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How you can become a great boss

Last updated on: July 13, 2011 09:17 IST

How you can become a great boss

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Amit Ranjan Rai in New Delhi

Are you the boss you need to be? When they are receptive to change managers usually take on new positions and assignments.

The ambitious ones stretch themselves to understand the challenges and deliver good results. But as they settle in, they often become complacent - perhaps because they lose the fear of imminent failure.

Linda A Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School (HBS), says many of them stop making progress because they simply don't know how to.

Hill, who is also the faculty chair of the leadership initiative at HBS, co-authored 'Being the Boss' early this year in which she offers an approach for managers to understand the transformational challenges of their roles and what it takes to become an effective leader.

She discusses the approach, which she calls "the three imperatives", in a free-wheeling conversation with Amit Ranjan Rai.

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Image: Linda A Hill (Inset).

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You have said in your book that becoming an effective manager is difficult because of the gulf that separates the work of the management from the work the individual performer.  What do you mean?

When you are an individual performer, fundamentally, you have a task to yourself that you are responsible for.

You are the doer and your success in that task depends mostly on your own efforts and talent.

But when you take on the role of a manager, it is likely that you are stepping into a new universe unlike you've encountered before.

Many get into it assuming that the new role will be an extension of the old - that is, they'll keep doing what they do, except they will also be exercising more control over the work of others.

They think the managerial role will be a broader extension of managing themselves. But that is never the case. It's only with time that you realise the managerial role is very different.

 When you become a manager or boss the way you achieve success is through other people who work under you.

So the gulf is that you are no longer the doer, but an agenda setter, an orchestrator of others.

It is about moving from my-job-is-to-get-the-task-done to one of creating the contacts that will allow others under you to get the work done.

It is about a fundamental shift in the mindset - you are more of a network builder and cultivator than the doer.

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Image: A boss is more of a network builder.

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You have gone on to say that being a manager is a journey that most fail to complete. What stops them from becoming an effective manager? Why do a lot of managers fail to become good leaders?

The shift in mindset that I am talking about doesn't happen overnight. Most managers don't realise that becoming an effective manager or a great boss is a lengthy and difficult process of learning and change.

They underestimate the time and effort required - it usually takes years for the changes to take root, so it is a journey of years. And what makes it tough is that it cannot be taught - every manager must learn the lessons herself based on her experiences.

There are no secrets and shortcuts. It is a step-by-step process of self-development and self-learning.

Managers fail because even though they begin to make progress, they stop short of acquiring skills, knowledge, values, judgment and other competencies. They don't understand this.

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Image: Becoming a great boss is a lengthy and difficult process.

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But why is that shift in mindset so difficult?

It is difficult because you have to unlearn some of what may have actually made you successful at the job, and no one likes to unlearn those things.

For instance, you may be a star individual contributor, a smart and capable high performer, and then you become a manager where you have to run the business with a team working under you.

Now, you may be very good at a task, but now that someone else in your team is doing the same task, it is quite likely that you would want it to be done in exactly the manner you have been doing it, and in fact, you may do most of it all by yourself.

So there is a tendency that instead of helping the team member figure out her own voice and develop her own point of view and perspective, you make her a vehicle to do the task the way you want it to be done. Clearly, she is not a vehicle to do things how you think.

At the same time, you do have some expertise that you must share, which can help the team member do the task in a better way. So, as a manger, you need to strike that balance. It is like I can very well do my daughter's homework, but that's not what I want, the child has to learn to do it herself.

So when you become a manager or lead a team, there are new competencies that you need to acquire such as how to coach people, how to give feedback. A great leader today does not dictate people how to go about doing a task; she sets the direction and get his people to execute that.

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Image: A great sets the right direction.

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You are saying that star performers may not always be great leaders .

They have a lot of trouble. There is research that shows that stars - people who are particularly smart - generally have more difficulty in learning to lead. If you are a star performer you don't need much help, you can do the job of five on your own.

You certainly have tremendous energy and capability. So because you don't need other people as quickly, you may not learn to delegate as fast. You have to be able to create space for others to play out who they are. There is a lot of undoing and unlearning in the process.

In today's businesses we need to use everyone's talents and capabilities, and then there is the need to innovate.

This requires that we must work collaboratively, getting our ideas together, working them through together and coming up with the best solutions.

And that is much different from you just using your own talent to get the job done. Managers find it difficult to give up what they are really good at.

Image: Star performers may not always be great leaders.

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<B>What about the inherent risks when you go about setting up a purpose and delegating most of the work to your team, allowing them to take it forward? At the end of the day, you have to meet targets and deliver good results -there's always a chance that you start doing things on your own.</B><BR>

You have to be able to manage risks. One of the main reasons why managers don't delegate is that they don't know how to think about risk. They don't trust their judgments about who they can trust.

Delegation is hard, but it is basic stuff. When senior executives derail, it is because of the same reasons why junior executives derail - they don't know how to delegate properly.

The reasons are almost the same: "I am not sure whom I can really trust do this." That is something you learn from experience.     

I would suggest them to be analytical about what they mean by trust - those are judgment calls. Because the stakes are high and you don't want to be wrong about anything, you are not able make a call on whether you can trust your team.

The problem here is not whether you trust your team or not, but that you don't trust your own judgment. It is about you not knowing how to decide on what people are capable of.

And if you are a star performer, average workers are really mediocre to you; you think they are not as motivated or as talented as you.

When I talk to such executives and managers, they often say "but why can't they see it". You can only decide what people are capable of when you delegate. Only if you do it, you can learn how to assess whom you can trust.

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Image: Bosses have to be able to manage risks.

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<B>Your book offers what you call the "three imperatives" that can guide managers to become great bosses. What are these?</B><BR>

As we've discussed, managers often underestimate the transformation challenges of their roles - or they become complacent and stop growing and improving.

Sometimes even the best of them suffer doubts and fears despite the years of experience.

To deal with the chaos, they need a clear underlying sense of what's important and where they and their organisation want to be in future.

Based on our studies of management practice and our own observation of where managers tend to wrong, we came up an approach that we call the three imperatives: Manage yourself, manage your network, and manage your team.

It's a straight forward approach focused on what managers must actually do.

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Image: Sometimes even the best of them suffer doubts.

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<B>What do you mean by 'managing yourself' and what's its relevance?</B><BR>

Managing begins with you, because who are, what you think, your beliefs and values, and how you connect with others, all this matter to the people you must influence.

Everyday those people examine every interaction with you and understand your intentions. They ask themselves: Can I trust this person? How hard they work, their level of commitment, and their willingness to accept influence will depend largely on the qualities they see in you. So are you someone who can influence others productively?

Productive influence doesn't arise from people liking you or fearing you, but it comes from people's trust in you as a manager.

That trust has two components: Belief in your competence (that you know what to do and how to do) and belief in your character, that your motives are good and you want your people to do well.

Trust is a foundation of all forms of influence and so you need to conduct yourself with others in ways that foster it. Management really begins with who you are as a person.

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Image: Trust is a foundation of all forms of influence.

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<B>The second imperative is about managing your network right. Can you explain? </B><BR>

Being an effective manager is not just about managing your team successfully; but it is also about managing all those people over whom you don't have a formal authority.

If you do not manage this relationship right, your team will not have the resources it needs to do its job efficiently, no matter how good the team is.

Often managers resist the need to operate effectively in their organisation's political environments.

They consider politics dysfunctional and try to avoid it. But effective managers know they cannot turn away. They proactively engage the organisation to create conditions for their team's success.

They build and nurture a broad network of ongoing relationships with those they need and those who need them. That is how they influence people over whom they have no formal authority.

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Image: Leaders work for their team's success.

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<B>The third one of course is managing your team. How should a manager do that most effectively?</B><BR>

Managers often overlook the possibilities of creating a real team and managing their people as a whole.

They don't realise that managing one-on-one is just not the same as managing a group and that they can influence individual behaviour much more effectively through the group, because most of us are social creatures who want to fit in and be accepted as part of the team.

How do you make a real team - which is committed to a common purpose and goals? In a real team, members hold themselves and one another jointly accountable.

They share a genuine conviction that they will succeed or fail together.

An effective manager provides his team with a clear and compelling purpose, and concrete goals as well as the crucial knowledge to reach those goals.

He knows how to lead a team through the work it does day after day to achieve his own and the team's goals.


Image: An effective manager provides his team with a clear and compelling purpose.

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