The Most Important Boss

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Bosses are people responsible for the performance of a group, but the most important ones aren’t at the top of the org chart. Sure, as you move toward the top of the org chart, the money goes up. In fact, some CEOs make hundreds of times what the average worker in their company makes. Prestige goes up, too. And it’s the CEOs who grace the covers of a business magazines.

But just because the folks at the top of the chart make the most money and have the most prestige, doesn’t mean they’re the most important bosses in your company. Let me share two important facts with you.

The Most Important Boss Is Your Boss

When Jeff Immelt was a boy, his father worked on the line at GE Aircraft Engine. Fast Company interviewed Immelt in 2005. He said that he never knew who the CEO of GE was, but he always knew his dad’s boss. He said that he always knew when his dad had a good boss or a bad one. Fast Company asked him if it made a difference when he had a bad boss. Here’s what Jeff Immelt said:

“Yeah. He came home in a bad mood, uncertain about the future. And when he had a good boss, he was pumped. The frontline folks are critical to how the company does.”

The most important boss is your boss. He or she has a far greater impact on your work and your morale than bosses further up the org chart. You don’t have to take my word for that, or Jeff Immelt’s, either. In his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Bob Sutton reviews research on the importance of bosses and then says this:

“Employees’ immediate bosses have far more impact on engagement and performance than whether their companies are rated as great or lousy places to work. Related research shows that good bosses are especially crucial to employee performance in otherwise lousy workplaces.”

Front-Line Managers Supervise the Most People

Supervisors on the front lines go by lots of names. Sometimes they’re team leaders or crew chiefs. Sometimes they’re shift supervisors and other times they’re forepersons. Whatever you call them, as a group they supervise more of the people in your company than any other type of boss.

In 2011, Fred Hassan wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called, “The Frontline Advantage.” In it, he described why he made improving the quality of first line supervision a key to his turnaround leadership. He pointed out just how many people have front line supervisors as a boss.

“Depending on its size, a company might have anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 such managers. Typically, they make up 50 percent to 60 percent of a company’s management ranks, and directly supervise as much as 80 percent of the workforce.”

So, the people who are the most important in terms of productivity and morale in your company for the largest number of people are your frontline managers. What are you going to do about that? Here are some suggestions.

Select Bosses Wisely

Select the right people to become bosses. You want folks who enjoy helping people succeed.

Don’t select people because they’re good at something else. Instead, give people who enjoy helping others the opportunity to try on leadership roles in temporary situations. Watch for whether they’re willing to confront others about substandard performance or toxic behavior. Watch to see if they can make decisions. Watch to see if they deflect praise and credit when the team succeeds. Putting ambition for team success ahead of their own success is what Andy Grove called “the right kind of ambition.”

Help them debrief so they learn the most from their temporary leadership experience. If they seem to have the right stuff and they think they’ll enjoy the job, put them in line to become a boss. Use what they’ve learned from the temporary experience to guide their preparation.

Help New Bosses Make the Transition

The transition from individual contributor to boss is one of the most difficult in the world. Expect it to take 18-24 months before the boss can function entirely on his or her own. Make sure they get effective training in skills they will use in their new job. Provide just-in-time learning resources for them. And give them lots of coaching and peer support.

Evaluate Bosses on All the Important Things

Evaluate bosses based on their team’s success and the way the achieve it. It’s not enough to make the numbers, a boss must do that and hew to the values of your company.

Don’t Let Bad Bosses Keep Creating Disgruntled Team Members

These suggestions will help you get more effective bosses, but they won’t be perfect. Inevitably, some bosses will not work out. Let them go back to being individual contributors. Don’t let them remain responsible for the performance of a group.

If you leave a toxic boss on the job, he or she will spend the rest of their career ruining the teams that they lead. Here’s Bob Sutton again.

“A 2007 Gallup survey of U.S. employees revealed that 24 percent would fire their boss if given the chance. Gallup concludes that crummy bosses are a primary reason that 56 percent of employees are ‘checked-out’ and ’sleepwalking through their days.’ Worse yet, the most bitter employees (the ‘actively disengaged’ 18 percent) undermine their coworkers’ accomplishments.”

Bottom Line

Front line leaders have the biggest impact on the most people in your company. Choose them wisely, help them make the transition, evaluate them on the important stuff, and move the toxic ones out of leadership roles.


If you have an awful boss, pick up a copy of Bob Sutton’s Asshole Survival Guide.

My ebook, Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time will help you make a little progress every day.

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