How to pick your boss?

good choice bad choice


As a candidate, when applying for a job – whether internal or external, there is often a feeling that selection is a one-way street: you are the one being picked. There are certainly other candidates, and everyone is on his or her best behavior to get the job. Still, as much as one might want the position, it is equally important to select the right environment and especially important that you select the right manager. Working with a great manager is certainly a key element of being happy at work and succeeding. Conversely, being managed poorly can make a new employee feel miserable. Picking your boss is as important as being picked.

What qualities should you look for in a manager?

here is my view, built from both the attributes of the great managers I have had and the absence of these very same qualities from the others.

Inspiring respect: You need a certain dose of respect and admiration for your boss – be it for their personal qualities, professional achievements, business acumen, management style, … the things that will motivate you to excel, to go beyond your average self, to get up in the morning – among other things. Intellectually, it has been my real pleasure and challenge to be managed by very bright bosses. By contrast, it has been excruciatingly boring to be managed by someone I felt I would not learn much from… In the two instances where it happened, I manage to change position in less than 6 months.

Courage: In an environment of uncertainty, rapid changes, contradictory demands, and constraints, the courageous manager will openly acknowledge issues with lucidity, make decisions with sometimes limited information, delegate and rely on others, communicate clearly about his/her course of action. Courage is critical in business as well as in human relations: the following example would be a joke if it was not true: an ex-colleague learned from a head hunter that his boss had launched a search to replace him… Aristotle stated that courage is the primary human virtue, because it makes all other virtues possible. I can only agree.

Consistency: Consistency has many facets, ranging from “do what you say and say what you do” to treating people equitably. This quality is key to building trust and respect. People trust a manager because they know he or she has personal integrity. People need to know that they will be treated equally, that the manager hold himself to the same standards for professional behavior. How would you consider a boss that asks everyone to cut travel expenses, but let his commercial director comute every day by taxi, when he has a company car? A great boss is someone dependable and reliable: someone you can count on. Consistency rhymes with integrity and honesty. I had the opportunity to be interviewed by a bank CEO who breathed integrity. “You would be perfect for that position, but there is someone in place and there is no reason for me to move him.” The way he expressed his views on his organisation and his people was so respectful that he immediately gained all my respect and my motivation to work for him.

Clarity: Clarity is what will make your day-to-day life so much easier. “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” says author Steve Maraboli. Getting clarity on goals and the way to get there, clarity on resources, clarity on roles and distribution of responsibilities across the team members, opens the road to effectiveness and success. I was fooled a couple of times (but no more) by the same boss: we went through a very cumbersome budget exercise, I made my best efforts to present a reasonable cost allocation that was approved with a guarantee that “yes, there will be no cut”, and in two subsequent years, the budget was cut only 4 months into the year… Wouldn’t it have been better to share the constraints, the issues and be transparent? Instead, it just created frustation and mistrust for me and my teams.

Team player: or rather team facilitator or orchestra conductor: it requires personal implication to orchestrate the talents of a team, especially in management committees where rivalries, big egos and politics are too often the norm. So many managers prefer the “divide and rule” attitude, where they let plots and manipulation develop; where the most manipulative survive and the others leave. I remember that meeting when the CEO let two exec members almost insult each other without intervening. It takes great talent and courage to form an efficient team, to foster collaboration beyond the organisational structure, to motivate everyone to support their peers rather than fight for areas of power. Obstacles to cooperation come about when team members feel insecure and lack trust. Some, who are focused on immediate gains, fear that their contribution will not be recognized or prefer to focus on things they control.  A great manager will anticipate these fears, establish that cooperation requires time, and develop an environment of trust and expectation of cooperative behaviors.

Feedback and communication: although annual reviews represent a precious moment to exchange thoughts and achievements, nothing is more valuable than on-the-spot and regular feedback. Right after a presentation or a business meeting, spontaneous feedback is always a good surprise – because it is too often omitted. It shows attention paid to the person, it demonstrates empathy, and real care for people development. So why do so many managers fail to give their employees regular access to candid insights about their strengths and weaknesses? This could have a much stronger impact on their ability to succeed than attending another training. The feedback process requires some effort from the manager. If it comes spontaneously, it is wonderful; if not, it is everyone’s decision to ask for it. And it can feel awkward at first. But, career benefits of gathering specific, meaningful and ongoing feedback far outweigh the challenges.

People-centered management style: No doubt many of us have certainly lived under “command and control” management styles, in organisations with strong sense of hierarchy. Some of us have experienced the opposite: companies and managers who develop a great degree of collaboration and communication, respect and fairness, caring and integrity. These rank as the best environments to work in. People-centered management style is still rather new, companies’ cultures take time and effort to change. It can be a struggle for a manager to develop this behavior when the organisation is not promoting it. The criteria on this one concerns both the manager and the company itself.

This can look already like a long list that no individual could embody alone, but I feel that these qualities are all related and come down to courage, integrity and caring for people. Although interactions with your future potential boss might be limited, there are ways to check about these qualities (through other staff members, head hunters, relationships) and more importantly through your own perception and intuition. Trust your guts!

PS: Some management gurus claim that a great manager needs to be creative or visionary, I believe that for those dimensions, the manager does not need to have them intrinsically but to foster them with the team. Building a vision together, encouraging creativity is the role of the manager… his/her responsibility is to make it happen and promote it rather than being necessarily the source of it.







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