Being the Boss
Striking the right balance between good management and good leadership is a daunting but necessary challenge for anyone endeavoring to be a good boss. In Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill and former executive Kent Lineback discuss the steps to take and the roadblocks to avoid in order to meet that challenge. Q&A with Hill, plus book excerpt. Key concepts include:
- You have three key imperatives as a manager: manage yourself, manage your network, and manage your team.
- Formal authority on its own will fail to influence people and get results.
- It's important to manage your relationship with your boss, if only to avoid powerlessness, which can be as corruptive a force as power.
Nineteen years ago, Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill wrote the first edition of her book Becoming a Manager, detailing the experiences of several first-year supervisors who were making the daunting transition from star performer to novice boss. Since then, she has found that the now-classic book is popular not just among newbies but also among leaders with decades of experience.
"Unless you manage the context in which your team resides, there's no way that your team can be successful."
"I've always been surprised by why on earth they're reading a book about becoming a manager," Hill says. "What I've come to understand is that many of them never really made the psychological transformation from being an individual contributor to being a manager, and it really resonates with them when they read the book. Many of them are not fulfilling their potential. They're well intended, but a fair number of them derail or kind of get stuck."
Hill specifically targets that audience in her new book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, cowritten with Kent Lineback.
"This book was written to benefit experienced people who are trying to go from good to great," Hill says.
Being the Boss describes the challenges that good bosses face as they endeavor to manage themselves, manage their networks, and manage their teams. In short, being a good boss is about much more than wielding authority.
"I've seen so many people get that wrong," says Lineback, himself a former executive. "They think authority defines them. I've had bosses who had to resort to saying, 'I'm the boss!' And when you get to that point, you've lost it."
In the following interview, Hill talks about the difficulties of striking a balance between management and leadership in the age of globalization and remote offices.
Carmen Nobel: Your book discusses three imperatives for becoming a great leader: managing yourself, managing your network, and managing your team. What are some of the issues inherent in each of them?
Linda Hill: It starts with using yourself as an instrument to get things done. And because you're the instrument, you've got to know that instrument very well and use it appropriately, so that your imprint matches your impact. We talk a lot about what it really means to be the boss. For instance, although you do have formal authority, you don't want to have to rely on that too much to get things done.
Managing your network is in the middle of the book, before the section on managing your team. That kind of throws some people because when you think about being the boss, you mostly think about the people who report to you. But unless you manage the context in which your team resides, there's no way that your team can be successful. So you have to understand the political dynamics, you have to understand how to build a network with peers and bosses, and you have to set the right expectations for your team and the right resources. We really think that's at the heart.
The last piece is your team. That's about all the complexities of what it means to build a team—a team is different from just a group—and how you think about managing the performance of individuals. We also talk about preparing for the future—that managing isn't all about today, it's also about managing your team for tomorrow.
Q: You include a chapter called "Don't Forget Your Boss." Managers often fail to realize their role in their relationships with their bosses. What do they need to keep in mind?
A: It's common to let the person up the chain be most responsible for whether you have a healthy relationship, but you're equally responsible. If you don't manage that relationship right, your team is not going to be able to do what it needs to do.
Powerlessness corrupts as much as power. You shouldn't feel powerless with your boss. That's not the deal. You have to figure out the sources of power you have to influence the boss. You also have to see the boss as human and fallible in all the ways that you're human and fallible, and figure out how to deal with the reality of who that person is—rather than the ideal of what you'd like that person to be like. There are really bad bosses, and you can't be naive or cynical about this. It's hard to be successful with a bad boss, and sometimes success means figuring out how to get out of that situation. But before you decide that's the deal, you need to take responsibility for the relationship, because it's definitely two-way. I'm building on the traditions of [HBS professors emeriti] John Kotter and John Gabarro, who [in 1980] wrote an article about managing your boss, which was very radical at the time. (http://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-your-boss/ar/1)
Today many people have multiple bosses, and we also discuss the challenges there. One of the most common missteps is to deal with the boss who's closest to you physically and treat your relationship with your other boss as out of sight, out of mind. So we talk about how you have to manage the priorities between those two bosses and how to negotiate what will be your priorities, given their priorities.
Q: Due to technological advances and globalization, more and more managers find themselves leading, collaborating with, and reporting to colleagues in remote offices—people they rarely if ever see in person. What challenges do they need to consider?
A: When I teach executives, we talk about how you give feedback virtually to people you'll never see in person—giving performance appraisals to people you never see and understanding the complexities of that, and understanding the limitations of e-mail and telephone calls. We really rely on nonverbal cues, generally, to help us understand the credibility of the message. For instance, to tell whether I'm telling the truth, you'll listen to my tone, you'll look at my face. We're prepared by evolution to read the whole person and figure out whether that person is credible.
Often you're dealing with the fact that the person is not only far away but might be of a different culture as well. And you've got to figure out how to interpret him or her. So what we have to explain is that when you don't have those nonverbal cues, then you have to realize that it's really an impoverished method of communication. You can't act like it's face-to-face communication when it isn't. We all know, because we've experienced it, how fast conflict can escalate with e-mail because the nonverbals are not there.
When you're building trust virtually, it's really important that you deliver on what you say you're going to do. If you tell someone [in a remote office], "By four o'clock on Wednesday afternoon you'll have X," it matters more that you actually get it [done] on time, because that person will use those cues to figure out whether you're trustworthy rather than the nonverbal cues that are not available. Whereas, you might tell someone down the hall that you'll get something to him by 5 o'clock next Thursday, but when the deadline approaches [and you haven't completed it], you can go [to his office] and say, "You know this other thing is happening, can I get it to you tomorrow?" And he can read you in person.
Another tip is that when you're working virtually, silence does not indicate agreement. So you have to actively inquire more than you would with a face-to-face interaction. On the phone I can't see whether you're shaking your head, so I have to ask, actively, if everything is OK.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: My next book is on leadership for innovation—on what kind of leadership is most appropriate if sustained breakthrough innovation is what you need to be doing. The key to competitiveness these days is not just about having the right strategy but also about being able to do these breakthrough innovations more than once.
Book excerpt from Being the Boss: 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader
By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback
"I'm the boss!"
It's a common mistake to think management is defined by formal authority—the ability that comes with a title to impose your will on others. In fact, formal authority is a useful but limited tool.
People Want More Than a Formal, Authority-Based Relationship with the Boss
Many managers—especially those who were achievement-driven stars as individual performers—don't even think about relationships. They're so task oriented that they put the work to be done and their authority as boss at the heart of what they do and assume they can ignore the human aspects of working with others. 1
The problem is that most people don't want your authority to be the be-all and end-all of the relationship. They want a personal, human connection, an emotional link. They want you to care about them as individuals. They want you to encourage their growth and development. Research tells us this kind of human relationship with the boss is a key factor determining an employee's level of engagement with the work. 2
We know of a small-company owner, a warm, decent woman, so pressed for time she consciously decided to avoid small talk at the office. She never opened up to people about herself or asked about their lives and interests. She didn't, that is, until her people rose up and expressed, through an intermediary, that they hated how she treated them. They wanted a real human connection with her, even if she was "the boss."
The Limits of Formal Authority
Most managers soon discover, often to their dismay, that authority isn't very effective for influencing people and getting results.
Your Formal Authority Often Fails to Produce Compliance
You may think people are perverse or stubborn, but there are many reasons they don't always follow your instructions.
They disagree with you. They think there's a better way and feel free to exercise their own judgment.
They think something else is more important. It's up to you to set deadlines and make your priorities clear.
They don't understand what you want. Making directions more and more explicit can only go so far. Most work today requires some judgment and thought, and so it's almost impossible to give instructions specific enough to eliminate all misunderstanding or cover every contingency.
They find circumstances have changed, invalidating your directions and forcing them to improvise.
They dislike being bossed around. Peremptory orders given in a tone of voice or choice of words that's belittling only invite minimal compliance or subtle disobedience. As someone told us, "I fixed my boss. I did exactly what he said to do." Be aware that some people are especially sensitive to "being bossed around." They bring to work a history of troubled dealings with authority figures. By the time you meet them, they've accumulated a set of ambivalent and even negative feelings about authority, which they apply to you and any instructions you give. At the extreme, these are the people from whom a simple directive can produce angry resistance.
People may have a view of authority that differs from yours. They may bring to work generational or cultural attitudes that lead them to distrust and question authority. That will make them less likely to comply. This is not personal. It's simply a different point of view that you and they will need to work through. As companies and work groups become more diverse, these differences will appear more often.
Finally, people may not comply because they're confused. The growing complexity of the workplace and more fluid organizational structures with multiple bosses and temporary teams can complicate and blur lines of authority. Many employees may be confused by what seem to them conflicting demands and expectations.
Also, in virtual teams with members spread far apart, distance diminishes the ability of formal authority to create compliance. It's easy to forget about a boss 3,000 miles away, especially when there's another just down the hall.
All of these reasons create a workplace in which authority is at best an uncertain means of influence.
Your Formal Authority by Itself Cannot Generate Commitment
You need more than people's simple compliance. You need them to be engaged with their work and want to do it well. You can command how your people spend their time, even where they direct their attention, but you cannot decree what's essential for good work—you must win their commitment by winning over their heads and hearts.
When you rely primarily on your formal authority, you're fundamentally managing through fear—fear of the consequences of disobedience.
Fear is a limited, ultimately corrosive and demeaning way to get what you want from others. It certainly will not generate personal commitment or real engagement with the work and the team.
Your Formal Authority Cannot Create Genuine Change
Change often brings uncertainty, loss, and pain for those it touches. Yet those are usually the very people who must embrace the change and make it work. Real solutions can only come from those involved, and real change requires that they alter not only their behavior but their thinking, assumptions, and values as well. Authority cannot compel such change.
Your Formal Authority Is Less Likely to Elicit People's Knowledge and Insight
Every individual in an organization possesses knowledge, skills, and new ideas of potential value. (If they don't, it's your responsibility to replace them with people who do.) Managing people primarily by exercising your formal authority—by telling them what to do without truly seeking their input—is far less likely than a more open approach to capture that full value. Insisting on "I'm the boss!" places a huge burden on you. The head of a large high-tech company told us of a discussion she once had with her head of HR. Her company had installed a program to encourage broader participation in decision making, and she was frustrated that product development seemed to be moving too slowly.
"Maybe we have to go back to the old command-and-control system," she said.
"If that's what you want," said the HR person, "I'll help you. But there's one problem. You have to be right all the time."
Laughing, the CEO said, "I'll never forget what he said. I told him, 'That's never going to work.' "
No one person can possibly possess the knowledge, experience, and wisdom needed to make every decision. Organizational success today requires the involvement of everyone at all levels. Less authority-driven organizations are more likely to elicit and take full advantage of the talent and experience of their people.
1. See, for example, David C. McClelland and David H. Burnham, "Power Is the Great Motivator," Harvard Business Review, March-April 1976, 100-110; and Scott Spreier, "Leadership Run Amok," Harvard Business Review, June 2006, 72-82.
2. See, for example, Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994), 263-266; Joan Magretta, What Management Is: How It Works and Why It's Everyone's Business (New York: Free Press, 2002), 195; and Rodd Wagner and James K. Harter, 12: The Elements of Great Managing (New York: Gallup Press, 2006), chap. 3.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, by Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback. Copyright © 2011 Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback. All rights reserved.