Monday, May 12, 2008

How to be a Great Boss

In my career, I've reported to CEOs, Professors, Doctors and Deans. I've had good bosses and bad bosses. I've had bosses who have leveraged me as a strategic asset (my current bosses do) and others who have not.

In my opinion, there are 10 characteristics that make a great boss. These are based on my own reporting experiences and are the behaviors I try to use with staff I supervise.

1. Responds rapidly - In general, employees escalate issues when they feel anxious, conflicted or powerless. When an employee asks for clarification of a strategy, help with a political conflict, or a decision about resource allocation, bosses should respond rapidly with a decision, so that the boss is not the rate limiting step to progress. A boss does not need to carry a Blackberry, but should acknowledge every email the same day it was sent, even if the resolution will take a little longer. My personal goal is to clear my Inbox completely before bed each day, ensuring every issue is responded to and resolved if possible.

2. Embraces process - Every problem, even a crisis, can be resolved by initiating the right processes. Each organization should have budget processes, position control (new hire) processes, governance processes, communication processes, conflict resolution processes, and human resource processes that can address every issue. If a boss cannot respond immediately with the resolution of an issue, he/she should identify the processes needed to bring it to closure. Giving employees definitive directions about which processes to pursue and guidance about how to pursue them is a great way to resolve complex issues.

3. Micromanages and Macromanages - Some projects are so complex and require such alignment of stakeholders that the boss needs to get involved with the details of the people, budgets and project plan. Most projects require just general oversight of progress. A boss should get involved in the details when asked to help, but otherwise should follow project progress at a high level, leaving the details to those experts who are immersed in the project specifics.

4. Empowers - A boss should use his/her authority to support direct reports, giving them the freedom to execute their projects per their best judgment while giving them the political support they need to be effective. As a project sponsor, the boss can help with stakeholder alignment, project vision, and building a guiding coalition in support of the project.

5. Provides Resources - Staff counts and operational budgets should be increased yearly based on workload, strategic plans, infrastructure demands, and compliance requirements. Of course, most organizations are resource constrained so it may not be possible to fund all new staff needed, but since each project is a function of scope, time, and resources, the boss needs to pay attention to resources to avoid turning a "lean and mean" organization into a "bony and angry" one.

6. Stands by you in good times and bad - One of the great joys of IT is that the organization rarely gets credit for the thousands of things it does right, but is often criticized for the few things that go wrong. A boss needs to support employees with personal thanks and praise when things go right and support them when things go wrong. The organization should not punish the individual but should ask how processes can be improved to avoid bad outcomes. Whenever we have downtime, project delays, or budget overruns, we improve our processes to reduce the likelihood of future problems, supporting our employees completely along the way.

7. Communicates Consistently - I would much rather hear often from a boss about strategy, priorities, politics, and rumors than be surprised with sudden changes in direction or given emergent deadlines. Everyone in the organization is happy to work hard, but they need to the flexibility to plan their own schedules and control their own destiny. I try very hard to communicate to all my staff via blogs, email, town meetings and very predictable priority setting. With consistent communication, I will never be accused of "priority deficit disorder", a corollary of attention deficit disorder which occurs when executives and organizations forget the priorities for year long projects half way through them.

8. Delegates and trusts - A boss must build a trustworthy team of people and delegate the details to them. I try to master the technical and process details of all our major projects but as my authority becomes broader, my depth of understanding of the details shrinks. My teams support each other and I watch their progress. Unless I see someone on the team impeding the work of others, I leave the team alone to execute the projects using the standardized processes we have established together.

9. Has boundless energy and enthusiasm - Bosses should be your greatest fan and marketeer. They should show real passion for your work and tell the world about it. An optimistic, highly visible, and energetic boss keeps the employees optimistic, visible and enthusiastic. Of course, the boss should also respect the need for downtime and temper that boundless energy during employee vacations, family time, and weekends.

10. Focuses on the trajectory and not the position - Every day the organization will have some new need for an IT project that is deemed critical for quality, safety, compliance, profitability, or customer satisfaction. Governance committees need to triage these using objective criteria. More often then not, new projects will be placed in a queue behind existing priority projects. The boss must realize that on any given day, 10% of the organization will feel that their needs are not being addressed, but that over time, all projects get done based on the prioritization of governance committees. If the track record of the organization is that projects get done consistently and needs of stakeholders are addressed year to year in a way that keeps most people happy, the trajectory is good. I especially apply this concept to audits. Every kind of audit - security, governance, strategy review, or specific technology -will identify dozens of opportunities for improvement. Every year gets better and better, but the position is never perfect. That's a great trajectory.

Let's hope you have a great boss. If not, keep the faith. The one constant in this world is change and over time you'll have one. In the meantime, be the best you can be by using the 10 behaviors above with your staff and you'll succeed.

1 comment:

Dean said...

This was a great post John. I truly enjoyed this blog and sent the link to all my mates to have a read through it as well!!!

Bula from Fiji~