The Buck Stops Here: A Guide for New Leaders on Being an Effective Boss

Better results, happier team players. A crash course for young bosses.

Managing people can be tricky even at the best of times. I have worked my way up from peon to walking boss in three separate industries and can tell you that a good leader is a rare and wonderful thing.  Whether you are working in a retail environment, the service industry, or an office, the root problems you will face as a leader are universal. If you are too hands-off, something could go wrong and you’ll be called onto the carpet with no clue how to answer for it.  If you micromanage, you run the risk of being the boss that everyone hates, and probably for good reason.  It can decrease productivity and morale.

As a young, up and comer in your company, how do you oversee your new team so that you get results you need, with the morale you want?  Here are a few tips from my time as a new manager.

Just because you have the job, doesn’t mean you are done learning.  

When I got my first management job, I thought I knew it all.  I knew what I liked and didn’t like about my old bosses; I knew what I learned in college; and I remembered everything I learned from reading Dilbert and watching Office Space.  I was certain that I was ready to step in and be the best boss there was.

Turns out, I wasn’t. I was ok, maybe even better than average, but that was just because I am a fair, honest, and conscientious person. I just followed my gut and did what I thought was right. This carried me through almost five years but they weren’t always easy.  I was constantly having to remind some employees about the fact that they were slacking off,  turnover on my team was the same as the ones with obviously bad leaders, and no one was really developing…including me.

The problem was that I thought I had nothing left to learn.  In my current leadership role, I actually have a boss that wants to mentor me and help me develop my skills.  I’ve read countless leadership books, I attend continuing education workshops, and I participate in a focus group with leaders from other departments of our organization. All of these things help in some way to develop me as a leader.  Not all of the books I read were game changing, or even all that interesting, but I did learn something from each and every one of them.

Here are the ones that helped me the most:

How to Win Friends and Influence People:  This classic book by Dale Carnegie should already be in your self-development library.  If it isn’t, boy are you missing out.  Even though it was written during a very different time in our history, the principles still hold true today.  The book will help you in business and in your social interactions and, unlike some other guides, it doesn’t ask you to be a phony with a fake smile.  It teaches you how to genuinely engage with people.  Buy it now, and re-read it at least once a year.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership:  The first time I saw a John Maxwell video, I thought he reminded me of Biff Tannen from Back to the Future playing a used car salesman.  Once I listened to him though, I realized he really had some good things to say.  This is just one of his books (I think he has 30 something) and is a good starting point for any new or aspiring leader.

The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey:  This quick read by Kenneth H. Blanchard tells the story of a manager who was failing because he had too much on his plate.  Turns out, the stuff on his plate wasn’t his!  As a leader, you need to help your staff without actually doing their work for them.

Treat your team like adults, even if they don’t act that way.  

One of the principles that John Maxwell always reinforces is that people will try to live up to the expectations you place on them. If you treat Johnny Screwup like a loser all the time, he will act like a loser. Next time you have a project coming up, and you need someone to delegate to, give Johnny a shot.  You can’t just turn him loose though, because that is just asking for another failure.

What I like to do is call Johnny into the office and have some one-on-one time.  I let him know all of the aspects and expectations of the project and I say several times that I know he is capable of doing a great job.  I also let him know that I am there to assist him whenever he has questions along the way.  This does two things.  It lets Johnny start on a positive note because he knows I want him to succeed and believe in his ability to do so.  It also covers me if the project starts to head south, because Johnny and I both know that we covered the expectations and he knew to ask for help.

Treating them like adults also allows you to hold them accountable for their actions.  If you are overly lax with the rules and allow your team to get away with everything because you want to be the “cool boss”, then you will have a really hard time issuing discipline when the time inevitably comes.

Don’t ask your team to do anything that you aren’t willing to do yourself.

Everyone in my department has various quotes and mantras pinned up in their cubicles.  Some are faith based, some are from famous coaches and athletes, and others are pseudo-philosophical business nonsense.  I have one hanging just below my “You need more cowbell” de-motivational poster that reads “Employees follow you because they have to.  Teammates follow you because they want to.”  I don’t use the term teammates because it’s corporately mandated like at Target or other retail stores.  I use it because it is what I base my leadership style on.  They are my team, and I am the Team Captain.  I am on the field with them each and every day, running, sweating, and even helping out with their tasks when it really gets wild.  Most of the time, I am doing my own tasks.

One of my main duties is staying informed and up to speed on the workload and productivity of my department.  When I notice things getting busy, I reassign tasks and reroute work efforts.  If they keep getting busier, I jump in there myself.  My team takes comfort in the fact that I know what their job entails, and I don’t consider myself too good to do it right alongside them. Your staff needs to know that you are a regular person who is willing to do whatever it takes to help them as individuals, and your team as a whole, succeed.

To give you an example, here are a couple of things I do for my team.

  • I hold one-on-one meetings with members of my staff to discuss their personal and professional goals, and any concerns, questions, or suggestions they have regarding operations of the department.  I have these with each staff member every three months.  They can come to me whenever they want¸ but this meeting guarantees us an hour of uninterrupted time together.  Why should you care about their goals? People with goals are happier than drones with no end in sight. Happy workers are better than unhappy workers. Also, learning about their goals can give you an insight into their interests outside of their current role. With a little development, they may be perfect for that other position in your company that no one seems to be able to fill. Even if the goal leads them away from me, I still want to help them succeed.
  • If I have a team member with low productivity, I begin by discussing the issue with them.  It isn’t in a disciplinary manner it’s done with the intention of locating the problem.  Many times, it is comes down to a simple issue that is easily corrected.  If not, I work with them to dig deeper and to locate and correct the issue.  If efficiency and time management are the issues, I help them develop personalized work flow schedules.  If it’s an issue with responding to and dealing with difficult client issues, I assist them with the issue, make sure they understand the process, and work on building their confidence for dealing with these types of situations in the future.

These certainly aren’t the only things it takes to be a good leader and no one technique works in every situation.  You need to develop your own primary style and keep the others in your toolbox for when their specific needs arises.  Remember, you can fix lots of things with a hammer, but sometimes it’s just easier if you have a screwdriver too.

Adam Brewton

Adam currently serves as the supervisor of Student Services for Columbia Southern University. His hobbies include adventure racing, anything involving the outdoors, and zombies. He spends his free time enjoying all of these things with his wife and two dogs.