Be a boss ‘everyone wants to work for’

“Who is your all-time favorite boss?” That’s a question I often ask participants in leadership seminars.

From their responses we develop a list of characteristics of successful managers. Some words come up frequently, for example “trust.” Some very good books have been written about that quality and how vital it is to have in the relationship. Trust goes two ways, takes a while to develop and once broken the relationship will never be the same. How would you like to report to someone you don’t trust to give you credit for your innovative ideas, or to keep a confidence, or to give you honest feedback about your performance?

There are some bosses I’ve heard described this way: “Everyone wants to work for her.” I’m interviewing some people who have earned that epithet and I will publish the results in an upcoming column. I’m interested in how that happens, why everyone wants to work for a certain boss. Certainly it isn’t that they are easy on employees and lackadaisical about performance standards. These bosses are usually tough, very hard workers themselves, having high standards for themselves and their employees. Some qualities emerging from the interviews are clarity about expectations, authenticity, humor and integrity. More about that later.

Bill Keller is a writer and former executive editor for the New York Times. He’s also a Pulitzer Prize winner and I rarely miss his column in the Times. Recently he got into this topic of successful management when he was comparing candidates for mayor of New York City. He described one candidate in particular as understanding “the intricate balancing acts of successful management: recruiting a team that brings fresh thinking but has an insider’s understanding of which levers to pull; holding the apparatus of government accountable without micromanaging; building consensus without letting it paralyze you; knowing how to accumulate political capital and when to spend it.”

I like this list of Keller’s a lot. These are intricate balancing acts, and even the best of managers will sometimes find it difficult to keep from teetering and falling off such a tightrope. Like every other skill worth having, it takes a lot of practice to develop. It takes a lot of wanting to do your job in an exceptional way. It takes keeping your ego in check and trusting your decision-making ability. It takes really caring about people. It is an art.

Max DePree is one of those leaders everyone wants to work for. He is the CEO of Herman Miller Inc., and when they have job openings people line up around the block. DePree’s book, “Leadership is an Art” has been a must-read since first published in 1989. In this book DePree describes his brand of leadership as stewardship. He stresses the importance of building relationships and creating a strong value system within an organization. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality and the last is to say thank you.” In the book DePree describes the essential steps between those two responsibilities.

So if you are examining and refining your own leadership qualities, you are practicing an art that will serve you well for the rest of your life. Everyone I know is managing something – people, schedules, projects – you name it. It is fun to know you’re doing it well, and to celebrate your progress as you improve along the way.

Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee area resident. Her web site is and she can be reached at (414) 305-3459.

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