The quest to be a better boss

First off, thanks for all the encouraging words about the last blog post. It's great to hear that many of you are starting your own personal challenges for 2016 and several have downloaded the Way of Life app to start tracking your daily habits.

As we shake off the holidays and hit mid-January, many of us are finally getting back into the swing of work: the morning commutes, the weekly staff meetings, the year-end reviews - all to widely varying degrees of excitement. Why the variance? According to Gallup, as much as 70% of our job satisfaction is directly tied to how we feel about one person - our boss. Wow. And furthermore, most bosses aren't cutting it. Less than 1/3 of American workers are engaged in their jobs in any given year. 

So today, I want to share a few tips that I've learned about being a boss and let's see if we can break down this perplexing topic for many into something a bit more ummm...manageable! (Sorry, couldn't resist)

If you lead and manage others, please give it a read and let me know what you think. And if you've ever have a bad boss, let me know if some of this resonates. Feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments below. Here we go!

Like a Boss

This week, one of my employees, Adam, went on an all expense paid trip to a 5 star resort in the Riviera Maya for being a top performer at our company. It's a trip that I actually won myself last year, where Brooke and I got to hit the Ritz-Carlton in Puerto Rico for 4 days of laying on the beach while slowly changing our blood types to "Mojito". It was without a doubt the nicest vacation we've ever had.

The surprising thing is that as proud as I was to win that trip last year, I was more excited and more proud to see Adam go this year. I hired Adam a few years ago basically straight out of college and have watched him go from being shy and sometimes awkward in the workplace ("supes awk" as he would say) to leading, kicking ass and taking names each day now. As his boss, I'd like to think that I've played a role in that growth. "Supes awk" photo of us below.

All this has me thinking this week about my own journey as a people manager. It’s frankly a skill I haven’t always been "supes great" at and have had to work hard at improving over my career. 

A few years ago I stumbled across this New York Times interview with Laszlo Bock, the head of HR for Google. As you can imagine, Google has analyzed endless amounts of data on the workplace and according to Laszlo, being a great manager could be boiled down to just a few things. As I read the article and saw its simplicity, I thought to myself "I could do these things!" and so I have ever since, or at least I've tried to.

One passage in particular really hit me. Let's take a quick look at it, break it down and then I'll share my thoughts on how I've tried to implement some of this stuff.

What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.
— Google's Quest To Build a Better Boss

1. Even-keeled bosses who make time for one-on-one meetings

According to Google's research, it turns out that simply "being available" for your team might be the best thing you can be as a boss.

Why managers struggle with this: 
They make themselves more available for their bosses than their team aka "managing up".

Things I've done to address:
There's a steady tension as a manager about how much time to spend serving your team vs. serving your own boss(es). I've felt that tension too and haven't always been the most "available". About two years ago I had our previous CEO's office (which was quite roomy) reconfigured into a shared workspace for me and 5 (!) of my Denver-based marketing crew. No partitions or walls, just a big empty space. We went out and bought Ikea desks and arranged our own little sub-spaces. It's snug to say the least. Now, in a field of cubicle farms, we now have our own little fishbowl and I'm available. VERY available. It's not always perfect, but it has been amazingly productive. If someone has a quick question, they get a quick answer from me, or sometimes 5 answers depending on the topic :)

One-on-ones have always been a bit more elusive for me. I've been guilty of canceling too many over the years for not the best reasons (last minute project deadlines or rather poor time management on my part), so I recently made a renewed commitment to not cancel unless it was physically impossible to do one during our scheduled time (e.g. PTO, work trip). And I try to make one-on-ones fun. We play ping pong, hit Novo Coffee, walk a few miles around downtown Denver, whatever it takes to get the blood pumping and conversation flowing in a space that's not the office. For the remote and international employees, we text and Skype quite a bit to stay connected. Lots of emojis are involved.

2. Help people puzzle through problems, by asking questions, not dictating answers

Why managers struggle with this: 
At most companies, managers get promoted based on their technical expertise, i.e. they know a lot of the answers. After they get promoted, there's a natural tendency to "show off" that knowledge. It's also faster. The problem is that 9 times out of 10 you come off looking like this guy:

Things I've done to address:
This is one that many managers, including me, have to practice at. Lately, I've been trying to pause and slow down when someone comes to me with a problem. I know how I would approach it, but how would they approach it? So, I think in my head what open-ended questions I can ask back that will help this person get to the right answer or at least on the right path. Then I try and get them to elaborate and clarify their answers through more open-ended questions. Soon enough they land in the right place.

The next time you're approached with a problem, try channeling yourself as a mix of Socrates, Jesus and an annoying 4 year old kid that keeps asking why. It works!

3. Take an interest in employees' lives and careers

Why managers struggle with this: 
There are two parts to this one. First, taking an interest in employees' lives. This is really People Skills 101, right? To my earlier point, when managers get promoted for their technical expertise, their soft skills are often an afterthought. So you often end up with super smart bosses that aren't the best at connecting with others. 

Or, sometimes you have a boss who believes they need to separate themselves from "the troops". I heard on a podcast this week where Chip Kelly, when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, wouldn't say hi to anyone in the hallways or make eye contact. Supposedly this irked everyone and was part of why he just got fired. I have no idea if this anecdote is true by the way, but if it is, it makes sense to me. 

Then, there's taking an interest in employees' careers. I can see this one being tough too, especially at smaller companies that might not have a full HR team to help drive career development tracks and planning cycles. In those cases, it usually falls on the manager's shoulders to have those conversations with employees. So it's often a training issue.

Things I've done to address:
While the people skills have come pretty naturally to me, it's taken me more time to get the career development piece right. After lots of different approaches to career conversations with employees, I took a different stab at it this year. As I met with each team member, I asked them to think not about the job they currently had, but the one they wanted next (even if it was at a different company or an entirely industry) and talk to me about those job descriptions. What skills are needed for those jobs, how can we develop those skills in this job and how can we prepare you for that opportunity when you get it down the road? 

It's acknowledging something obvious and inevitable - that your employees won't work for you and your company until they retire, that they likely have aspirations greater than what's being offered by you and their current role and that you are a stepping stone to where they want to go next. And that's okay!

So why not get it all out on the table, have an honest conversation and work towards a win/win/win solution that benefits you, them and the company. 

Final thoughts

Full disclosure - I am not the world's best boss (although I do think I have the mug somewhere). Like many other managers I feel the tension around all the items listed above and rarely do I go home at night thinking "Boy, I really nailed it today." But I'm constantly trying to find new ways to improve. Hopefully this post resonates with the other managers out there and inspires them to do the same!

For further exploration:

Science Confirms It: Your Crappy Boss is Making You Unhappy - Great bosses can't just be all touchy-feely, they have to be competent too. This Fast Company article digs into the correlation between happiness and having a technically competent boss. 

Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead - If you're going to read one book on managing and leading others, this is it. Written by Laszlo Bock who I reference above. Also makes a great gift if you have a crappy boss. 

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age - If you manage Millennials, like I do, then check out this book. It's a quick read and it's where I stole the idea about career conversations.

How to Win Friends and Influence People Summary - Hubspot put together this terrific breakdown of the principles outlined in Dale Carnegie's classic book on developing people skills.  It also offers up some challenges to practice them in your day-to-day life. If you don't consider yourself to be a natural "people person" then try a few.

What I'm listening to this week:

It's cold. This song warms me up.