thing comes crashing down, which we usually see in the form of burnout, illness, or a sudden increase in missed or subpar work. Bosses need good upper body strength to hold this up, which is why they are compensated at higher rates than their direct reports. They are being paid for the extra skill or hassle of holding this pallet.
Hopefully this has made it clearer the basic parts of being a good boss. All of these ideas can be dissected further and many people spend lots of time and money perfecting one of these areas. I think all three are required for good management. Stay tuned for how to assess which area you may be most deficient in and how to correct it.