There’s a saying in Human Resources that goes something like this: People join companies, but quit their bosses. The meaning behind the saying is simple — a manager influences a person’s level of engagement more than institutional factors. I share this view, but also believe the inverse to be true—that a great manager can create a level of connection and employee commitment that can overcome difficult external challenges and internal dysfunction. It therefore follows that, for an employee, being able to recognize a potential boss who is a great leader is invaluable, and can have a significant impact on your career. Here are three traits to look for:
1) Once they’re in charge, it’s no longer about them
Most successful individuals are driven by the desire for accomplishment. They learn to win by exceeding all others, and this drive is healthy until they’re charged with leading people, and a continued focus on their own success does more harm than good. I believe that managerial maturity includes the realization that a leader’s success is defined by the success of their people. I’ve met countless individuals who’ve struggled as leaders because they did not know how to raise up those who supported them. They were unaware that their future growth hinged on the success of those they were privileged to lead.
When interviewing for a role — a.k.a. looking for your next manager — ask your potential boss questions around this concept. For example, “What are you most proud of?” “What do you consider your biggest accomplishments?” If their answer relies heavily on the words “me” or “I”, beware. On the other hand, if they happily recount moments when their team succeeded, when their people achieved something special or especially when individual team members left for bigger and better roles, there’s a good chance that the leader you’re talking to has the type of generosity you want in a boss.
2) They have a positive view of greatness
I’ve encountered some very successful people who possessed a keen ability to see what was wrong and to fix it, and that’s certainly an important survival skill. But it’s a problem if a leader’s focus is solely on finding flaws and ensuring the absence of failure. With this type of leader, employees only hear from them when they make a mistake, and any performance beyond what is to be expected is ignored. I once coached a leader who bragged that he’d not given a top-performance rating to any employee in ten years. He was trying to convey his high standards, but I knew his people and their work, and he was failing to see their greatness. His team was doing amazing things that common effort alone could not have produced, and all he could see was the absence of a problem. He considered it and treated it as merely acceptable, and that’s just not enough.
When being interviewed for a role, be sure to ask questions that help shed light on this aspect of the potential manager. Ask them about their definition of success, and get them to explain their performance priorities. Try to get examples of what they think “great” looks like. If their answers are limited to keeping things steady, fixing what’s broken, and failing less than others, beware. Reach out to others within the organization to learn the buzz on how they handle performance management, how they give feedback, whether they know what “great” looks like, and whether they actively encourage their employees to strive for excellence.
3) They invest in their people
Employees, and especially millennials, want more than just a job — they want employability. They want to gain skills and experiences that will increase their value. Some more seasoned professionals will say this desire is also true for them—as it was true for their parents—but there’s a difference. Millennials are likely to change jobs much more than prior generations. A survey by Future Workplace called “Multiple Generations @ Work” showed that 91% of millennials expected to change jobs 15 to 20 times in their career. With such free agency, building recognizable skills and gaining credentials becomes even more important. Employees want to work for people who invest in their development through opportunities, training, and experiences. They want managers who are concerned about their career and willing to act accordingly. I frequently talk about “talent consumers” — those who make use of their people’s skills — versus “talent investors” who help their people get better and stronger while benefiting from their performance and commitment.
So, can you determine whether a manager has this strength? Remember that reputations count. Ask others about the leader and whether they spend time and resources on their employees’ development. Ask whether they know where their employees are in their individual career journeys and whether they strategize steps to move the person along. Do they put their own skin in the game? Do they volunteer their people for projects outside of their unit or invite them to higher-level meetings? Do they bring in guests from outside the unit to introduce new topics and challenge current perspectives?
When interviewing, specifically ask the potential manager about employee development. If they talk about what “the company” provides or how much “the company” spends on training, or how employees are free to take advantage of many opportunities, beware. If they talk about specific opportunities they created for employees to learn something, or the chances they took on people, or if they reflect on their own sense of responsibility for employee development, this is a signal that they may be the kind of leader you want to work for.
The value of this leadership attribute cannot be overstated. When we know that someone is investing in us, we feel valuable and important. We become more fully engaged and give our best. When we recall our most important mentors — those who improved our lives and careers — they are often the ones who invested in us. They are the people who trusted us, took a chance on us, and who saw more in us than we saw in ourselves. To have this type of manager is to be very fortunate. I know because I’ve been lucky to have them.
My hope for this article is that by strengthening your ability to recognize great leaders, it will mean that these relationships come your way more by design than by chance. I also offer a caution. I selected the leadership attributes that I believe to be most pertinent to career advancement, but we are all different. We are all seeking different things in our careers, so knowing what is important to you and learning to spot leaders who provide that is the real goal. If you understand what you want in a manager and learn to spot it, you can impact your career and your ability to lead others in turn.