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How to Be an Effective Boss

It's not easy, but doing it well pays huge dividends – both professionally and personally.

“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” –Theodore Roosevelt

When people quit their jobs, they’re usually not quitting the job. They’re quitting the boss.

The reality is that a supervisor has the power to make or break the whole nine-to-five experience. I’ve been working since I was thirteen, and my various bosses have run the gamut from wonderful leaders to imperious dictators. Cases in point: I had a boss who seemingly tried to point out my every flaw, I suppose so that I knew that I couldn’t do anything right. I’ve had one who was absent and aloof, and another who micromanaged every facet of my work. Does any of this sound familiar?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I once had a boss who would come to my classroom once a week and ask me, “What can I do to support you this week?” And she meant it.

All of which is to say, there's a big difference between leadership and management. The man or woman in charge ought to be humbled by their position and take seriously the weight of their influence. So to get a wider perspective, I reached out to a business owner, a retired bank executive, and a high school administrator to get their insights as to what makes a great leader. Here’s what I gleaned from those conversations.


Get to Know Your Workers on a Personal Level

“When someone walks into my office, I put my phone down and turn my computer monitor away. My people don’t feel appreciated if they need my attention and I’m sending a damn text.” –The Business Owner

This seems obvious, but we’ve all had the hands-off boss who isn’t interested in our lives. If you want your employees to work hard and respect you, it’s on you to see them as real people with real lives.

So avoid relationships that are built solely around small talk, and instead engage your employees in actual conversations. If you want positive results from your workers, then you need to find out what motivates each of them on a personal level. When your employees have familial troubles outside of work (and everyone does, sooner or later), it’s okay to check in and see how they’re doing. No one’s asking you to become a therapist, but you won’t undermine your own authority by caring.


Don't Dismiss Feedback

“I have to be willing to accept feedback. I know I have blind spots: there are things about me that aren’t good, but I’m not going to see them unless someone points them out. If you can’t handle those conversations, you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership role.” – The High School Administrator

Being in charge is not synonymous with being infallible. If the buck stops with you, you’re going to make some mistakes.

You need to be ok with your employees coming to you with feedback. Why? Because they’re the people whose boots are on the ground, and they’re going to see things that you don’t. When someone approaches you with a concern, don't dismiss it – seek to understand things from their perspective. Part of being a leader means that you don’t get your feelings hurt every time someone disagrees with you or tells you that they don’t appreciate your methods.

Yes, you’re in charge, but that means you’re going to piss people off sometimes. Take the feedback, don’t be overly sensitive, and don’t hold grudges. I once had a boss who screamed right in my face because I missed a deadline. A few days later I told him I didn’t appreciate his approach. We sat down, talked it through, and in the end, he apologized and thanked me for coming to him with the feedback. That’s leadership.


Have the Difficult Conversations

“I had a guy leaving a half hour early a few days a week. I called him into my office and laid it out for him respectfully but resolutely. I said, ‘I know you’re cutting out early, and it isn’t okay. We work until a set time, and it’s what I expect of you. Or you can work somewhere else.’ He hasn’t left early since.” –The Business Owner

Part of being in charge is having the conversation with an employee who isn’t pulling their weight, isn’t being appropriate, or who thinks they can roll in twenty minutes late every day.

Most supervisors tend to fall to one extreme or the other with confrontation: either they rebuke their employees out of anger (and send the wrong message), or they never speak up because having that difficult conversation is simply too intimidating. Don’t procrastinate and don’t stew over it; you’re only setting yourself and the employee up for failure. Have these conversations quickly and without passion. Your job is to help your employees be the best that they can be, and sometimes that means calling them on the carpet.


Get Everyone on the Same Page, Then Get out of the Way

“You need to learn your employees’ strengths and then direct them to greatness, even if that means their abilities end up surpassing your own. Encourage your people to excel in their strengths, and partner with them to overcome their weaknesses.” –The Retired Bank Executive

Everyone in your organization needs to know the overarching vision, but they also need to know the end goal for each day. As the leader, it’s your job to communicate clearly and concisely what you need your group to accomplish.

You hired your team because they’re the best at what they do, so let them do it. No one appreciates being micromanaged, and you have plenty of work of your own to do. If you were to spend your whole day delegating every task for every project, nothing would get done. You’re one person. Instead, delegate responsibility and empower your employees to perform the work they know how to do well.


Rehearse These Words: “Good Job”

“You get more from your workers by lifting them up. If I can’t take a genuine interest in my people and tell them when I see them doing a good job, then what the hell am I doing here?” –The High School Administrator

For whatever reason, this is the hardest part of the job for lots of bosses. You've got to remember that when you’re in charge, you have the ability to make an employee feel like a rock star or a total failure. We know have a lot on your plate, but give someone a pat on the back or a high five and remind them that there’s a reason you chose them to work for you.

I've heard bosses say they don’t encourage their employees on an individual level because it’s simply not how they’re wired. This is lazy, and it’s a cop out. Whatever your interpersonal skills, part of your job is making the time to tell your workers when they’re doing a kick-ass job. Remember that you set the tone in the workplace, and if you want to get the best results from your employees, you need to remind them that they’re the best at what they do.


We know it isn’t easy being at the top of the totem pole. You have deadlines, goals, and a bottom line that never goes away. But when you're in the driver's seat, you can’t forget the people below you who get their hands dirty and bring those goals to fruition. The world has plenty of bosses and way too many managers. Make the decision to lead, and watch your organization, and your people, flourish.

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