So You Want to be the Boss

Oct 12, 1998

Most intelligent, ambitious people working in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms aspire to be a leader some day. Whether it’s the CEO, managing partner, director of operations, or office manager job they covet varies from person-to-person, but one thing remains: Being the one who gives the orders seems a lot more desirable than being the one who has to take them. But the fact is, ambition alone is not sufficient to get into (and stay in) one of these key roles. It takes some other characteristics as well, such as: A good sense of what the priorities are. You have to know what’s important and what can wait. This cannot be overemphasized and is one of the most critical leadership roles. There’s a lot to do but what’s the most critical problem to solve? What client gets the best talent? Where does the firm spend money and where does it hold back? Who is confronted and who is allowed to continue on as they are? The answers to these questions need to be given daily. Appropriate behavior in a wide-ranging set of circumstances. Whether we are talking about knowing how much to drink at the company Christmas party or how to calm down an irate client, another key of leadership lies in always being appropriate. And this “appropriateness” in my mind doesn’t mean you are a “Goody-Twoshoes.” It does mean that you are sensitive to other people and you can guess at how others will react to what you are doing, in addition to being quick on your feet. All of this helps you be appropriate. And being appropriate is a characteristic of a good boss. A passion for the work and for the business overall. There’s some guy out there touting a book about “living rich,” and in it he claims that the old adage of “do what you love and the money will follow” is B.S. This guy says you should do what pays well, period. Well you know what? I completely disagree with this wacko! Because the fact is that if you get excited about your work, if you have a passion for it, you’ll be more successful. The work better be something that you really enjoy and are interested in, not something that you have to drag yourself out of bed to go do. It’s hard to inspire others if you aren’t inspired. No one wants to work for someone who would rather be doing something else. Demonstrated honesty and integrity. You lie, and the other people will lose respect for you. Think what you like about the presidential scandal but consider the reasons for Mike McCurry’s departure. He was lied to, and it made him upset. I can’t blame him. Your people will react the same way to you if you lie or are dishonest and they find out about it. Good leaders tell the truth no matter what the circumstances, no matter how tough. That’s how they get respect. Not being cynical about the company. There are always reasons to fail, but I find a lot of what people do accomplish is based strictly on their intentions. Cynics erode those intentions, and that’s why they are so cancerous! I read an article recently in USA Today where the author spoke about this. He said, “Cynicism about one’s own corporation is the hallmark of losers, not future presidents.” I agree. I despise cynics. I find them depressing. And unfortunately, there are too darn many cynics working in A/E/P and environmental firms. They think they look smart if they point out everything that’s wrong. The last one of those we had here in a leadership role we invited to leave. Watch for being cynical if you ever want to be the boss. The ability to communicate the firm’s purpose in a way that makes the endeavor more worthwhile. An effective leader makes even the worst job seem noble. There has to be some greater calling for all that we do. Fortunately, this is one area where A/E/P and environmental firms should really stand out, because you are doing something that helps the world as a whole. Don’t forget that and don’t fail to remind your people of this fact every day. It may be all that you have to offer at those low points where things look pretty bleak yet the job still has to get done! Let’s face it— there are many characteristics that the best bosses have. You don’t want to copy anyone else, but you do need to be cognizant of the basic ground rules for leadership if you ever want to be on top. I don’t think many of those who are already there (at the top) of their firms would disagree with me. Originally published 10/12/1998

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