2002 - Grooming the boss
Can we learn to improve the way
we do our jobs from books? Publishers must think
so since they churn out hundreds every year. Four
of these "how to" books arrived on my
desk in the same week, all dealing with the role
of the boss. Perhaps their appearance was astrologically
inspired, like the rare alignment of the planets
you can see in the night sky just now across the
Two of the books were about leadership
and two were about bosses. Is there a difference?
As far as I can see leadership is the preferred
term of consultants. You can sell leadership ,
but it is more difficult to sell the concept of
the boss. I do not plan to dwell here on the leadership
books. One of them pictures an executive on the
cover, leaping about like Michael Flatley in Riverdance.
The two books on bosses had the
most serendipitous relationship since one, How
to Become a Great Boss*, was advising us how to
boss and the other, How to Manage Your Boss**,
was showing us how to be bossed. In theory, read
together, they should provide distinct perspectives
of what is needed to ensure a harmonious arrangement.
The first one has to be the most
attractive to bosses since, unlike the second,
it does not assume that they too have bosses.
Two other attractions, particularly for bosses,
are that it is short and simple in the extreme.
Point one in its "simple success formula"
says: "Only hire top-notch, excellent people."
Point two says: "Put the right people in
the right job" and point three says: "Tell
the people what needs to be done."
It looks like the job has been
sorted before the end of page four. The second
book digs a little deeper, asking one of the trickier
questions about bosses: what do they actually
do? It does not mention anything about hiring
top-notch people but it does remind you as a subordinate
that bosses have much greater responsibilities
than your own, pointing out that "you may
be a much smaller part of their working life than
they are of yours".
The lesson here is that the boss
is far more important than you are and don't you
forget it, even if you are top-notch thanks to
your boss's recruiting skills. If you are not
top-notch then you have a problem since the book
your boss is reading is advising him to "groom
'em or broom 'em". But you cannot know this
because you are still reading the chapter that
advises you to gauge your boss's personality,
strengths and weaknesses so that your own skills
and style can "mesh snugly" with those
of the boss.
The Great Boss has moved on a
few chapters and he or she is soon wielding the
broom. One of the first things done after taking
over was to get rid of the personnel files made
up of years of written employee appraisals. The
human resources director "went berserk",
of course, but that didn't worry this boss.
This boss knows what to do in
every situation. When the ageing vice-president
of sales wants to work forever, the boss takes
him to one side and tells stories about veteran
baseball stars like Micky Mantle (who would have
damaged his batting average had he stayed on)
and Babe Ruth who fell down while swinging his
bat towards the end of his career. This way the
sales executive goes quietly.
Does this mean we should run
and hide if our boss begins to chum up to us and
start talking about sport? The second book doesn't
say. Neither does it warn us about "D"
words. The first book has a chapter advising the
Great Boss to look out for "D" words.
"When a star's lustre dulls look for a D,"
it says. The D's range from divorce, debt, disease
and drugs to depression, drinking and "deviancy".
It doesn't define this last one. The inclusion
of "dice" and "dalliance"
suggests the dictionary was running out of employee
vices. Another one, "death" should be
easy to spot. "Obviously not all people problems
start with a D, but many do," it says.
The Great Boss is not going to
be messed around by anyone. When she strikes a
deal with an employee at the recruitment stage
she expects it to be honoured. If a star employee
comes in to demand a rise because others have
been engaged on higher salaries, the Great Boss
can quote the New Testament story about the labourers
in the vineyard. In this story, from the book
of Matthew, one group of labourers is hired in
the morning at the same rate given to a second
group who do just half a day's work. The owner
reminds those who complain that a deal is a deal
and he is entitled to pay what he wishes.
But the Great Boss has slipped
up this time because his employee has been reading
about assertiveness in her own book. This book
says we must learn to stand our ground, be honest,
express our feelings and be able to say "no"
while respecting our boss. The Great Boss isn't
advised what to do when the employee says: "Forget
the New Testament, this is a crummy deal."
He can hardly reach for the broom when this is
one of his top-notch recruits.
The answer is in the very next
chapter which reminds him that he should delegate
everything. So the embarrassing vineyard scene
need never happen. Bosses, it reminds us, need
to demonstrate "uncommon wisdom". One
trick, when asked for a decision by a subordinate
is to throw the question back, saying: "I
don't know. What do you think?"
This might not wash with the
bookish employee. Armed with his own advice book,
he could sidestep the question and ask the boss
for feedback. This is where we reach an impasse
since the two books are united in advising bosses
and employees to develop their listening skills.
The impasse will not be without its moments because
the employee has been advised to "listen
actively". So while the boss is simply listening,
the employee is making eye contact, issuing encouraging
noises such as "mmm", smiling and nodding.
Perhaps at this stage it is time
to put your books on the table. All of them, including
the leadership stuff. Then broom 'em.
* How To Become A Great Boss,
by Jeffrey J. Fox, published by Hyperion, Dollars
16.95. ** How to Manage Your Boss, developing
the perfect working relationship, by Ros Jay,
is published by Prentice Hall Business, price
as a pdf file