Burdens of a boss

Dec 05, 1994

Almost every motivated person working in an A/E/P or environmental firm is either already a manager, or wants to be one. That’s OK, but I’m not sure all of these people really understand what it means to take on that responsibility. And by-and-large, as principals, we don’t prepare them for it very well. Here are my thoughts on what a successful design or environmental firm professional is letting him- or herself in for by becoming a boss: You have to set the right example. If you want your people to work a lot of hours, you have to. If you want them to produce perfect documents, you have to. If you want them to always have a contract with a notice-to-proceed in-hand before starting work, you have to operate that way. If you want them to live frugally while on the road, you have to live frugally. You will be judged by your staff in this manner, and there’s no way you can change that fact. You have to lead fearlessly. If a client is running over your firm, you have to assert yourself. If a client is getting ready to make a big mistake, you have to tell them so and why. If your boss has a misconception about one of your people, you have to stand up for them. As a manager, your people will look to see how fearless you are before they line up behind you. You have to create work for others first. Architects, engineers, and scientists all have a problem with this one. Too many think that if they are billable themselves, that’s all that counts. That may be all that counts if you aren’t a manager, but the day you become one, it’s how you feed the people who work for you that counts. Any good professional can get enough work to support him- or herself, but managers have to take care of others first. You have to be an optimist. No intelligent person wants to work for someone who is negative or a defeatist. It’s no fun. Managers have to project the confidence that the team will overcome all obstacles and emerge victorious in the end. If you are a manager and you constantly complain about the firm’s principals, your clients, the economy, the marketplace for your services, or whatever, no one will want to work for you. You have to be fair. When you become a boss, a certain amount of power automatically comes with the position. And how you use this power is really where the rubber meets the road. Any team will have some people on it that you like better than others. As a manager, you’ll start getting control over how at least some (if not all) of the goodies are given out— whether that means pay increases, verbal praise, spot bonuses, or better project assignments. But just because you are the boss, you can’t give all of this stuff to the people you like the best. You have to think about who deserves a pat on the back or a serious blasting. You have to keep all of your team happy and moving in the right direction, and that requires being fair. You have to put the team first. This must come before any particular individual’s needs, and especially your own. Is it right to pick out a new Infinity for your company car— even if you are personally picking up the tab for the difference in the lease payment between that and a Park Avenue Ultra— and to then tell your people there won’t be any pay increases this year? Is it right to order all new office furniture for yourself, then make one of your lower level staffers sit in a chair with a back that is falling off? Should you have a Pentium machine on your desk that is only used for word processing, when one of your key professionals is doing seismic analysis computations on an vintage IBM AT? Should you be the only one who gets a bonus when the rest of your group gets nothing? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no.” You have to admit your mistakes. If you think you can’t make a mistake, because you are the boss and you are supposed to be better than anyone else, you have a warped view. You always get more mileage out of being completely open about your mistakes than you ever do by trying to pin them on someone else. Managers have to assume responsibility for what they and their staff do— that’s how you build their allegiance. You have to avoid the temptation to remind your people that you are the boss. A woman that I worked with at one time always used the old expression, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Although I could never avoid making the sarcastic come-back, “That assumes you want to catch flies,” she was right. No one wants to work with— i.e., “for”— someone who will constantly rub his or her superior status in a subordinate’s face. Originally published 12/05/1994

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