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Top 10 Traits of an Exceptional Boss

The first lesson in business is figuring out who you should listen to and who you shouldn't.

Let me ask you something. Would you trust a surgeon who’s never performed an actual procedure? How about a litigation attorney who’s never seen the inside of a courtroom? Of course not.

How about if they got good grades in school and could write really well on the subject? Would you let the doctor use a scalpel on you? Trust the attorney to litigate a big intellectual property suit? Probably not.

Likewise, you shouldn’t waste your time with so-called leadership experts and management academics who have never successfully led a company or run an organization -- emphasis on the word “successfully.”

The first lesson in business is figuring out who you should listen to and who you shouldn’t.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you have a choice, you should learn from those who’ve actually accomplished what you’re trying to do. That’s what I’ve always done and it hasn’t failed me yet.  

Looking back on a long and eventful career as a high-tech executive and strategy consultant, of all the managers, leaders, and entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, certain management qualities stand out. These are the characteristics that achieve results in the real world.

They hold themselves and others accountable. There are no absolutes in business. You make commitments, put your butt on the line, then see how you did. Unless you complete that feedback loop and hold everyone’s feet to the fire, nothing really counts. Some managers are fearless in the way they accept responsibility and hold themselves and others accountable.   

They’re not full of surprises. An often overlooked but incredibly important aspect of management is the simple fact that we’ve all got issues, some more than others. Sure, we’re all different, but if you’re overly dysfunctional, if everything’s got to be about you, if you create more problems than you solve, if you have a disruptive or abusive management style, you’d better have an awful lot of great qualities under the hood to compensate, that’s for sure.

They fix things. A big part of running a business or an organization is troubleshooting and problem solving. One CEO I’ve worked with for years says that’s what he loves most about his job. Whether it’s a product, a customer, or an employee, every day brings new challenges and problems to solve. Every great manager I’ve ever known is a born troubleshooter and problem solver.

They have a feel for the business. Most managers just put their heads down and try to be good at their specific function. But the best managers have a solid understanding of all the key aspects of the business they’re in. They understand the products, the technology, market share, sales channels, and how to read an income statement. Those well-rounded managers make the best executives and business leaders. 

They get the job done. Some people just make things happen. You give them the big picture, turn them loose and stand back. They’re like machines that are programmed to do whatever it takes to get things done. And they’ll find a way, no matter what. Those are the kind of people you want running things.   

They manage up and sideways effectively. Lots of managers are good at what they do, but put them in an organization of any size and they flop. More often than not, that’s because they’re good technicians who just want to put their heads down, get things done, and go home. The best managers know how to communicate and work effectively with their bosses and peers, how to give them what they need to be successful and get the same in return.   

They’re awesome decision-makers. More than anything, management is about decision-making. That’s where the rubber meets the road. The most effective way I know to do that is to ask the right people the right questions, listen to what they tell you, then trust your gut and make the call. If you’re right a lot more than you’re wrong, you’re in good shape.

They’re effective, not productive. We live and work in a fast-paced, ever-changing, highly competitive world. Maybe there was a time when process and productivity ruled, but these days, management needs to be flexible and adaptive. Sure, you’ve got to prioritize, but once you figure out what needs to be done, it’s generally more important to be effective than to squeeze every last iota of productivity out of yourself and your people.  

They live for their jobs. The big management fad these days is employee engagement. But it’s even more important for managers and business leaders to be engaged, empowered, driven, and motivated. In my experience, that’s not a given. The best bosses I’ve known all live for their jobs, so to speak.

They have a sense of humor, humility, and empathy. When we’re young, we tend to be full of all the self-importance of youth. After all, children are completely egocentric and none of us grow up overnight. But time and experience usually teaches us lessons in our own limitations and fallibility. That tends to infuse a sense of humor, humility, and empathy, at least in some well-balanced adults who just so happen to make great bosses.  

The thing about lists like these is they tend to be composites of all the best qualities we’ve seen in ourselves and others. That’s certainly the case here so, if you’ve got five or six of these qualities, you’re probably doing fine. But make no mistake. It’s a competitive world out there. If you want to make it, skip all the inspirational feel-good fluff and focus on what it takes to succeed -- in the real world. 

 

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Last updated: Jan 2, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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