Becoming a Better Boss

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By AMA Staff

AMA recently spoke to Linda A. Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, about her new book Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader (coauthored with Kent Lineback). Hill is faculty chair of Harvard’s Leadership Initiative and has chaired numerous HBS Executive Education programs, including the Young Presidents' Organization Presidents' Seminar and the High Potentials Leadership Program. The book was named one of “Five Best Business Books to Read for Your Career in 2011” by the Wall Street Journal.

The following has been adapted from an AMA Edge Wise podcast interview.

AMA: In Being the Boss you list three imperatives for becoming a great leader. What are they?

Linda Hill: Leadership is really about using yourself as an instrument to get things done in the organization. The first imperative is you have to manage yourself, because to be an effective leader you have to be able to match your intent with your impact. 

The second imperative is to manage your network. In today’s organization, unless you can manage relationships with those people over whom you do not have formal authority—your peers and your bosses—the people who report to you cannot succeed. You have to create the context in which your team can be successful by making sure that other people in the organization have the right expectations for your team and that you have the resources they need.

The third imperative is to manage your team—the group over which you do have formal authority. In the book we talk a lot about how to build an effective team that can be productive not only today, but for the future.

AMA: You point out in the book that to be successful, you can’t always depend on the formal authority that comes with being a boss. Can you expand on that thought?

LH: It turns out that formal authority is a very limited source of power, unless you’re a really, really big boss. So you have to come up with other sources of power you can rely on to influence people to do the things that need to get done for the organization.

What you mostly want to think about, even if you do have the formal authority that comes with being “the boss,” is, “how do I build credibility with people?” Because even though you may have been highly credible in whatever role you had before, when you move into a managerial role—or if you’ve been at it for a while and you get more scope and skill—people want to ask again, “Well, does she know how to do this job? She may have known how to do the last managerial role, but not this one.”

I always tell people: instead of thinking about being the boss as being about rights and privileges, think about the duties and obligations. Think about all those people you are dependent on to get your job done. You have to figure out how you can persuade them, to move them in the direction you need to move them, without using fear and coercion, which does not work.
AMA: What advice do you have for first-time supervisors or first-time managers? What can they do to build credibility for their new role?

LH: People who are newly managing peers will find that they won’t be invited out in quite the same way as before. And former co-workers are not going to share information with them in the same way. And that’s a very lonely feeling.

Furthermore, if you were promoted to manager because you were really good at your job, you now have to unlearn doing what you’re really good at and create the space for other people to do the work. You’re going to work with them to get the job done. So, you need to realize that, yes, your expertise is one source of power that you have to influence people, and people should listen because you know what you’re talking about. But that was expertise about being an individual contributor, not about being a manager. There’s actually research that shows that people who are stars have more trouble learning to lead. They’re really good at what they did, and consequently they don't need other people to get it done.

One of the things you see with new managers is they act in an over-confident way. An experienced manager might be willing to say, “I don't know that,” which still allows her to be credible, because people are happy to see that she acknowledges what she knows and doesn't know. New managers have a lot of trouble saying they don't know something or that they need some assistance with something, and that doesn’t help build their credibility.

Being authentic and as transparent as you possibly can with the people you’re working with will actually help you develop credibility faster. They’ll appreciate that you acknowledge what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at.

AMA: Let’s look at the second imperative, managing your network. In the book you talk about organizational influence. What do you mean by that?

LH: Basically, managing your network is about helping people feel more powerful. Many people tell me, “I’m just going to do my job, be a manager, and have a wonderful team. I’m not going to play politics.” Well, if you don't play politics, your team cannot be effective. Playing politics means being very focused on what you know is really right and important for the organization.

You have to create mutually beneficial relationships with the people you’re highly dependent on to get your and your team’s job done and also with the people who are dependent on you. In essence, be empathic. Figure out what those people need, help deliver that to them, and also help them understand what you need.

AMA: Now let’s discuss that third factor, managing your team. How can you help your team to become more effective?

LH: First you must formulate an agenda of your priorities. Share that plan with the people who are dependent upon you to get your job done, both on and outside of your team.

Next, help people figure out how they can contribute. I want to emphasize that your team can really be very helpful in helping you discover how you all can work together and how to divvy up the responsibilities in a way that allows you to get things done most efficiently and effectively.

You want to pay attention to at least three things throughout:

1. How well is your team performing right now, according to the performance metrics that the organization has for the team?
2. Are the team members satisfied? Are they growing and developing as individuals?
3. Is the group growing, developing, and learning together? 

AMA: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

LH: I want to say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for those people out there who are the bosses. I know that “boss” has become kind of a negative word.  People don't want to think about being the boss because many people are ambivalent about it, but it’s an extremely important role. Being mediocre or good is not enough; you really do need to be great. You need to do things right, because what you do and the kind of impact you have on creating the culture and your team and building the right kinds of relationships with your colleagues, these things truly do make a difference.

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