Three Steps to Becoming the Best Boss Ever

A couple of months ago I sent out a Facebook post with a photo of a briefcase-carrying woman jumping a hurdle, along with the headline, “Hire smart people, train them properly, then get out of their way.” That post went viral, garnering thousands more views than my usual posts.  Something about the message really resonated with people. Why? I think it’s because people know that at its best, leadership is a partnership—one that involves mutual trust and respect between people working together to achieve common goals. Leaders and direct reports influence each other. Both play a role in figuring out how to get things done. In other words, leadership is about we, not me.

So, let’s drill down into the three steps a leader can take to become the kind of boss people want and organizations need.

Hire Smart People

This one is a no-brainer. When you hire, you’re looking for people who resonate with your organization’s values, first and foremost. You also want people who have the required skills for the position or the potential to develop those skills. You’re looking for people with the ability to think and plan. Plus, you want to see initiative, organizational ability, creativity, and an ability to communicate well. In short, you’re looking for winners.

I often ask managers, “How many of you go out and hire losers? Unfortunately, too many organizations still use the normal distribution curve model, where managers are expected to rate only a few people high, a few people low, and the rest as average performers. That’s nonsense. Do you go around saying, “We lost some of our worst losers last year, so let’s hire some new ones to fill those low spots”? Of course you don’t! You hire either winners or potential winners—people who can perform at the highest level.

Train Them Properly

Even if you hire someone who already has the technical skill to do the job, it’s essential to provide ongoing training and support. Too often leaders hire people, give them some haphazard training, and pray that the new hire will become a winner. Great leaders don’t leave people to sink or swim. They support them through all three stages of partnering for performance:

Performance Planning. No matter how busy you are, it’s essential to spend time with your direct reports on planning and goal setting. Assess your direct report’s competence and commitment on each task. It’s up to you to provide the support they need, whether it’s technical training, help getting access to people or information, or just moral support. Even high performers need support and encouragement to be their best.

Performance Coaching. Leaders often assume that their performance planning conversations are so clear that there is no need for follow up. Save yourself time and misery by having regular progress-check meetings with your direct reports. If everything is coming along smoothly, it will be an opportunity to praise progress and celebrate wins together. If things aren’t progressing as planned, it will allow you to redirect efforts before small issues turn into 800-pound gorillas.

Performance Review. I don’t believe in the dreaded annual performance review. I think of performance review as an ongoing process that happens during open, honest discussions leaders have with their direct reports all year long. If you’ve been having regular one-on-one meetings throughout the year, the annual performance review should contain no surprises.

Then Get Out of Their Way

Once you’ve collaborated with your direct reports on goals and given them the coaching and support they need to master the job, you really need to let them run with the ball. People aren’t just hired hands—they have brains, too! A trained individual doesn’t need micromanaging; they need autonomy to grow and thrive.

While it’s completely appropriate to provide a hands-on, directing/coaching leadership style when someone is learning a new task or skill, the goal is to move to a hands-off, supporting/delegating style. This means trusting your direct report to act independently. It means turning over responsibility for day-to-day decision making and problem solving. It means, in other words, to get out of their way!

But don’t disappear altogether. Even the highest, most self-reliant achievers need leaders to praise their progress, celebrate their wins, and provide new challenges to keep them engaged.

Developing Your Leadership Point of View

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to share information about yourself with your team. Communicating your purpose, values, and expectations is the best way to create an authentic relationship with your staff. Creating your Leadership Point of View is a great way to start.

I read Noel Tichy’s book The Leadership Engine (Harper Collins, 2007) and talked with him about his research on effective leaders. He told me he found that the most successful leaders have a clear, teachable leadership point of view and are willing to share it with others. My wife, Margie, and I were so fascinated with this idea that we created a course called Communicating Your Leadership Point of View as part of the Masters of Science in Executive Leadership program offered jointly by The Ken Blanchard Companies and the School of Business at the University of San Diego.

In the class, we ask students to think about key people who have influenced their lives—such as parents, grandparents, coaches, or bosses. What did they learn about leadership from these people? Then we ask them to remember key events that were turning points for them. How did those experiences prepare them for a leadership role and what did they learn? The next step involves identifying their personal purpose and values.

The critical task in the process is putting all this information into a story format that can be shared with direct reports and colleagues. People relate to and remember stories. It would be easy to read a list of values to your team, but that isn’t very impactful. Sharing stories about actual events is a more personal and authentic way to communicate. Stories paint a picture that allows others to see the consistency between your values, words, and actions.

We have had such a great experience with this exercise in class that we are now using the same process with our clients. It isn’t an activity to rush through. You need to spend thoughtful, reflective time thinking and writing about the people and events that helped shape who you are as a leader.  When you share your Leadership Point of View with people on your team, they’ll have the benefit of knowing where you’re coming from and a clear understanding about not only what you expect from them but also what they can expect from you.

Give it a try. I guarantee you’ll rediscover some of your core beliefs about leadership. When you share information about yourself with your team, you’ll build a trusting, respectful relationship that will help everyone flourish.

Getting Your Management Career off to a Great Start

For decades, I’ve been talking to new managers about their biggest challenges. One thing I still hear over and over is how hard it is to balance being the tough boss and being the nice boss. I think this feat is especially difficult for the new manager who started as a high performing individual contributor, was promoted, and is now managing former colleagues and friends.

This common first-time manager dilemma reminds me of my longtime friend and coauthor Don Shula, legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins. In our book Everyone’s a Coach, he says it is more important to be respected than to be popular.

I offer two pieces of advice. First, think back to a leader who inspired you to great performance. More than likely it was someone who combined toughness with compassion. You knew that person cared about you, but also that they would not let up on you in the quest for excellence. To achieve this balance you need to set high standards to make sure each person on your team is adding value to the organization. You also need to be present for them to offer support and direction along the way. You must be willing to set stretch goals with your people, pushing them beyond their comfort level—and then you need to help them achieve those goals.

This is where the art of communication comes into play.  Having honest and open conversations with your people when setting goals, providing feedback, and giving direction will pave the way to building mutually respectful relationships with them.

My second suggestion is to ask for training. Our research shows that more than 40 percent of new managers go years without receiving any training in their new role! That’s incredible. Is it any wonder that 60 percent of new managers underperform or fail in the first two years? Without proper managerial training, you are likely to develop poor habits that will prevent you from being as effective as you need to be. And those poor habits you developed early can become the familiar, comfortable behaviors that will be more difficult to change as time goes by.

For example, as a new manager you might find it hard to delegate—especially if you were a successful individual achiever who was promoted into a management role. But even though it might be easier and faster to do some tasks yourself, you must learn how to get work accomplished through others. If you don’t delegate, your direct reports might see you as a nice boss, but if you show each person you care about their development enough to require them to carry their own weight, they will respect you as their leader. This relates back to Coach Shula preferring respect to popularity.

Are you ready to ask for training to learn the skills you need to get your management career off to a great start? And are you ready to push your people to find the greatness within themselves? I guarantee if you focus on both of these issues, you’ll set yourself and your team up for success.