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8 Attributes of an Ideal Boss

The first part of January is time for the annual introspection exercise known as resolution making. Many of us will take a hard look at ourselves and try to focus on ways in which we can improve our lives. Some of us will take a particularly hard look at our jobs: Are we happy in our current job? Should we look elsewhere for a different job?

One of the key factors in our job happiness or unhappiness is our relationship with our boss – the person to whom we report in our company’s organization chart. A good boss can make a bad job tolerable or even enjoyable, and a bad boss can turn an otherwise gratifying occupation into a miserable experience.

Take a minute or two to think about your own boss. How does he or she rate in the following categories?

1. Understanding
There are a lot of different aspects of understanding. First off, does your boss relate to you as a person or are you just a cog in the machine? Boss-to-employee personal relationships are tough to do successfully. In an ideal relationship, the boss values you for your contributions to the business but recognizes that you are an individual and so you have individualized needs. An ideal boss understands your skills and capabilities, but also understands your individual goals and objectives – both in your career and in your personal life.

A second aspect of this factor is the boss’s understanding of where your organization fits into the “big picture” of the company, how it’s supposed to contribute to the business, and how to make that happen. Good bosses also have an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, and they know how to create an organization of individuals that is stronger than any one individual.

Another aspect of understanding is the boss’s understanding of the work you do. It’s not unusual for a boss to be managing a business function that he has never done himself, nor does she have any idea how the work is performed. It takes a very special boss to be successful in managing such an environment.

2. Flexibility
The worst bosses are like those cheap little battery-operated toy cars you buy for your kids: they only go one direction, and if something gets in their path they just bang up against the obstacle until the obstruction moves (if it ever does). People like this are very difficult to work for. They don’t listen to your objections or ideas for improvement; they just continue to try to get all of their employees to do things the “right” way (i.e., the way the boss has always done it).

A good boss is flexible enough to understand that there is more than one route to success. Good bosses know the difference between giving you an assignment and telling you how to carry it out. They’ll help you when you need assistance, but they won’t force you to follow their way of doing things.

The flexibility also extends to personal considerations. Flexible bosses know that the most important thing about your work is that the job gets done. They know that your prompt arrival at the official start of the business day isn’t that big a deal as long as it doesn’t interfere with your results, nor does it matter what you wear as long as it isn’t disruptive. Flexible bosses understand that personal issues sometimes require you to take unscheduled time off from work, although they expect that you’ll be mature enough to find someone else to take over any pressing responsibilities.

3. An Insulator
I once heard of a manager who described his job this way, “I absorb uncertainty.” What he meant was that he acts as an insulator between his own boss and the people who work for him. When higher management seems to be vacillating on the best approach to take on a given subject, a good boss will insulate his employees from the confusion, keeping them headed in a consistent direction until there’s reason to change that direction. Similarly a good boss will absorb uncertainty from her employees, passing upward in the organization a consistent unified view even if the employees are not in total agreement.

4. A Conductor
Unlike electrical devices, a boss has to be a conductor as well as an insulator. This is the idea of conductor in the transmission sense – someone who passes messages downwards from upper management and upwards from employees. The real skill in this area is knowing when to conduct and when to insulate. Judgment is obviously required, as is the skill to summarize information and clarify things that aren’t clear to begin with.

Of course a good boss is also a conductor in the musical sense of the word; someone who optimizes the performances of individuals to produce a result that is much bigger and better than the sum of the individual contributions. This skill starts with understanding the capabilities of the individuals, and includes the ability to fit the individual skills, aptitudes and motivations together into something that creates a performance worthy of praise.

5. Clear about expectations for what you should do
I’ve worked for bosses who are never specific or complete in their assignments. They neglect to reveal important information – like the fact that the result of a big project has already been promised to customers for next month. I think these bosses are ashamed of the situation, but rather than to face the problem head-on, they figure they will “just see how you do” and then maybe a miracle will happen.

Good bosses are very clear about expectations: both their own and those that have been imposed upon them from higher up the organization chart. Good bosses are honest about what has been requested, and they’re willing to discuss requirements openly and negotiate them where possible.

6. Helps you prioritize
When requirements are clearly overwhelming, and there’s more to do than you can possibly handle, a good boss doesn’t just say “do it all.” Instead, she tells you what’s important and what can wait, thereby giving you the flexibility to focus on the most important things without undue stress.

7. Listens
Underlying many of the other attributes I’ve already mentioned is a listening attitude. Listening is more than just hearing what you say; it’s understanding both the text and the subtext of your message, empathizing with your point of view, and responding in a way that shows you that the boss cares about your situation.

8. Clear about what you have to do to get to your next career goal
Last but not least, a good boss should understand where you want to go with your career, and should help you take steps to move in that direction. For example, if you’re a technician and you want to move into management, then a good boss will help you recognize the skills that you’ll need and will help tailor some of your assignments to build those skills.

Career planning in business is usually associated with performance reviews, but the American annual performance review is mostly a joke, albeit one with a huge impact on your salary. A useful performance review should happen whenever it’s appropriate – after a project is completed, after you’ve done something particularly good, after you’ve done something particularly bad, but probably not on a certain calendar date. Useful performance reviews hold up two yardsticks to your work: one that measures you against the expectations of your current job and another one that measures you against your personal expectations for career growth. The measuring is done jointly by your boss and yourself, and it’s important that there be a two-way communication: you have to understand how your boss feels and your boss has to understand how you feel.

I’ve never had an ideal boss, although I’ve had a few who were good in most of the categories. Think about how your own boss measures up to the criteria I’ve defined here. Then consider four more things:

  1. Are you being fair in your measurement, or are you refusing to communicate with your boss in some of these areas? Are you part of the problem?
  2. How would you measure up as an employee using the same eight criteria in reverse (i.e., are you understanding, flexible, etc.?)
  3. How do you think your boss would rate your boss’s boss? There’s a top-down effect here; if your boss’s boss doesn’t treat your boss fairly then it makes it harder for your boss to treat you fairly.
  4. If you’re a boss yourself, then how would your own employees rate you?

Finally, if you’re feeling brave or just confident, forward this article to your boss and your employees to start an interesting discussion.

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