Saturday, February 14, 2015

Boss, Manager or Leader?

After reading two excellent books with the word “boss” in their titles (Robert Sutton’s “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” and Linda Hill and Kent Lineback’s “Being the Boss”), I became intrigued with the connotations of this term, and how a boss differs from being a manager and a leader.

Sutton, Hill and Lineback don’t really make a big deal over these distinctions; it seems that for them, the three terms are synonymous.  I’ve observed that we use the term “boss” more frequently and more informally, both in the context of work and outside of work.  My children used to wonder who the real boss in the family was, and some of my male friends would sometimes defer making decisions by letting others know about their spouse that “she’s the boss.”  In my experience working internationally, I find that the word “boss” is commonly understood and used in many countries.  Sometimes the English word “boss” is used; at other times, its local equivalent is.  In Japan, for example, where titles are important, there are many different gradations for the title of boss, for example, honbucho, fuku-honbucho, bucho, jicho, kacho.

Most good managers at work will avoid throwing the weight of their authority around by telling their employees to do something because “I’m the boss.”  Many employees, however, will comply with their manager’s request (although they may not say it out loud) because “he (or she) is the boss.”  In fact, the dictionary definition of a boss is “a person who exercises control or authority.”

You won’t find many organizations where the word “boss” is in a job title, but you will find that a great majority of organizations uses the terms “manager” or “leader” in their job titles.  While managers tend to avoid referring to themselves as the boss, they are not reluctant to describe their job as managing or leading a group, department, or business unit.

In my opinion, Kotter’s article on managers versus leaders did no favors for managers.  When he wrote that article in 1990, he claimed that “most U.S. organizations today are over-managed and underled.”  Although he stated in the article that both managers and leaders are needed, the implication is that in a world of constant change and complexity, it is more important to be a leader than a manager.  As Sutton has pointed out, however, the distinction may be accurate but dangerous.  Why so?  Let me illustrate (with details disguised).

A number of years ago, I was coaching a marketing executive who I shall call Julia.  She had just been promoted and assigned to another country from her native Australia, where she had been the marketing head for one of her company’s product lines.  In this country, she was going to be the Chief Marketing Officer for the subsidiary.  The subsidiary had also just hired a new CEO, Ron, a native of the country who had been educated in the U.S. and Europe, and had actually come from a competitor’s European operations.  Ron was charismatic and energetic, and he went about exciting the subsidiary with his grand vision and plans for turning the subsidiary around. 

Julia was excited too.  She had met Ron soon after she arrived in the country’s capital, and was impressed by his passion and zeal.  However, she did have a bit of a concern about him.  Looking at his background and experience, Ron had an MBA and had been in sales for most of his career.  Now he was being asked to run a subsidiary that had a strong R&D function but had grown somewhat “bloated” over the years.  The subsidiary had not been turning out enough innovative products, and was not profitable enough, according to internal company and external industry benchmarks.  Did Ron know enough about the technical aspects of the business and about its operations to manage the entire subsidiary enterprise?

A few months after Julia arrived, the subsidiary began its profit planning for the following year, and she spent a couple of weeks with her team, individually and as a group, to get a detailed understanding of expenses and sources of revenue.  She grilled them on each line item, and made sure she understood exactly where the money was going, and how it was being spent.  She remembered her old boss in Australia, who would spend several hours with her on her budget every year that she learned to come in thoroughly prepared to respond to questions he might have about any line item on the budget. 

With this experience, Julia prepared for her first meeting with Ron.  She had sent him her profit planning figures a few days before, and came into the meeting with back-up notes and documents, ready to answer any question he might throw at her.  To her surprise, he did not have any questions.  He had not even bothered to open the e-mail she had sent him with the profit plan figures she had attached.  He glanced at the numbers she showed him, nodded, and then told her he would get back to her if his CFO had any comments or requests for more information.  He then started to talk to her about his vision for what Marketing could do to help launch some new products the following year. 

Julia was a bit stunned, but she went along and brainstormed some new ideas with her boss.  Ron lasted a couple of years with the subsidiary before he left.  While he injected a breath of fresh air into the subsidiary, his lack of attention to detail and the operational aspects of running a business did not help.  He was a leader, not a manager.

In my experience, the best bosses today both lead and manage.  They are able to wear both hats, and know when to “zoom in” and when to “zoom out.”  Take Alan Mulally, who was until recently CEO of Ford Motor Company, and who engineered a very successful turnaround of the company.  He set a clear direction, aligned his team and Ford employees towards a common purpose, and inspired people.  Yet, from all reports, he also was very conscious of Ford’s challenges in returning to profitability, and spent considerable amounts of time managing the bottom line and diving deep into the operational aspects of the business.

My advice for today’s bosses?  First, you can’t be a good leader without also being a good manager.  Get to know your functional area, and what your team is doing.  Ask questions and get into the details.  Second, as a leader, one of your first orders of business is to create a compelling purpose and direction for your team.  Don’t do it in a vacuum, or on a mountaintop where you come down to make your pronouncements.  Involve your team, find out what might excite them, and connect your team’s purpose with the larger goal of the company.  Third, as a boss, use your authority to set a direction; recognize and reward those who perform and who show the right values; and take action on those who don’t.

Then there is the leader as coach.  That’s a subject for another post!

Hill, L. and Lineback, K.  (2011).  Being the Boss. Boston:  Harvard Business Review Press.

Kotter, J.  (1990).  What Leaders Really Do.  Harvard Business Review.

Sutton, R.  (2010).  Good Boss, Bad Boss.  New York:  Business Plus.