4 Ways to Be a Better Boss

Photo by Jules D. on Unsplash, edited by Author

One of my long-term employees is retiring this month. She’s done a fantastic job. She worked her way up to a very high level in our group, and she has been incredibly reliable. She’s one of those “one in a million” employees who understand that while you may be “the boss,” you’re also human: You have good days and bad days, you can be moody, and you are sometimes misunderstood.

Merrie and I clicked. We worked well together. She managed as I would manage, handled situations with class and dignity. She was super dependable, and I was privileged to work with her. Merrie truly is amazing.

She gave me a small key chain as a token of her appreciation yesterday. On it is inscribed this message:

“A truly great boss is hard to find, difficult to part with, and impossible to forget.”

There is no greater achievement or higher compliment for a manager than to be appreciated and recognized positively by your coworkers. You spend a significant part of your lives with these people. They look up to you for guidance and direction. As Merrie ends her career, I want to make her feel valued and appreciated. Her work is valued and appreciated. I won’t forget all she has done, and I — and her fellow staff members and the clients we serve — will miss her.

It’s appropriate for me to honor her at this time. But to my surprise, she has honored me. What makes someone acknowledge you as a great boss?

Call them coworkers

One of the first keys is how I refer to Merrie and the rest of the staff. They are my “coworkers.” They’re not “my employees”; they’re not “people who work for me”; and they are definitely not “subordinates.” They’re workers who want what you want — to achieve and be part of something greater, to enjoy a sense of accomplishment, and to make an impact at work.

You work together with them — side-by-side — and you encourage them. I’ve seen people in authority knock people down, belittle them, and ignore them. That’s not exactly building loyalty and respect! People do not want you to act as if they are “under your thumb.” They want to be respected for their thoughts, ideas and opinions; they want to know you support them; and they want to feel as if they can come to you with anything that’s bothering them (more on that, later).

Act like their job is your job

Don’t treat people like junior workers — and don’t act like you’re above doing their job. As a CEO/Vice-President/Director, I’ve sat out front at the reception desk (when the receptionist called in sick or needed to take the afternoon off, etc.) and answered the phone/greeted guests. I’ve walked around the office and emptied the trash cans when the housekeeping staff needed time off. I’ve cleaned up after events, meetings and parties because, well, it needed to be done!

I’ve had many employees tell me how that really made them feel good, that “the boss” wasn’t above doing everyday tasks and that the boss would do whatever it took to make things work. It’s respect — and that’s important to everyone.

Understand that life happens

I also worked at a place where the byline was “Treat everyone with respect and dignity,” which is another point I want to make: earning trust. Sometimes things happen. People have personal issues going on, a significant negative event has occurred in their lives, etc. The point is, don’t expect 100 percent every single minute from your employees. Let them have some dignity — respect their situation — by giving them some space, cutting them some slack, etc.

Sure, we expect quality work to be done; we want the company — and the employee — to do well. Regardless of saying, “your personal life shouldn’t encroach on your work” or “outside circumstances are not my problem when it comes to getting the job done,” STUFF HAPPENS! It happens to you, to your boss, to everyone. Don’t let a moment define your coworkers. Remember how they have earned your trust and give them the dignity — and your trust — that they’ve earned. Your benefit of the doubt in a trying situation might help them get through their personal crises more quickly.

When my father passed away two years ago, I was numb for several days. I’d been so used to just picking up the phone and calling him to get his opinion or advice. Now that would no longer be possible. My employees knew how I felt — and they cut me a lot of slack. They postponed meetings, they avoided asking for major decisions, they actually (I know about it, but they think I don’t) shielded me from several problems and issues while I took time to adjust to this huge change in my life.

So, you need to do that, too. Understand that no matter how much you wish personal circumstances didn’t affect your workers, they do. And the more understanding you are of those circumstances, the more dignity you allow your employees to maintain, the more they will feel you are a “great boss.” They will trust you.

Be part boss, part confidant

Last, understand that being the boss often gives you roles you never expected. I don’t mean “vice president” or “director.” I mean “counselor” or “adviser.” Over the past 45+ years of being in some sort of management position (yep, it’s been that long), I’ve been everything from a marriage counselor to a financial planner to a talent scout to a career coach.

Your employees often spend more time with you than they do with anyone else (save for spouses/partners), and if they trust you, they will confide in you. They will ask you for help. They will depend on you to coach them, guide them, direct them. They also will expect you to praise them, correct them (gently, of course), give them advice, and so on.

Often, as you are seen as a senior member of the staff, they will want to know about your experiences relative to their own. While they may not want you to tell them how to handle a situation, they will want you to tell them how you handled a similar instance and what the results were. Consider your role as confidant part of your role as boss. It will enable you to earn their broader respect, as a boss and as a person of character, and they will want to do their best for you.

(It goes without saying, I hope, that you should be a person of character. In my case, I am a character — and I also have character.)

I once had a boss who used to yell at us, threaten us, and as she put it, “push us harder so we would be better.” She often added this phrase: “I’m not here to be loved; I’m here to get the job done my way.” Guess what? She succeeded on at least one of those counts. She was NOT loved!

I have to admit, I truly enjoyed the day I gave my notice and just flat out said (in writing) how much I despised working there because I was treated so poorly by management. (I know, I know! We shouldn’t burn bridges, but I torched that one!) The moral? Making people fear you is not a reasonable management strategy. It won’t make you a good and successful manager.

Earn your respect. Put in your time. Listen to your staff and heed their input. They will move mountains for you, but you have to grab a shovel, and dig alongside them.

Now, I must say ‘thank you’

In closing, it’s tough to say goodbye to a great employee, especially one you respect so well. But it’s even more difficult when they truly respect you. You hate to lose them. I really hate to lose Merrie, but I am happy for her opportunity to retire. Thank you, Merrie, for being the kind of coworker who “is hard to find, difficult to part with, and impossible to forget.”

I’d like to thank all my coworkers here, and tell them I’ll never forget them, either. Thanks for trusting me. Thanks for taking care of me and knowing I was, always, trying to take care of you, too. Thanks for understanding I was human. I made mistakes, I had moods, I made incorrect decisions, and I wasn’t always at 100 percent.

Thanks for gently correcting me when I didn’t manage you the way I should. And most of all, thanks for your trust in talking to me about life, about your families, about your hopes and dreams. I sincerely hope that in some way I helped you to achieve them. For that is the greatest reward, lifting others up to new heights and helping them to reach their potential.

To all of you who have the privilege of managing others: Be a great boss. It can be done!

Mark S Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.

Originally published at the IncubatorBlogger on March 2, 2021.

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