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Last Sunday the NY Times published an article on building better workers that concluded that the quality of the supervisor may be more important than the experience and skills of the individual workers themselves.  What I found surprising about this conclusion was that anyone was actually surprised by it. What the article didn’t discuss was what makes one supervisor or one manager better than another so I thought I would pick up that gauntlet.

In my 40+ year career I have had a number of supervisors and I have to agree, I was considerably more productive, creative and energized under certain managers.  And there were a handful who made going to work every day a drag. What made the difference?  Here are a few of the key distinctions between the GREAT bosses and the ones I couldn’t wait to leave:

  1. Setting direction.

When I worked for a truly great boss, I never wondered why I was doing a task, I never felt like what I was doing was a waste of time and I never doubted the importance of the work, even if it was a repetitive or tedious job.  Great bosses not only show you where they want to take the business, but you are able to understand your role in making it happen.

2. Challenge

One of my favorite bosses used to remind our team regularly, “If it was easy, they’d have someone else doing it”.  He made us believe that the end result, no matter how difficult, was within reach and kept stretching us to get there.

3. Trust

One of my worst bosses was constantly checking up on me. If we expected results at 4:00 on some experiment, he would call or show up in my office at 4:01, not even giving me time to digest the information.  He would frequently countermand my approach and felt he knew the job better than I did.  Unfortunately, he didn’t. He frequently wasted my team’s time going down less fruitful paths.  A good boss has enough trust and belief in you to provide you with the freedom to do the job your way, with just enough checking and communicating to keep you going forward.

4. Enthusiasm

Small “wins” can be as important as large ones in keeping a team happy. My best supervisors celebrated the little steps that showed progress and also understood that sometimes data didn’t show what you wanted it to show. But he kept you excited about finding out why, learning more and keeping going. He also showed appreciation for the small wins as well as the huge ones.

5. Believed my success was their success

Possibly the most important characteristic of  my great managers was that they understood that for them to succeed, the people working for them had to succeed. They gave me the opportunity to “be seen” by more senior management and to grow in my career, rather than grabbing my work and reporting it themselves, which made me work harder and smarter.

Anyone can be a boss and in too many companies, people with little leadership ability and even corrosive behaviors are put in charge. But as the research in the Times article showed, a great boss can improve the morale, teamwork and productivity of all workers while a poor boss can make even the most talented workers stumble or jump ship.  If you are in a supervisory role, consider the best (and worst) supervisors you ever had in leading others to success.

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