It’s time to design your boss!

There was a theme running through my LinkedIn feed one day last week. Every second item my connections were posting seemed to be sending a similar message: “Don’t pick a job. Pick a boss,” one said, for example. “Your first boss is the biggest factor in your career success.”

That’s a pretty big call, and one I don’t think I could back with personal experience – not that my first was a bad boss by any means. It’s just that he was preceded by, and succeeded by, far more influential figures.

Then came a very hoary old chestnut: “People leave managers, not companies.” It’s one we’ve all heard, and this particular post was harking way back to 1999 and the last great business bestseller of the 20th century: First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.

“So much money has been thrown at the challenge of keeping good people – in the form of better pay, better perks and better training – when, in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,” the authors wrote.

It’s a contentious theory – and one your average HR professional is likely to find a little demoralising – but anyone who has been lumped with a boss from hell would no doubt see some merit in it.

The idea certainly resonates at the company recently listed, for the sixth time, atop Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For: no prizes for guessing, it’s Google.

There they were, a couple of posts further down in my LinkedIn feed. The focus of the article was Google’s approach to its managers: in summary, the moral of the story is that good bosses are made and not born.

“Unlike most companies, who wait around hoping for the right bosses to come along, Google builds each Googler the boss of their dreams,” it said.

It seems that Google has conducted considerable research into the qualities that make managers great specifically at Google. And then, armed with this valuable knowledge, they set about creating a training program to help their bosses embrace those qualities.

It’s an ingenious approach to an age-old problem: instead of encouraging employees to fall in behind the boss, the boss is shaped to best fit the team and the talent he or she is tasked with leading.

It’s something worth pondering – and according to a recent study by the Centre for Workforce Leadership, Australian organisations are in great need of new ideas when it comes to our less than stellar management skills.

We’ve all worked under bosses of varying degrees of proficiency and effectiveness, so what do you think? Should it really be that hard to pinpoint and develop the attributes of a good boss?

According to Leadership Management Australasia’s Leadership Employment and Direction (L.E.A.D) Survey, leaders, managers and employees have generally agreed on the top five characteristics of a good manager across the survey’s 15-year history. They are:

  1. Clearly communicates where we are going;
  2. Gives honest feedback on how I am going;
  3. Listens to/respects my input into decisions;
  4. Fair/even-handed/reasonable; and
  5. Trusts me with challenging work.

It’s hard to argue with any of the above. But digging a little deeper between the lines, what do you think have been the key traits in the make-up of the best bosses you have worked under? What indispensable attributes do you believe have set your good managers apart from the bad?

To get the ball rolling, I will offer my own ‘Top 3 Boss essentials’, gleaned from experiences positive and negative over 25 years:

  • Passion

The bosses that have had the greatest positive impact on my career have all been inspiring people – and that ability to inspire those working under them can come from a variety of skills and attributes.

It can come from an ability to lead by example and demonstrate talents that I aspire to. It can come from an ability (or attentiveness) to understand each individual under their command and act accordingly to get the best out of everyone.

But most of all, it stems from their own drive and passion for the job – and for the mission of the organisation.

An awful lot is written these days about employee engagement. But in my book, if the workforce is going to buy in, the boss’s level of engagement is absolutely vital.

Back in 2011, the aforementioned L.E.A.D. survey made some headlines when it reported that almost 60% of workers surveyed across Australasia were unhappy in their present positions, with one fifth of the workforce actively looking to change jobs.

Most concerning of all, however, was the revelation that almost 50% of leaders and senior managers reported finding no fulfillment in their jobs, with only 28% gaining a great deal of satisfaction from their work.

That, right there, is a recipe for disaster.

  • Compassion

As important as that unwavering commitment to the job might be, any leader worth their salt is ultimately going to appreciate that life does not begin and end at the office door. And what’s more, their interest in each employee should not start and finish there either.

Of course, it’s rare for any leader to have what you might call “the full package”, and some of the best “people managers” I have worked with in the past have had their own struggles in convincing those even higher in the organisation that they have the strategic smarts to deliver bottom-line results.

One such boss, many years down the line, still remembers to send me birthday wishes each year, just as she used to start every meeting we ever had with an enquiry about how things were going outside of work. Put simply, she put the person before the position.

As a result, she had a team that would walk over hot coals for her.

  • Accountability

This is a quality I associate with strength. A strong leader will always accept accountability for the performance of the team. But by the same token, they will also demand accountability from each team member to deliver on their own undertakings.

This is the flipside of a recurring theme in any discussion about good bosses: trust. Nobody likes a ‘micro-manager’, and everybody wants the boss to have faith in them. Trust, however, is obviously a contract signed by both parties.

What counts is that when you hold up your end of the bargain, you know the boss will go into bat for you. If you don’t pass the buck, they’ll make sure it stops with them.


I’ll leave the last word to someone who knows a bit about leadership. It comes from a nice little story that, sure enough, popped up in my LinkedIn feed last week as well.

A council worker from Oxford in the UK was lucky enough to sit in on a ‘town hall style’ address from none other than Barack Obama on a recent trip to London.

Given the opportunity to ask the President of the United States a question, she opted to quiz him on the characteristics of a good boss.

“Anybody who wants to be a leader, I would advise to spend a lot of time thinking about ‘how am I helping other people do great things?’” Mr Obama responded.

“Leaders who think their primary job is to make people do exactly what they want, as opposed to helping to organise really talented people to collectively go where we need to go, typically stumble.”

Please have your say and nominate your top boss attributes, or tell your best boss stories, below.

The following two tabs change content below.
Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.