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The perfect boss

In this post, I would like to outline what makes up the perfect boss. I will draw on my personal experience, having worked in different countries in different business sectors. But wherever I have worked, all my superiors had a few personal and professional traits in common.

A good listener

A good boss will give you his undivided attention when you are having a chat with him. He will put his work down and make time for whatever is on her mind. She will not play on her mobile phone or check her emails while talking to you. She will ask relevant questions, and when needed, she will offer you advice and support. Now think for a moment whether your boss is doing exactly this. If she does, you are already in solid hands, as it is a real identifier of a strong leader! I would also like to share with you what once happened to me.

A while ago, I was assigned to help in the finance department of one of our foreign subsidiaries. The assignment was brilliant as I was able to visit South Carolina in the US, a place I have never been to before, and it was a real challenge. At the end of the assignment, I was told that I did a brilliant job, and during the debrief with the company's CEO, I wanted to negotiate a bonus for a job well done. At the time the CEO was over at our plant for the quarterly meeting, he had his wife with him. On the last day, we had the debrief penciled in. I was fully prepared for the conversation. I have prepared an Excel sheet showing what financial benefit the company has achieved through my assignment so I could justify my bonus expectations. Unfortunately, the conversation did not start well as the CEO was late for the meeting because he prioritized giving his wife a factory tour. Once in the meeting room, everything appeared rushed as he needed to leave soon to catch his flight back to the parent company. I wanted to explain my salary expectations, but he did not listen to my arguments, and I could not show the Excel sheet I prepared. My local boss, who sat with me in the meeting room, could not intervene either. The conversation got emotional and ended with the CEO dictating what he wanted to pay me as a bonus, saying I should be happy with such a generous offer.

I was blaming myself for not negotiating the parameters upon which my reward for the assignment would be based right at the beginning, but I was very keen to help, so I jumped right in. The point, though, is that I expected that he would make sufficient time for my conversation as it was long-planned in advance and that he would listen carefully to my arguments, none of which he has done! It left me quite disillusioned. As a boss, you need to be able to judge when your employee needs your undivided attention. And believe me, it sometimes only comes down to 15 minutes of any workday!

A good boss will give you his undivided attention when you are having a chat with him.”

He will make you feel welcome

When new to a company or a department, the first few days are always a bit tense. A good boss will know this. He will guide you through these first crucial weeks in your new post. Regular catch-up meetings complement a perfect welcome so you can adjust your performance and meet the expectations of the post. Nothing is worse than a boss who leaves you hanging at the beginning of a new job. How should you know where you stand and how you can improve in order to pass the probationary period if no feedback is given?

From an applicant's point of view, this is a golden chance to get a feel for the leadership qualities of your boss. There is no reason to continue in a job if your boss already leaves you hanging right at the start. After all he or she has not only the power to promote your career but also hold you back! Don't waste your time!

Detect the whisperers

This is a difficult one, but especially higher up an institution's hierarchy is very important to figure out. Throughout my career, I witnessed that decision-makers are surrounded by whispers. This is nothing bad in itself because the higher up you are, the more reliant you are on other people's advice. But here is the trick. Bad leaders that lack character, wisdom, and foresight will always fall prey to the worst kind of whisperer: "The suck-up". The typical suck-up has a strong personal agenda, mostly the desk his boss currently occupies. He will lack loyalty, and his advice will be halfhearted. But he or she will go behind the boss' back when an opportunity presents itself. The whisperers close to our boss are not difficult to make out because you will hear your boss talk about them, and his or her name will come up frequently during conversations about initiatives. The more difficult part is to determine whether he or she is a good whisperer or a suck-up. The first hint is whether your boss is susceptible to shallow flattery and poorly thought-out advice (I mean the stuff that only looks good on paper). But the most important thing would be to seek a conversation with the whisperer to check him out. If he is all about smoke and mirrors and a bit of a"know it all," you know you have a suck-up in front of you. The worst kind will be the shameless self-promotors leaving out no opportunity to stress how they would go about things. But whilst they talk the talk, they never get their hands dirty or make a complete mess out of things; such is the nature of the self-promotor. They will throw you under a bus to not tarnish their reputation. My advice: Stay well clear of these people! It also raises questions about your boss. I always saw it as a weakness of character.

Open to honest feedback

A good boss will always invite and ask for honest feedback, so you won't need to sugarcoat things for him. He will even be annoyed if you withhold honest feedback from him. However, don't make the mistake of overdoing it. Honest feedback has to come in digestible portions; hence refrain from constantly bombarding him with your opinions. If you stick to that, your opinions should be met with open ears.

A sharp mind

Do you sometimes have the feeling that whatever you say falls on deaf ears? Niccolo Machiavelli, a great political thinker of the Renaissance, identified three types of intelligence in chapter 22 of his groundbreaking book The Prince:

  • one kind understands things for itself,

  • the other appreciates what others can understand,

  • the third understands neither for itself nor through others.

This first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless. Any boss you work for should ideally be in either category one or two; otherwise, your career will suffer.

Follow-through: the last test of good leadership

I think this is best explained through a personal story.

I have got a very keen employee working in my finance department. He is happy in his role, likes to do whatever is thrown at him, also the boring stuff, is inquisitive and diligent, and conducts himself well with all the other employees around the company. This is exactly the kind of person to have around, but as a boss, you have to stay on the ball. I try to keep things interesting for him, letting him explore initiatives that go beyond his "normal" job description and trying to push him into new tasks. I have also raised the prospect for him to pursue an advanced finance education paid for by the company. It is my job to show him that I follow through when I say that I support him in a cost-saving initiative, that I will enquire whether the company is interested in paying for his education, etc... I can't just let it slip as this would show a lack of interest!

So far I am keeping up and thereby keeping him!


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