February 16, 2011

Being the Boss

Unless you manage the context in which your team resides, there's no way that your team can be successful

Nineteen years ago, Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill wrote the first edition of her book Becoming a Manager, detailing the experiences of several first-year supervisors who were making the daunting transition from star performer to novice boss. Since then, she has found that the now-classic book is popular not just among newbies but also among leaders with decades of experience.

"I've always been surprised by why on earth they're reading a book about becoming a manager," Hill says. "What I've come to understand is that many of them never really made the psychological transformation from being an individual contributor to being a manager, and it really resonates with them when they read the book. Many of them are not fulfilling their potential. They're well intended, but a fair number of them derail or kind of get stuck." will specifically targets that audience in her new book, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, cowritten with Kent Lineback.

"This book was written to benefit experienced people who are trying to go from good to great," Hill says.

Being the Boss describes the challenges that good bosses face as they endeavor to manage themselves, manage their networks, and manage their teams. In short, being a good boss is about much more than wielding authority.

"I've seen so many people get that wrong," says Lineback, himself a former executive. "They think authority defines them. I've had bosses who had to resort to saying, 'I'm the boss!' And when you get to that point, you've lost it."

In the following interview, Hill talks about the difficulties of striking a balance between management and leadership in the age of globalization and remote offices.

Carmen Nobel: Your book discusses three imperatives for becoming a great leader: managing yourself, managing your network, and managing your team. What are some of the issues inherent in each of them?
Linda Hill: It starts with using yourself as an instrument to get things done. And because you're the instrument, you've got to know that instrument very well and use it appropriately, so that your imprint matches your impact. We talk a lot about what it really means to be the boss. For instance, although you do have formal authority, you don't want to have to rely on that too much to get things done.

Managing your network is in the middle of the book, before the section on managing your team. That kind of throws some people because when you think about being the boss, you mostly think about the people who report to you. But unless you manage the context in which your team resides, there's no way that your team can be successful. So you have to understand the political dynamics, you have to understand how to build a network with peers and bosses, and you have to set the right expectations for your team and the right resources. We really think that's at the heart.

The last piece is your team. That's about all the complexities of what it means to build a team—a team is different from just a group—and how you think about managing the performance of individuals. We also talk about preparing for the future—that managing isn't all about today, it's also about managing your team for tomorrow.

Q: You include a chapter called "Don't Forget Your Boss." Managers often fail to realize their role in their relationships with their bosses. What do they need to keep in mind?
A: It's common to let the person up the chain be most responsible for whether you have a healthy relationship, but you're equally responsible. If you don't manage that relationship right, your team is not going to be able to do what it needs to do.

Powerlessness corrupts as much as power. You shouldn't feel powerless with your boss. That's not the deal. You have to figure out the sources of power you have to influence the boss. You also have to see the boss as human and fallible in all the ways that you're human and fallible, and figure out how to deal with the reality of who that person is—rather than the ideal of what you'd like that person to be like. There are really bad bosses, and you can't be naive or cynical about this. It's hard to be successful with a bad boss, and sometimes success means figuring out how to get out of that situation. But before you decide that's the deal, you need to take responsibility for the relationship, because it's definitely two-way. I'm building on the traditions of [HBS professors emeriti] John Kotter and John Gabarro, who [in 1980] wrote an article about managing your boss, which was very radical at the time. (http://hbr.org/2005/01/managing-your-boss/ar/1)

Today many people have multiple bosses, and we also discuss the challenges there. One of the most common missteps is to deal with the boss who's closest to you physically and treat your relationship with your other boss as out of sight, out of mind. So we talk about how you have to manage the priorities between those two bosses and how to negotiate what will be your priorities, given their priorities.

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