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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Muller

Being the Right Kind of Leader/Manager

In the last half of my career especially, I learned how important it was to become the sort of manager/leader that others on the team respected and also felt comfortable being on the team.

This sounds like a fairly straightforward goal to achieve, but instead, I learned this was one of the most difficult. Being dedicated to becoming a good leader and manager creates huge challenges and sacrifices of your personal time. It requires 100 percent concentration every day to be sure that, as much as possible, what you say and do are exemplary.

But why is this important? Well, if you choose a management path in your career, you will find, as discussed in other chapters in my book, that over time, getting the best people on your team is critical to your and the organization’s success. Especially in large organizations, you will find that new potential candidates for your team may be working across the organization in different functions and roles.

If you are trying to fill an open job, in larger organizations, usually a post will be sent that employees will see, as well as outside candidates via recruiting processes and apps. One of the first things most employees will do, if they have an interest in a posted job, is to contact someone on the team reporting to that particular boss who is seeking to fill a position. They will typically ask, ‘What is it like reporting to Dan (or Beth or Joe)?’

I have seen, time and time again, examples where a manager in the organization could not get others in the company to apply for a job reporting to them. Why? They had developed a reputation as a questionable leader/manager.

Even if recruiting on the outside, when a candidate interviews for a job, they will eventually ask the same question to someone on the team, ‘What is it like working for _____?’

If you have held a few different jobs before, think about what you have enjoyed about your past bosses, and think about what you did not like about other past bosses.

I will suggest a starting list of traits that you or anyone would expect from a good leader:

Good communicator

Honest and fair


Role model

Has a sense of vision and where they wanted the team to go

An appropriate sense of humor

Someone you learned from and trusted

Someone who took responsibility for negative team issues or results

Someone you respected as a person

Someone who cared about you

Someone who noticed what you did in your job and coached you to improve

Someone who worked well across the organization

Someone who was able to help you elevate your performance

It is easy to build a list of traits for a poor boss or leader. Most are opposites of the list above.

Well, that list of traits is a tough one for any leader to achieve in the eyes of all team members. Who is really that good? If you are a leader, why should you strive to achieve all the traits on a list such as this, versus some other list of things a leader should do in order to be successful? After all, you really want success as a leader, right?

Well, my take on this question is that the lists are one and the same. Remember, no manager or leader, no matter how talented, can succeed without a team of great people in their organization who are performing well. Who will great people want to report to in the long run? Go back to the list. A great employee will tolerate a poor boss or leader for a short period of time. We all have. But in the long run, they will gravitate to a part of the organization, or another organization, where they feel valued and feel as though they can contribute to an important team mission. Nothing sets the tone for that sort of team more than a good leader.

Okay, so you may be convinced that this is true, and you have decided you want to have a career on the management/leader path. How do you go about becoming this sort of leader?

There is a simple answer: focus and making a priority of self-development. Nobody is born with all the natural skills of being a great leader or manager. It takes work, study, commitment and dedication. I always told employees, especially more technical employees who expressed an interest in being a manager, to be absolutely sure they wanted to become a manager. The discussion usually went something like this:

“So, Kristen, you are doing very well in your job. We have talked about this year’s goals and your performance. What about longer term? Where do you see yourself in five years?”

“Well, I have been thinking lately that I would like to get into the management ranks and manage a team and move up through management.”

“Okay, so given your specific skills and expertise, I have to ask, have you ever managed people before?”

“No, but I like working with people. I think I would be a good manager.”

“Well, like most people who get into management, your educational background probably did not cover too much about being successful as a supervisor or manager. I can tell you that becoming a manager of people is like starting an entirely new career. Some people try it and find that they hate it. Have you ever coached a baseball team or soccer team or served as a leader of some club?”

“No, I haven’t; I have been pretty focused on my job, not a lot of time for that sort of thing. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I have a list of traits of what it takes to be a good manager, and I think that most people can develop those skills, and test those skills, in a role such as a team coach or club leader.”

“What are those traits?”

I then share the list above, and the person realizes that those traits have nothing to do with their more specialized background or training. They usually notice that the traits of being a good leader are the same traits as being a good coach in any sport, or a good leader of a club or organization.

I have had some even go ahead and volunteer to coach a sport even though they knew little about that sport, just so they could get a taste of what it takes to be a manager.

So, let’s say you are convinced you have what it takes to be a good leader, and also, that you think you will enjoy being a team leader.

Do you really need to be all those things on the list? And how do you develop these traits? Well, yes, being a good leader requires you to be ALL these things. You can, of course, just tell yourself you are going to be all these things, but of greater importance is self-study and reading to learn all you can about being a good leader.

There are hundreds of books available that talk about leadership, management, communications, etc. Start reading them, and start practicing. Watch other good leaders that you respect. Watch how they interact with others, both one-on-one, and in more formal group settings. Watch how they make presentations. Most good leaders will make all of those look easy. But of course, they are not. Like being good at anything, practice and preparation are key.

I have found that the one ‘knockout’ factor for those aspiring to be a good leader is the ability to speak in front of groups. By ‘knockout’ I mean that if you cannot develop this skill, you will likely be ‘knocked out’ of management at some point due to someone else in the organization losing faith in you. Being able to professionally talk about a topic and to sell your ideas to others is critical, both for leaders and non-leaders alike. But as a leader, it is crucial. Practice making presentations alone, videotape yourself, get commentary from others, ask HR for help, join groups such as Toastmasters if one exists in your area, etc.

What about all those traits to become a good role model? Do you have to exemplify those traits and behaviors in your personal life as well?

My simple answer is yes. Like it or not, good leaders or managers have to be solid citizens who employees and peers can respect, whether in their professional lives or in their personal lives. It just comes with the territory.

What about the trait of ‘noticing what your employees did and coaching them?’ This is one trait that is really a difference-maker in my mind. I had a boss at one time who was very good at the entire list, but they did one thing that stood out versus other bosses I had ever had. When it was time for the year end performance review, it was truly amazing.

I am sure that not all organizations promote or force managers to review employee performance on a periodic basis, but I believe today, most do. In my case, at our company, we held formal annual planning meetings to discuss and agree upon goals, a six-month interim review, and a year-end performance review.

My boss would begin the review by talking about my performance throughout the year, but what was different was that it was very specific. Clearly, he had been taking notes throughout the year, because he could not have remembered all those facts. Second, he would not just spew back my own documented comments about my own performance (as was required at my company), he would have his own take on what I achieved and how I achieved it. He would talk about how others had seen my performance through the year. He would then talk about areas I needed to improve going forward. He would thank me for all the work and results. What was also amazing was that he would READ all of these comments aloud from his written comments that were included into my performance plan. The wording was such that it was like he was reading these comments to a third party. For instance, ‘Dan led his team to achieving his aggressive growth goals of 8 percent in sales while keeping his team’s costs under control. Dan did an outstanding job building customer relationships, but in the next year, this will be even more critical outside of the U.S.’

I had become familiar with prior manager comments in the second tense, such as, ‘You did a good job of achieving growth goals of 8 percent in sales.’ This third person versus second person language was subtle but important. It made you feel as though this documentation was prepared so that others could and would read it. It made the experience much more positive to me.

What was also different was that these written comments were not brief. They were usually more than a full page. It was always impressive that he thought enough of me, and his other reports, to take the time to notice what we had done throughout the year (by taking notes from time to time), then to document all of this in a way that made me feel that my efforts were appreciated and noticed and important. The results were not always wonderful for the year, but you became convinced that the manager was paying a lot of attention to what you did, and that made a huge difference.

Contrast that to what I and others had become all too accustomed to:

“Well, Dan, I read over your end-of-year comments about your performance, and I generally agreed with your comments. (Really? Which comments specifically?) I think you had a decent year. (What does that mean?) Do you have any questions for me? (Yes, did you spend even one minute thinking about my hard work during the year and what I did well and what areas I can work to improve?)

But what if, as a leader, you have ten or twelve reports? Or more? Wouldn’t that take a massive amount of time to document performance for those ten or twelve throughout the year, then to document all of that in a review document? Well, yes, it would and it does. But if you want to be a good leader, and to treat your team with the respect that they deserve, this is not an option. This is a requirement. The investment of time will be rewarded with a team that knows their efforts matter, knows that they are appreciated, and will help result in a team that will work even harder going forward to succeed.

One last comment about being a successful leader in the current “politically correct” environment. It may be unfair, but a leader that makes one inappropriate comment speaking to others at work or that puts an inappropriate comment in an email or posts a poorly worded comment or a bad photo in social media could very easily tarnish their reputation and their career for a long time. It is not fair, but it is the reality of today’s world. All leaders have to be very conscious, at all times, of their words, both verbal and written. I always coached employees that if they were getting emotional about an issue, that instead of firing off an email or leaving an angry voicemail message, to wait twenty-four hours before doing or saying anything. Usually, in twenty-four hours, priorities change, something will occur to lessen the emotion, and perspectives will change.

Like most, I have sent emails that upon reflection later, I wish I could have pulled back or never sent at all. Emails and social media comments have a way of being absolutely permanent, and worse, being shared way beyond the intended audience.

I had a friend in our legal department who always warned, “When you are writing emails, or posting a comment, just imagine that every word could be expanded to be placed on a huge posterboard display and shown to a jury and read out loud at a trial.” This really can happen! Be cautious at all times.

But when can you get away from the pressures and expectations of the job and ‘cut loose’ and just have fun? One of the things all good leaders and managers learn is that you can have fun, but you also always carry the responsibility of representing your employer at all times, whether at work, at home, on vacation, or out to dinner. If you don’t want that sort of restriction or responsibility, for certain don’t become a manager of people or leader. But you should also consider that ANY job carries certain responsibilities in behavior that exist inside and outside of the workplace.

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