So you want to be a great boss?



I have had a lot of time to reflect on this recently. In my old job as COO of a health care service, we went through a period of significant and ongoing change. There was a huge transformation agenda planned across the organisation well before COVID hit and, amid moving our whole usually face to face practice online for staff and patient safety, we decided to pursue it anyway. What better time to transform a business than when it faces forced disruption. Other than ... staff fatigue, shortened time frames, and a global pandemic. So we have had to try a feel our way through this period without tipping people over the edge. How well we have done this has differed in any given week.


Regardless of the petri-dish COVID, out of professional necessity I have - through a sheer number of years in the HR space if nothing else - a pretty good sense of what makes a good boss. They are respectful, fair, and clear in their expectations. This is far less common than it's simplicity suggests (I probably don't need to say this, you've all had bosses). Mostly people appeal to their authority - directly or indirectly - to get things done. To quote the Harvard Business Review; "someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity'.


And those traits - optimism, trust, conviction and creativity - are what we need now more than ever. Any old laptop and increasingly, AI program, can do our bidding. To fix a post-COVID/mid climate change world we need human passion and creativity and people to believe that they can achieve the unachievable.


As these months have unfolded and each day has presented a new and complex set of issues to resolve, I have wanted as a few young women in the business have stepped up and really, save the organisation from impending COVID doom through their work. I have watched their ebbs and flows of motivation, energy, and resilience during these months and these are things that - through watching them respond to the leaders in the business, and from my past experience - I can say make a huge difference to people's capacity to deliver:


  • See what people have done, name it, and thank them for that specific thing, celebrate them. By this, I don't mean thank them for a job well done. Instead, thank them for calmly dealing with X situation that once upon a time would have derailed them or the very specific way they solved a problem no one has been able to get on top of. Notice their unique contribution. Help staff feel certain you see their personal value and they will start and keep stepping forward with their best work.

  • Have your team's back. Back them if they are being unfairly blamed or criticised (obviously you should only do this if they are being treated unfairly). Point out to others what they have done. Celebrate them publicly. Never take credit that is theirs. This builds the fundamental building block (trust) that is key them having your back and doing their best for you. As said in the quote above, anyone can demand compliance. It takes something altogether different to know that people will follow you.

  • Notice the extra effort; reward the extra, extra effort. Even if you don't have big bucks to spend. Even if it's a $50 gift card for that person's favourite store, or a bottle of their favourite wine. If you can afford to give on the spot bonus do. Let people know you've seen it and value it when they knock it out of the park.

  • This is going to sound basic, but I can't tell you how often it's not a thing. Treat every single person in your business with respect. Remember that the person doing the shittiest job in your business ... is doing the shittiest job in your business. That deserves celebration and amazement that someone will do that shitty job for you, not disdain, or rudeness, or being ignored. You should know everyone's names by default, but no matter how senior you are, or how senior you want to be - know the names of the people doing your worst jobs first and give them your time of day.

  • Are you the smartest person in the meeting room? There is nothing to be proud of here. If that's how you feel in every meeting you have a) you're wrong and you're just asking the wrong questions; b) you're giving off that vibe and you're not going to get the best out of people; c) you're automatically a crap boss. That person in the above point, the one doing the worst job in your business ... they know way more about your business than you do. You're wasting valuable intel by assuming you know better than everyone else.

  • Do the basic things without fanfare. Pay people properly, give people pay rises before they have to ask, make sure you're not eating into their 'real-life' unnecessarily, remember when you're booking meeting times the women in your business don't have wives. Promote them anyway, and just don't book meetings at drop off and dinner times. This benefits everyone - all your employees have a life outside of work that demands attention whether they have children or not.

Basically, be human. Understand you're leading humans. We're all a bit fragile, we're all exceedingly strong and capable of way more than we think, and we're quick to retreat to minimum viable effort when our effort, value and humanity isn't been seen.