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What Works - You Could Just Spit

Great bosses have a knack for knowing the big picture while also focusing on the individual.

June 20, 2002
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Spit! Splat!

Kevin heard it day after day, hour after hour. In his workplace. Compliments of his boss.

Spit! Splat!

The boss owned the company, and he loved to chew tobacco. During the day. All day.

According to Kevin, the boss was a raging control freak who had all sorts of rules to govern employees' behavior. Among the decrees: no personal items like photos allowed in the office.

The rules applied to everyone -- except the boss. And he'd chew throughout the day, depositing spent tobacco wherever he found a convenient receptacle. Including Kevin's wastebasket.

Spit! Another wad would take flight. Splat! Into the can.

No personal items in the office, eh? A glob of chaw sounds pretty personal. But hypocrisy was the least of it. Kevin said that by day's end, the workplace would literally stink from all that spitting.

Ah, if only Kevin could work for Larry Fisher.

Fisher is assistant administrator of the Oklahoma Office of Personnel Management. Joyce Smith is one of the fortunate employees who report to him. She coordinates the Oklahoma state government's quality initiative.

"Larry's most outstanding leadership trait is that he trusts us," Smith says. "He gives us the responsibility of determining the work we need to do along with the authority to get the job done."

When it came time to redesign the state's Quality Oklahoma Awards Program, Smith served as the point person. It was a blue-chip assignment with high visibility -- the kind that compels control-freak bosses to hover over employees' shoulders.

Smith teamed up with others and proceeded to get the job done. Fisher kept his distance, but he remained accessible -- to provide support, remove barriers, or simply lend an ear if and when needed. Not once did he spit tobacco in Smith's wastebasket.

If it sounds like these two bosses should be enshrined in some sort of gallery of bad and best managers, well, they are. They and 94 others are showcased in the Awesome & Awful Boss Hall of Fame, at All the inductees were nominated by their employees.

The Awful Bosses are aptly named. One of them found it hard to believe that an employee deserved sick days for emergency surgery -- and asked to see the incision. Another kept an employee in an all-day meeting even though the employee's mother was on her deathbed. A third was a chronic yeller who used an employee as a go-between with his ex-wife.

Bad bosses make for interesting reading, and talking about them probably has some therapeutic value. But if you want guidance on how to be a great boss, go to the great bosses.

Back at the Oklahoma Office of Personnel Management, Larry Fisher's top trait is trust. Asked about the time he so completely empowered Joyce Smith to improve the state quality award, he says simply, "I had no anxiety at all. I work with great people, and if they need me, I'm here."

But there's more. Hire the very best people in the first place, Fisher says. Provide plenty of learning opportunities. Work with employees to co-create specific objectives. Keep the communication lines wide open at all times. And take time to celebrate good work and results.

Then there's Michael Pergola, chief knowledge officer of internal audit for First Union Corporation. Ann Swain is among those who report to him. "Michael creates an open and trusting team environment," she says. "Everyone has a chance to contribute and jump in freely to help each other. We can learn, make mistakes, and learn again, without fear or blame."

Great bosses have a knack for knowing the big picture while also focusing on the individual. Consider Denise Scholl-Serrett at Cendant Corporation. Jason Pettigrew is among her employees. "Denise has seen my potential and been the mentor that I was looking for," he says. "She not only has an excellent business sense, but also is a boss who cares about her employees' personal lives."

Comb through all these examples and many others, and you'll find that great bosses have five big attributes in common: They give employees ownership of their work, support them as necessary, show sincere respect, provide meaningful development opportunities, and nurture open dialogue.

What about you? Where do you stand when it comes to these five factors?

If you're feeling brave, circulate the following mini-assessment to your employees. Have them respond with a "yes," "no," or "sometimes," and ask them to add written comments. If you think they'll balk at full disclosure, keep the assessment in paper form, and have them do it anonymously. Otherwise, use the following prompts for an open conversation at your next employee gathering.

  • I have the authority to gather necessary information, collaborate with others, make decisions, and determine the best way to do my work.

  • My manager provides support when I need it. (Support can be as simple as an open door and an open ear. Or it can involve guidance regarding the work itself, or help in removing barriers.)

  • I get genuine respect from my manager. (This can take many forms: a thank-you, a hallway hello, a casual conversation, a request for input.)

  • My work and workplace give me opportunities to learn and grow. I can develop new skills, acquire more knowledge, and pursue deep interests in the course of my work.

  • Honest dialogue unfolds each day. My coworkers and I have opportunities to get together, openly share ideas, and work collectively.

Give yourself 20 points for each "yes" response and 10 for "sometimes." If you rate in the 70-100 range, you're pretty darn awesome. If you've been spitting tobacco throughout the workplace during the past two weeks, subtract 100 from your point total.

Workforce, December 2001, pp. 24-25 -- Subscribe Now!

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