Five characteristics you can cultivate to be better boss

September 6, 2018

As any manager knows, there is no simple strategy for becoming a great boss.

Ultimately, you have to inspire and motivate others to deliver results – but how can you encourage them to follow your lead? What personality traits and attributes do you need to win people’s hearts and minds?

The most effective bosses have a vast array of management and leadership skills, ranging from self-awareness and resilience to emotional intelligence and sharp problem-solving skills.

Here are five characteristics needed to be a great boss:

Know yourself

The path to becoming a great boss starts with knowing and managing yourself. We have all met leaders who can speak to a large group with conviction and authority, but in personal interactions come across as cold and impersonal. It’s hard to relate to these types of individuals. Instead, we warm to self-aware leaders who can admit to struggling with difficult decisions. Everyone can all relate to a boss who comes across as human and fallible. After all, everyone makes mistakes.

So, how can you better understand your personality and shape the way you manage others? One useful tool is the OCEAN personality model – covering openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – will give you those insights. Taking this test will show you whether you’re, say, more agreeable than neurotic. You can then use this knowledge to adapt your management style.

Solve problems effectively

Good managers know how and when to intervene. Sometimes a light touch is fine, while other situations require more involvement and greater problem-solving skills. There are common steps you can take, such as identifying a problem’s many causes and mapping business processes clearly to iron out any flaws that may cause headaches for you and your team. Other approaches involve solving problems by analysing what’s going well and areas of improvement, or bringing people together to tackle a specific issue.

Understanding the root cause of the problem is the starting point. While it’s easy to blame individuals for not doing their jobs properly, the underlying reason for a breakdown can often be attributed to an organisational or procedural flaw. At this point, you should carry out root-cause analysis by assembling a team of people with the expertise to solve the problem. They will define the issue, collect data to understand what’s going on, identify causes and then recommend and test solutions.

Cope with change and stress

How you handle setbacks will determine your effectiveness as a boss. We’re living in a fast-changing world where leaders have to change and adapt to deal with unexpected opportunities or challenges. Managing when times are good is relatively simple; it’s when things go wrong that you really see someone’s leadership qualities.

Some people have an intrinsic ability to handle change and stress, but most of us need to develop coping mechanisms over time. Leaders who remain calm and can think clearly in difficult circumstances are better equipped to navigate their team through a crisis. Resilience is key. The ability to bounce back and achieve positive outcomes when facing adversity comes from having clear goals, a positive attitude, skills and experience, self-confidence and support from the people around you.

A sense of direction is also critical. You’ll feel more confident about making good decisions under pressure when you know where you and your team are heading. Training yourself to think positively, building a strong support network at home and in the office and looking after your body and mind are equally important.

Get the best from your team

Managing is often described as an unnatural act, as it requires people to behave in ways that don’t come easily to them. Often, managers are promoted into senior positions after excelling in other roles. Leading others requires a completely different skillset – you have to become good at delegating projects to others, praising or critiquing people’s performance in a thoughtful way, and investing time in their personal development. Unsurprisingly, many bosses struggle with this transition.

If you want to get the best out of your team, effective delegation is perhaps the most important skill you need to develop. There aren’t enough hours in the day for you to do everything; that’s why you have people around you to share the load, so use them. But don’t micro-manage as employees find bosses who want to monitor their every move annoying and demotivating. When delegating, be clear on who’s accountable for each assignment or brief.

Giving effective praise and recognition for the things your employees do well is another way to maximise team performance. Everyone loves to be recognised for doing a good job, so make it a standard practice to highlight successes in the team. It’s also important to offer encouragement and support and build team members’ confidence by setting clear goals and ensuring they capitalise on their strengths.

Make smart decisions

It’s a fact of life that intelligent people sometimes make bad choices. In 2000, Blockbuster executives decided not to buy on-demand streaming service Netflix for US$50 million (£36 million). Netflix has since wiped out the DVD rental company. How do you make sure you’re not responsible for making a terrible call? By applying the full range of techniques that provide insight into the issue at hand.

Of course the first step is to figure out whether your decision makes financial sense. This means doing a financial projection using Net Present Value analysis, then exploring and critiquing the logic behind your model.   It’s easy to convince yourself that your sales projections are valid: its much harder to be your own devil’s advocate, and to really understand the assumptions built into your forecasts.

The next step is to choose which investment to pursue when presented with more than one. Weigh up all the options, taking into account the opportunities, risks, any past experiences, market analysis and ethical issues. Then consider everything that could go wrong before deciding whether the investment is worth making.

And don’t do it all yourself. Multiple perspectives are vital in making difficult decisions, so make sure to assemble a diverse team of colleagues who are comfortable challenging you, and who can push you towards making a smart decision.

About the authors

James Manktelow and Julian Birkinshaw are the authors of book Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to be a Better Boss.

James is the CEO and founder of Mind Tools and Julian is Professor and Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

Drawing on 50 years of high-level management experience and academic research between them, they then reached out to more than 15,000 managers around the world.

That input has helped to shape a book that brings together management, leadership and workplace effectiveness best practice in one easy-to-access collection, for people who manage people, anywhere on the planet.

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