How to Find a Great Boss: A Rebuttal

Finding a Great Boss

Three days ago I read an article that popped up on a social network with five tips on finding a great boss (the term “boss” is so dated to me, but I’m using it throughout as a catch all for manager/leader/etc). I’ve got a deadline in hours and awoke early this AM to get a jump start on it, but I’m taking a break to write a response to this article because I just can’t quit thinking about it.

One of the key insights in this article was to determine whether your prospective boss used the word during the interview “you” vs “we” when talking about challenges, tasks, and general work structure–and that this was a telltale sign as to whether they’ll be a great mentor or not. There were four other “tips” and while not totally meaningless, they really missed the entire point of seeking fundamentals in evaluating a great boss. Sure, if during the interview your prospective boss says things like “Your life is over once you work here–we will own you.” then the radar might go up a bit. Though if you’re going to go work for a start-up, this is probably true.

Like everyone, I’ve worked for some really great bosses and some really lousy ones. And I’ve done a lot of reading and observation in this area. For every person, finding a great boss means something a bit different, though I also know there are some underlying fundamentals to the best of the best. Before I dig in, my caveat–I don’t purport for a second that I’m a great boss, this is simply what I believe make up the characteristics of a great one.

Here are what I believe five great characteristics to seek out when trying to find a great boss:

1. Competency. Nothing is worse than working for people who are incompetent. It’s exhausting. Stifling. Discouraging. Working for someone who is exceptionally competent is the opposite. You’ll be inspired, you’ll learn through observation and experience, and you’ll constantly be stimulated. Chances are also higher that she will hire other competent people and you’ll be surrounded with talented people. Nothing is more fun than working with a talented team of people (but see item #5 below, too).

Find a boss who is really skilled with deep competencies. Some of this can be figured out in the interview. Some of this can be figured out when you talk with other employees of the prospective employer. If you ask your potential peers what makes so and so fantastic and they can’t easily rattle off a few areas of competencies where they’re really gifted, then run to the nearest door marked “Emergency Exit.” A lot of people think those signs are prominently marked in the event of a fire or evacuation. They’re not. Those are for you, the interviewing candidate, so you don’t get stuck in a daytime life you regret–even if temporary.

(note: please don’t actually ever do that during an interview, even if the thing bombs use it as a learning. And people interviewing have bad days too).

2. Energy and enthusiasm. Passionate people more often get stuff done. They make things happen, they’re motivated to excel, and they generally have a high achievement quotient–at least in the areas they’re passionate about. If they’re good leaders, this passion inspires and infects others. Find a boss who has an unyielding passion for the business and what they’re doing, and at the very least the people in the organization (item #3 below). This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bouncing off the walls during the interview–though I prefer to look for someone who seems as though they’ve had a few too many shots of espresso when they’re talking about what they do. Enthusiasm and vigor precedes success. Apathy precedes failure. 

Not always, but more often than not.

3. Passion for people. If you find a boss who genuinely has a passion for people and his team, chances are you’ve got a good shot at finding a mentor and at least a solid, if not great, leader. It’s not guaranteed, but this part is really pretty simple. Find a boss whose eyes light up when he’s talking about a project where one of his teams just killed it, a great boss will get a thrill out of seeing his people win. Find a boss who is ridiculously committed to seeing people win–this means they want their own boss, investors, owners, customers in addition to seeing their team win, and are willing to do what it takes to make that happen. Incidentally, if a great boss does all of those things, then it’s pretty obvious things will more often than not work out pretty well for the boss. I look back on my days when at a Fortune 500 company and people would coach on “here’s how you manage your career, here’s how you need to position yourself” (this type of conversation at any company–big or small, is often a sign of a deeper problem), when in retrospect I wish more conversations were dedicated to “here’s how to help your team win.”

4. People who love excellence. Sometimes also known as being demanding, or having high expectations. I have seen so many bosses in my career that constantly bullshit their employees about their performance, thinking that they’re being a good “mentor” and using lots of artificial “we” talk and shrouding false praise as a way of encouraging their team or making sure they’re motivated. When what they’re really doing is hurting them. When you don’t do great work you often know it. And when someone gives you praise for work you know that’s not great, you know that too. And you discount the praise as inauthentic, and it happens subconsciously even if you don’t realize it.

Doing exceptional work feels great. But it’s also not easy, and in the process of creating something brilliant I promise you’re going to get your ass kicked and discouraged along the way. Finding a boss who pushes you and has a high bar for excellence, yet who ALSO knows how to authentically encourage you along the way, isn’t easy. I’d always err on the side of finding a great coach who will push you–rather than someone who will simply pat you.

Here’s a parallel from another world. I like to Crossfit. The owner of the Box where I work out is also one of the coaches in my class. For the first 90-days, I felt like during every class he’d look at me with eyes squinted and a pained look on his face and say “Raz, do you know what you’re doing on this exercise?” and I’d respond “Well, yeah I think so. But maybe not.” And he’d look at my form again, and say “No. You don’t. Here’s what’s wrong, and here’s how to fix it.” Years of improper form are tough to break. But I’ll get to the point where I am good–someday great. But only with a great coach, and only if I listen and receive the feedback.

What’s the temptation to do in this scenario? The easy thing to do is say “Hey Raz, good job. Really nice effort, I can see you’re working hard…your form is fine.” In part that’s probably what happened to me over the years that developed my bad form. It’s not that I wanted to have bad form in doing a hang clean, it’s just that I didn’t really know any better–and all along I really thought I was doing it properly.

At times is it a little frustrating to be pushed so hard? Sure. But if I want to become excellent, then I need to be pushed. Not pandered.

5. Chemistry. This is SUCH a key element, and few people ever talk about it let alone use this as an evaluative tool. Chemistry is the magic, mojo, and feeling. You know it when you feel it. I’ve met some people in interviews who had a few of the above characteristics, yet the chemistry lacked. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was them. It was probably both of us, and there’s no fault in it. Chemistry can’t easily be explained. It just is. And while it doesn’t always happen on the first meeting, before you take a job you better have figured out whether you’ve got at least some good chemistry.

When you’ve got great chemistry with your boss and vice versa, you’re going to trust her, have more fun, be more open to feedback, and want to work harder. And the chemistry factors throughout the work place like competency does. In other words, in the world of competencies, A-players hire other A-players, and B-players hire C-players. And the same is true with chemistry, it’s part of what creates the culture of the organization from the very beginning.

The absence of chemistry among teams is like the absence of flavor in food. In great food, the kind that makes you close your eyes, the magic is in the flavor.

Everything else is just McDonalds.

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