Becoming a Great Boss: Where to Start

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I’ve been observing, talking to, and studying great bosses for more than four decades. They’re all different.

Great bosses are men and women. They’re tall and they’re short. Some great bosses are boisterous while others are very quiet. Some are blindingly brilliant, while others don’t seem very bright at all. The only thing they seem to have in common is their results. They’re responsible for the performance of a group of people who deliver high productivity and have high morale.

I’m guessing that if you’re responsible for the performance and care of a group, you want to be a great boss. You know that it’s all about behavior, so, where do you start? What one thing can you do that will set you on the road to greatness.

Touch Base a Lot

Back in the days when almost all teams were located in the same place, I used to phrase that as, “Show up a lot.” With all the virtual teams and telecommuting that goes on today, I’ve had to change the language but not the concept.

When you show up or touch base frequently, it ceases to be an event. You’re probably familiar with teams and bosses where the only time the boss shows up is to deliver bad news or to reprimand someone. Sometimes it might even be to praise someone, but nobody knows that when the boss shows up at first.

Until they know better, people will throw up their defense shields as soon as you show up or caller ID warns them that it’s you on the line. When that happens, you can’t have much productive communication. But if you touch base a lot, you become a routine and, hopefully, a welcome part of work.

That gives you an opportunity to become familiar with your people and their work. It offers you occasions where you can talk about the mission and what’s important to you. It offers you more opportunities when you can listen, so you can learn what your people think and what ideas they have.

Conversations Build Relationships

When you touch base a lot, you increase the opportunities to have conversations. Just to review, conversations involve more than one person. Conversations are two-way communication. If you’re doing all the talking or asking questions and getting responses, you’re not having a conversation.

The great thing about conversations is that it’s how human beings communicate best and how we build relationships. The first step is to touch base a lot. The second is to have conversations. But, how do you go about that?

It’s Actually Pretty Easy

I’ve seen way too many bosses who don’t have great conversations because they let their position get in the way. You can’t stop being the boss, but you will have more productive conversations if you accent the human part of you. Human beings have conversations naturally, so trust your humanity.

Many of your best conversations are about areas of mutual interest. People will usually talk about what interests them, if you let them. Then you’ll discover areas of mutual interest beyond work.

In the rest of your life, conversations rarely have an objective beyond the conversation itself. That should be true for most of the conversations you have with your people too. Sure, you’re the boss, and so you have some things you want to get across, but that will happen naturally. You don’t have to force it.

Just remember, it takes more than you to have a conversation. This will be easy if you don’t establish an objective for every interaction. Let the conversation go where it leads. Let the other person talk. You don’t have to dominate the moment just because you’re the one who’s nominally in charge.

How to Start

Now we come to the big question. “How do you start?”

Sometimes you’ll have something that you want to talk about. Sometimes it will be work related. Sometimes it will be personal, like how a coworker’s child fared in their soccer game the night before. When that happens, the conversation should start naturally.

Sometimes though you’re just dropping in to check on how things are going. What do you do then? That’s easy, ask a question.

As my friend, Mark Deterding, likes to say, “The easiest way to start a conversation is by asking a question.” But what should you ask a question about?

I suggest you have a general-purpose question, one that you can use when there isn’t any obvious other way to start a conversation. One of my early bosses, Ed Swindell, asked everyone in all kinds of situations, “What’s the most interesting thing in your day so far?”

William McKnight, the legendary CEO of the 3M Corporation, had his own favorite question. He wanted to encourage people to be creative in their work, and so the question that he asked everyone, all the time was, “What are you working on?”

You can steal their questions if you want, or you can come up with your own. Just follow their model. The question is about something in the other person’s life. The question is open-ended. You can’t answer it with a yes or no, and it doesn’t lend itself to simple responses

Bottom Line

If you want to know where to start on the way to becoming a great boss, a core behavior is showing up/touching base a lot. That gives you the opportunity to start conversations, and conversations are how you build relationships. It’s incredibly easy if you don’t worry about what you’ll say in advance. Just show up, be a human being, and have a conversation.

The 347 tips in my ebook can help you Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

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