Being a Good Boss

Aug 08, 1994

Management people are usually critical of technical people for their lack of business knowledge. But having a business degree is no assurance you know any more than the average design or environmental consultant about how to supervise people. They just don’t teach you how to be a supervisor in school. In fact, I saw an interesting article recently that said one’s score on the GMAT (Graduate Management Aptitude Test), a test used to judge admittance for most MBA programs, was inversely related to actual ability to supervise people. Those with GMAT scores of 700 or higher— while they may perform very well in the typical overly-quantitative MBA program— don’t have the interpersonal and communication skills necessary to be a good boss. Beyond the educational system’s lack of an attempt to teach supervisory skills, is the bad programming managers get— all too common in the typical A/E or environmental consulting firm. Being a “boss” is a big responsibility. Here’s some of what I have learned over the years: Good selection is 80% of the game. The fact is and always has been that if you get the right people in the first place, they will take very little time to manage. Yet, recruiting is usually way down the list in terms of its real priority to management. Give people enough rope to hang themselves, but first teach them how to make the noose. It’s one thing to let people go on their own, to learn from their own mistakes. We all learn better that way. But first you have to teach people how you want things done if you ever hope for them to be able to meet your expectations. Don’t wait to deliver negative feedback. Storing up your criticisms of an employee’s behavior is potentially one of the most harmful things you can do. Being continuously critical may result in a perception of your staff that you are a nit-picker. But it also reduces the likelihood an explosive confrontation over some little issue— one that results in the company and the employee parting ways. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a normally calm architect or engineer who happens to be a manager explode at an employee— lashing out because of their own inability to be direct when they should have been. Do the same with your praise as you do with your criticism. Show that you recognize when somebody does something good. If that’s working a lot of hours, let them know that you know they are doing it. If it’s putting extra quality into something, let them know you appreciate it. Be friends with your people. There’s nothing wrong with befriending an employee as long as you don’t forget that you are also their boss. It helps if you don’t act like you are infallible. Showing your vulnerability by admitting a mistake goes a long way to building up mutual trust, essential to good communication. It is only through real sharing that the employee can figure out what you want and you can figure out what the employee wants— essential ingredients to a long-term relationship of mutual benefit. It’s worth trying to turn somebody around. It’s easy to be the hard guy and be dispassionate. I do it in turnaround situations regularly. But when the firm is not in a turnaround situation, I also realize that the cost of replacing people is enormous. People can turn it around if you are straight with them. I have seen it over and over. On the other hand, readers need to understand my advice here. I do not advocate ignoring the problem and doing nothing about it. That’s not a turnaround— that’s wishful thinking. Be straight with people about what their likely career potential is with your firm. Don’t build unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations lead to unsatisfactory employer-employee relationships. That is at the heart of most every parting, at either end. You have to tell people what is likely, so they can plan accordingly. Pay people what they are worth, not the least you have to in order to get them on-board. Being cheap is typical of the behavior negotiating experts advocate— get every nickel you can, but disguise it as “win-win.” Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Employees pay attention to what you do— not what you say. If you tell them you will reward them, you better reward them. And don’t be afraid to give rewards quickly. If you want people to sell, react very carefully to the opportunities they bring in. Boy, we have a problem with this one in the A/E and environmental consulting industry. We’ll tell our people we want them to sell, then poo-poo whatever opportunities they find because they aren’t “what the firm is all about,” or because they are “too small,” or because we didn’t bring them in. Maybe you can’t chase after something an employee thinks you should. But how you handle telling them that makes all the difference in the world in whether they will bring in the next opportunity for you to consider. This isn’t academic theory. I know that anyone who uses these principles to guide their daily activities will be a better boss. Originally published 8/08/1994

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