Ten ways to be a kick-ass boss

English: Big Boss Man
English: Big Boss Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having been an underling much of my life, I’ve seen the flip side of this deal.

My first boss, at The Globe and Mail, in my mid-20s, set the bar impossibly high for all future bosses. I still miss him!

What did I love about my Best Boss Ever?

— He scared the shit out of me by giving me assignments so huge and so unfamiliar I used to go home and sit in the bathtub and cry from terror. The rational part of my brain said, “No, you ninny. He thinks you’re talented and he’s giving you a fantastic chance to prove it. Go do it!”

— He was willing to listen to my ideas, and give me opportunities I had no right to, like sending me to the Winnipeg Jets’ training camp after I told him I knew nothing about hockey. Then asking me to profile the owner of the Maple Leafs.

The original Winnipeg Jets logo in the WHA
The original Winnipeg Jets logo in the WHA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— He told me when I needed to pick up my game.

— He told me I was too impatient and fussy and needed to stay put and be consistently excellent for a while doing one thing.

— He backed me to the hilt when one of my stories caused huge international furor. I was terrified I’d be fired. He loved the publicity for my work and our paper.

— When I decided to quit and go to another paper, he accepted my invitation to lunch — which cost me about $50 or so in 1986 — and told me I was welcome to return any time. His acceptance of my resignation letter was typically kind and elegant.

— I still have my hand-written attaboy note from him on one of my front-page stories: “Magnificent.” That one word was high praise in an industry that gives very little of it. I treasure it to this day.

Big Boss (Metal Gear)
Big Boss (Metal Gear) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some tips for those in the boss’ chair:

Be fair

This is a big one. Workers can be whiny but they will, for sure, compare notes on how they’re being managed. Does everyone else really expect their emails returned at 3 a.m.? (And is this really how you think people should live?) Yes, you’re under ridiculous pressure to get results and productivity but try to remember that your staff are not merely units of labor. They’re people.

Be clear

People often mis-hear or don’t listen well or forget or are overwhelmed.  Make sure your staff knows exactly what you want. Better than having them flail, fearfully, in the dark. I once worked for a major newspaper whose macho motto was “Sink or swim.”


Say thank-you

This is huge. I try to make a point of thanking my assistants with every email and phone call. Yes, you’re paying them. They’re not robots. When I worked retail for a no-commission $11/hour, my feet burning after every shift, it made a surprisingly big difference when our manager, every night at closing, said “Thank you.” Do it often.

Pay properly

This is an area of some debate, clearly. I’ve learned the hard way that paying my part-time assistants, all of whom are college grads, $10/hour is not enough. I now pay my current assistant $15/hour, more than I prefer, worth it. In an era of $4/gallon gasoline, any boss who keeps cheaping out will find the result is lazy, unmotivated staff, people who quit the minute they can and an unspoken power struggle that slows everyone down.

I’m in the middle of profiling a huge company who’s legendary for paying badly — when half your reviews on glassdoor say you’re cheaper than all your competitors, listen up!

Make clear how you prefer to handle communication

We all have preferences. I prefer written communication — that way I can always see what I said and what was answered. Don’t fume or yell because your staff aren’t doing what you want. Communicate clearly what you expect.

Don’t abuse people’s time

This is huge. Just because you have a title or office or more salary or experience or education doesn’t justify being abusive. There are always going to be times when everyone has to work later or longer — including you! But if this is a constant, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t demand face time just because you can.

Don’t bully

I’ve been on the receiving end of this far too many times. It’s toxic and a total waste of resources. I once worked in an office — no exaggeration — a trade publisher, whose editor in chief shouted curses across the room at everyone, snarled inches from my face and sniped constantly at everyone. One of my co-workers told me she had been on anti-depressants for years just to be able to stand working there; I quit after six weeks there to go freelance. This includes yelling, sneering, eye-rolling or the silent treatment. People can document, and some will sue for, a hostile work environment.

Back your people up!

This is essential. We all work for our managers as much as we choose to work for a company or organization and our primary loyalty is to our boss and his/her boss(es.) Treat your staff with as much loyalty, resources, training and moral support as you can muster. Protect them whenever possible from toxicity that can lower morale.

Praise as often as you can

We’re all human. We need to celebrated when we’re succeeding, not only spoken to when we disappoint or fail.

Correct or criticize only in private

Never dress someone down publicly. It’s rude, humiliating and unnecessary. Unless your entire corporate culture is equally brutal, managers who do this lose respect from everyone in earshot and are sure to lose talented staff as soon as they can find new employment.


Be human!

The managers I will walk through fire for — I did a month on crutches in a Quebec winter covering an election campaign en francais for my first boss — show us they’re actually human beings. They laugh, share a joke, ask how our sweetie or dog or Mom or marathon training is doing. They have the self-confidence to reveal some of their weaknesses or vulnerabilities so we don’t feel Totally Intimidated.

What have I left out?

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14 thoughts on “Ten ways to be a kick-ass boss

  1. These are all great! I would add “Give credit where credit is due” as I have witnessed too many “bosses” who refuse to share the spotlight with those who worked hard on a successful project, etc. When I was in Corporate America, I worked ten times harder for a boss who wasn’t intimidated by someone’s else’s job well done. Not everyone is out for your job.

    Thank you for sharing these great tips!

  2. Make actually being a boss a priority. The first year at the PD I was under a man who seldom held staff meetings, was arbitrary in his decision making, threw his people under the bus to make himself look good, and did very little of the things required of his position. Lots of days he just didn’t come into the office leaving his people without authority to act in many situations that negatively impacted patrons. After I was transferred to my current supervisor I noticed a night and day difference! She holds regular brief meetings to check in with the other admin assistants, gives us an annual review, praises and critiques appropriately, and documents everything for our protections as well as hers. She’s “on our side,” if you will. It makes all the difference!

  3. This is excellent. I really appreciate your insight on this subject matter. Managing staff is difficult at times. The whining really gets on my nerves.

    I think it is so important to highlight each team member’s strengths in front of the rest of the team. I want to validate what they bring to the table.

  4. Well done. About the only thing you missed except the credit where credit is due mentioned above, is to tell us how bosses who don’t do these things still manage to get hired, or if self-employed ever hold onto any staff.To be an employer now you must train in these areas and send your staff on training on bullying ( and no, I don’t mean how to ). I’ve personally seen complaints against two senior managers cause their dismissal or crablike movement within an organisation. I personally think that to be a good boss is to engender respect from your staff and return respect to them.

  5. This is a wonderful post. Your list is fantastic! Of course there will always be things to add to a list of this nature…I might add “Realize that your employees have a career, too.” I’ve had too many bosses who really didn’t want to be bosses…they just rose up the ranks and acquired staff, and thought of their employees either as 1) an inconvenient nuisance or 2) in existence to serve himself/herself. By realizing your employees are full professionals who want to grow, a lot of other things will fall into place.

    Second, “Help your employee develop a specific skill set.” Employees can spend years doing repetitive tasks, or parts of projects, but not really emerge with a marketable skill set. This is necessary for career growth. Again…love your list!!!

    1. Thanks — such great points.

      I see way too much of this now, the notion an employee has no larger vision of where they want to go next, internally or externally. Which leads to your second point — if we never develop new skills, we get bored and can’t go anywhere. In this economy, so focused on “productivity”, I think a lot of this can get lost.

      Working for myself much of my career means I’ve had to do this on my own organically. It’s challenging.

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