Friday, November 28, 2014

How to be a good boss

I've been an employee for 10+ years.  That is almost too long, and face it, nobody wants to be an employee forever; someday I want to be boss -- I'm sure you would too.  Maybe I'd start small -- acting as supervisor to a number of trainees, until such time that I can lead my own division, department, and eventually companies.  Having worked for a number of bosses, I'd like to identify what characteristics I look for in a boss-- what I would aspire to be like in that spacious corner office.

1. Well-prepared
Being a boss means you need to be well-versed in the strategic direction of your division, of your company.  Not only that, you must have razor-sharp focus on cash flows.  I've seen many businesses derailed from its long-term strategy, just because it had to deal with short-term cash straps.  Without cash flows, you won't have much ammo for incentives and motivation.  It's kinda like entering into the Battle of Stalingrad with no weapon, just waiting to pick up a rifle from the guys up front who get killed first.
PRO-TIP: If you argue about budgets, then it means you don't have a budget.

2. Focused
Highlight a limited number of tasks you will deal with at any given time.  Stop acting like you know all the answers before taking a deep dive. Spend the time to understand the problem at hand, don't be dismissive.  People will tell you bull***t, you need to look at hard data.   If you don't spend the time and go deep, you will make the wrong decisions.  Your instincts are wrong more often than not.  Don't kid yourself into thinking that you can handle so many things at once.

I've had bosses where I -- a direct report -- would tell my supervisor point [A], and s/he won't believe me.  An outsider, perhaps someone s/he meets the first time, would then say the same point [A], and s/he would trust the outsider more and drive the point back to me.  It's annoying, but I've seen it so many times that I guess it's just how people are.  Lesson learned: the first time you tell them point [A], bring a lot of evidence, hard numbers, so you can later say "I told you so".

3. Humble
Always be aware that you are bound to make mistakes, and must make course corrections along the way.  It's not always due to poor decision-making; sometimes you make the best decisions based on the known facts, then some unexpected event throws your a wrench your way.  Commit, implement, review, and reflect.

Know your limitations.  If you see an issue you can't handle, go seek help -- that's what consultants and service providers are for.

When you do make a mistake, own up to your decisions.  So many times I've heard, "if I had my way back then, I would have done [B] and we would not be in this mess."  It doesn't matter who wanted to do what back then; as a boss, it is your responsibility regardless. Leaders get credit in a success story, the flipside is be the same.  Acknowledging past mistakes is the first step in learning from them. If you point blame, you lose the opportunity to gain critical knowledge from history.

4. Just be there
This is a very simple point, but somehow seems very difficult to some bosses. You need to just *be around.  Face time shows your employees that you care.  If you show care, your employees would produce something more than half-assed work.

5. Communicative
To be a good boss you need to be open and transparent. Hiding things will only make your employees despise you.  Some bosses hide side businesses, side benefits, or side arrangements (either with the company, or with certain clients).  The fact that all of those are "on the side" means you owe your employees transparency and accountability -- you need to show that despite these things, you are still 100% committed to them.  Show them that you are open, attentive, and available.

Some bosses hide the fact when the company is having issues -- perhaps it's financial strain, legal issues, disagreements between partners, etc.  This is counterproductive.  It is important to discuss these matters in an open forum, because of three things: i) the alternative, office rumor-mongering, is an order of magnitude more destructive to morale than the actual issue, ii) sharing internal issues show your employees that you respect them as adults, instead of treating them like children, and iii) having an open discussion can generate productive discussions, perhaps somebody may have good ideas for resolving the main issue.

6. Provide a sense of ownership
This doesn't just mean giving everybody stock options.  That's important -- don't get me wrong -- but if your employees are savvy, they'd want to diversify (instead of having their steady income and wealth so highly correlated).  This also doesn't mean forcing everybody to use the company's products -- if the product is good, people will use it without instruction, plus it may be good to understand what your competitors are offering.

Providing a sense of ownership means involving your team on strategic decisions.  Bad leaders make instinctual decisions in isolation, without getting buy-in from their stakeholders.  Good leaders gather inputs and make informed decisions. If it turns out great, then everybody should get a share of the benefits.   If it turns out disastrous, then at least the whole team knows they have deliberated and considered all the costs and benefits known at the time.  If you just make everybody execute on your instinct and unilateral decision, then any unforeseen disasters would just lead to inevitable finger-pointing. 

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These are some traits that I, a longtime employee, wish I could have when I am in charge.  The overarching theme is that bosses really need to be leader and motivator, in addition to solving problems and making good strategic decisions.

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