15 traits of effective bosses and how to catalyse your team

Sales & Marketing

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post looks at people manager effectiveness and how to boost team and co-worker engagement.

It’s that special time in the annual corporate lifecycle: year-end performance reviews are being conducted around the globe, employee ratings allocated, calibrated and translated into salary increases and other rewards. Soon the related performance conversations will kick in, too.

While firm focus on employee performance against business goals is important, for this column I’m looking at manager performance and what makes a great boss, capable of inspiring their team and others to achieve sustained, unrivalled results. If you are in management or desire to be, understanding the impact you will have on the workforce is an important part of your leadership role.

Everyone’s a manager

While some of us are in a position to direct team members of their own, nearly everyone in a matrixed corporate environment manages diverse relationships internally and externally. Most employees get ample opportunities to influence others, across and outside the organisation. Even if you’re not yet in a leadership position, the following insights may help shape strong bonds with your line manager, co-workers, project teams or external partners. To hone your skills, find out what might lend itself to improving your interactions with peers, your summer intern, external collaborators or others you frequently interact with.

Many studies, surveys and reports available online characterise the qualities of “good” bosses and also the opposite, what makes a “bad” manager. Survey upon survey concludes that employees are happier and perform better if they enjoy supportive leadership. Lots of respondents typically state they would choose a better boss over a higher salary. In fact, Gallup’s 2015 landmark report State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, based on decades of research studying 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries and analysing the engagement of 27 million employees, attributes at least 70 % of the variance in employee engagement scores to the quality of the respondents’ managers.

What makes a great boss?

The following selection of top traits of effective managers is based on my personal experiences with great and not-so-great managers; people I admired and strive to learn from and those whose habits and styles I’m trying to not replicate.

First, effective bosses are clear communicators. They’re able to develop, align and communicate a clear vision. Most employees want to make a difference through their work. Managers able to rally the team behind a compelling vision – the company’s, the department’s or their own, as long as it fits the corporate agenda – will soon find their workforce become more engaged and productive. On this journey, strong bosses seek input from employees. They make sure to engage people in dialogue to improve plans, create buy-in, initiate execution and make contributors feel valued.

A compelling vision, consequently told, also goes a long way in mitigating ambiguity. Humans will always speculate about what might lie ahead – a great boss is not ambiguous and keeps to a consistent strategy. A spectacular leader I worked with, one January morning surprised his global town hall congregation with this announcement: “The new thing about this year’s strategy is that we won’t change our strategy …” Imagine the reassurance the workforce took from this and how it stopped rumours and uncertainty.

And while strategic consistency is important, so is personal consistency. A strong manager treats people fairly – all the time. Research shows that employees in environments where fair treatment is inconsistent experience more psychological stress than both people treated consistently fairly and consistently unfairly. It seems critical for most employees to know where they stand with their boss.

“Humans will always speculate about what might lie ahead – a great boss is not ambiguous and keeps to a consistent strategy”

Constructive feedback against agreed goals

For employees to feel treated fairly, it’s essential that clear performance expectations are agreed and honest, constructive feedback provided along the way – not just once a year, but in real time regularly. If done well, a manager’s direct reports will experience significantly lower stress levels compared to when they don’t have a robust understanding of what’s expected of them and how they’re doing. The absence of agreed targets and/or feedback will be even worse.

When a team member doesn’t realise they’re not meeting requirements, it’s the manager’s responsibility to coach and develop them. However, providing feedback is not just corrective action; it can strengthen the relationship by establishing mutual trust and co-operation on both sides. Of course, performance feedback does not have to be all-positive all the time. But it needs to be authentic, embedded in credible rationale and delivered respectfully.

Hire high, manage low

Effective managers hire for growth potential, integrity and a can-do attitude rather than professional background and work experience alone. They aim to attract the right people – to then trust them to perform. One of my former bosses’ adage was to “hire high, then manage low”. His experience showed that when hiring strong candidates by his criteria, he didn’t need to micro-manage nor would he have to worry about progress or completion. Instead, he would agree targets and timeframes; when his reports met major bumps in the road or needed support or decisions, they felt comfortable checking in proactively for guidance.

A great boss makes an effort to get to know you beyond understanding your work and how you contribute to the company’s success. Employees feel valued when the boss stops by to say hello and takes a personal interest in their life, family or interests outside of work. It shows they appreciate each individual as a person, with a life of their own. Allowing employees time for their families and themselves appears crucial, as the opposite will inevitably make them unhappy and less effective.

Bosses who are approachable are also more trusted. An “open door” policy that makes them available helps team members approach them with ideas, concerns and questions. Which in turn creates a culture of high morale.

“A great boss makes an effort to get to know you beyond understanding your work and how you contribute to the company’s success. Employees feel valued when the boss stops by to say hello and takes a personal interest in their life, family or interests outside of work”

… until they know how much you care

Another trait of highly effective managers is to create a fun, inclusive environment where the team comes together to celebrate, discuss, prepare a meal or volunteer together for a charitable purpose. Not only can these types of small voluntary events add a lot of fun; they’re usually great team-building exercises and collaboration boosters.

Employees who work in a caring, compassionate, fun team environment are more likely to be happy, less exhausted and show higher work output. One leader I know displays this quote in his email signature, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care”. How true. And how bold to openly share this credo with all co-workers so that everyone can hold that manager accountable. When people feel you genuinely care, they will listen, learn, partner and improve.

Manage up and have their back

Effective bosses work with their own supervisors to advocate for their people, enable decisions and facilitate resources. The more respected your manager is among the upper ranks in the organisation, the more effective they can typically negotiate on behalf of their team.

A key factor in building trust and loyalty is when employees experience their manager have their back. People love it when they can trust the boss to advocate for them and provide a supportive, protective environment in which they can thrive, explore novel things and learn from failure. A truly great leader’s hallmark is the ability to reduce interference and disruptions from the larger organisation so that people can get their work done. As Johnson & Johnson Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky keeps counselling new people leaders in his global enterprise: “Your job is to remove obstacles from your team’s path. Then get out of the way and let them do what they’re best at.”

Let them fail, but make decisions

Role-modelling a culture that allows for making mistakes is important. Mistakes are going to happen regardless. If people are scared to tell you, it’s going to make things worse: they’ll stop innovating or even stop doing much at all. Only when the team knows it’s okay to make a mistake, or for an idea to not work out, will they start sharing and collaborating, challenge established routines and innovate new solutions.

And yes, I too have worked for that boss who’s a jolly amicable character yet incapable of making decisions; or unwilling to commit to a clear path as any firm commitment might haunt them later. Instead, they let decision-making drag on and on, requesting further input, new data or the alignment of yet more stakeholders until it’s too late for a decent outcome and everyone in the project team is frustrated by not having been empowered to deliver. In contrast, effective leaders are decisive and not caught up in “analysis paralysis”. How a decision is made is often more important than the decision itself. Outstanding bosses make decisions with speed and conviction; they might not always get it right, but they’ll be able to keep their team moving forward. Wrong decisions can be fixed, but indecisiveness will damage your organisation and reputation beyond repair.

“Only when the team knows it’s okay to make a mistake, or for an idea to not work out, will they start sharing and collaborating, challenge established routines and innovate new solutions”

Recognise efforts, share credit

An effective boss knows about the power of recognising the work of individuals and teams; and finds opportunities to acknowledge them, whether that’s through a personal email, a slide in the next employee town hall, an award, luncheon or something else. Nearly in all cultures employees appreciate praise, especially when it’s justified and for results in a critical area to the organisation’s progress.

To the contrary, a boss who takes all the credit for the team’s results is a huge demotivator. When they routinely ignore or forget to acknowledge the critical input and work of others, this will quickly show as genuine dislike in job satisfaction surveys, manager effectiveness scores and plummeting team results. Transparently promoting the leadership and contributions of key staff and sharing credit with the wider team for driving progress and achieving a specific milestone uplifts the spirits and strengthens collaboration and trust among the team. And, frankly, almost without exception the successes of team members shine back on the team leader’s capabilities and leadership, anyway. So, I see no reason whatsoever for a boss to hide their team’s involvement and achievements. Zero.

Outstanding bosses attract outstanding people

Finally: outstanding bosses attract outstanding employees! And they often manage to retain them. When you’re liked and your team trusts you, they’ll go the extra mile to not just do their jobs but exceed expectations.

And, because it’s that special time of the year again, don’t forget: providing robust performance feedback can boost people’s confidence, engagement and productivity … or the opposite, if you get it wrong. If used appropriately, however, it’s a powerful tool corporations hand their leaders in order to create fair reward, provide encouraging as well as corrective feedback and manage engagement. Use it responsibly!

Work prioritisation tips

  • Develop and communicate a clear vision
  • Seek input from employees
  • Be consistent, strategically and personally
  • Treat people fairly all the time
  • Set performance expectations and provide constructive feedback
  • Hire high, manage low
  • Appreciate each individual as a person
  • Remain approachable for your team
  • Create a fun, inclusive environment
  • Show that you genuinely care about your people
  • Manage up and advocate for your team
  • Have your team’s back
  • Create a culture that allows for making mistakes
  • Make decisions with speed and conviction
  • Recognise efforts and share credit


About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.