Memo to a Young Leader: What Kind of Boss Are You?

Memo to a Young Leader What Kind of Boss Are You - main

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the challenges of talented young people frustrated with life inside big organizations–game-changers who spend much of their time questioning authority. In this post, I’d like to turn the tables and address talented young people who find themselves exercising authority: leading a project team, running a product-development group, starting a new business unit.

If you’re the new boss, how do you make sure that you don’t repeat the bad habits of the old bosses who drove you crazy? My advice is to develop solid answers to five make-or-break questions for aspiring leaders.

1. Why should great people want to work with you? The best leaders understand that the most talented performers aren’t motivated primarily by money or status. Great people want to work on exciting projects. Great people want to feel like impact players. Put simply, great people want to feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves.

Early on in their company’s history, Google’s founders made clear that they considered the talent issue a make-or-break strategic issue for the future. So they published a Top Ten list of why the world’s best researchers, software programmers, and marketers should work at the Googleplex–and never once did they mention stock options or bonuses. Reason #2: “Life is beautiful. Being part of something that matters and working on products in which you can believe is remarkably fulfilling.” Reason #9: “Boldly go where no one has gone before. There are hundreds of challenges yet to solve. Your creative ideas matter here and are worth exploring.”

What’s your version of Google’s Top Ten list? Have you set out the most compelling reasons for great people to work on your team, in your division, at your company?

2. Do you know a great person when you see one? It’s a lot easier to be the right kind of leader if you’re running a team or department filled with the right kind of people. Indeed, as I reflect on the best workplaces I’ve visited, I’ve come to appreciate how much time and energy leaders spend on who gets to be there. These workplaces may feel different, but the organizing principle is the same: When it comes to evaluating talent, character counts for as much as credentials. Do you know what makes your star performers tick–and how to find more performers who share those attributes?

3. Can you find great people who aren’t looking for you? It’s a common-sense insight that’s commonly forgotten: The most talented performers tend to be in jobs they like, working with people they enjoy, on projects that keep them challenged. So leaders who are content to fill their organizations with people actively looking for jobs risk attracting malcontents and mediocre performers. The trick is to win over so-called “passive” jobseekers. These people may be outside your company, or they may be in a different department from inside your company, but they won’t work for you unless you work hard to persuade them to join.

4. Are you great at teaching great people how your team or company works and wins? Even the most highly focused specialists (software programmers, graphic designers, marketing wizards) are at their best when they appreciate how the whole business operates. That’s partly a matter of sharing financial statements: Can every person learn how to think like a businessperson? But it’s mainly a matter of shared understanding: Can smart people work on making everyone else in the organization smarter about the business?

5. Are you as tough on yourself as you are on your people?
There’s no question that talented and ambitious young people have high expectations–for themselves, for their team or company, for their colleagues. Which is why they can be so tough on their leaders.

The ultimate challenge for a new boss who is determined not to be the same as the old boss is to demonstrate those same lofty expectations–for their behavior as leaders. One of my favorite HR gurus, Professor John Sullivan of San Francisco State University, says it best: “Stars don’t work for idiots.”

So here’s hoping that your team or department is filled with stars–and that they never think of you as an idiot.

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