I’m Not A Good Boss

I'm Not A Good Boss - Brass Tack ThinkingThere are so many articles and books and even seminars out there about how to be a better boss. What makes a good boss. What makes a crappy boss.

I have a confession to make: I’m not a very good boss at all.

This isn’t link bait or some kind of clever turn of phrase in which I’m going to turn the whole thing around and make it into the ways I’m really a GREAT boss. I’m not.

Managing people is my weakness, actually. I’ve managed teams up to 30+ people, but I really don’t think I excelled at that at all.

I’m really, really good at setting out a vision. I’m really good at building and presenting a strategy, or even mapping out a path to get from point A to point B with sharp clarity. I’m really good at interpreting a bunch of complex concepts into concrete, understandable ideas. That’s what makes me great at the consulting and advisory work I do, because it emphasizes the work within which I absolutely excel.

What I’m not good at is mentoring people, dealing with the day to day nuances of managing a team of individual people. I get frustrated when there’s petty and personal differences between people that distract from their work. I get impatient with people who need to be coached and cheered on from the sidelines, because I suck at that kind of encouragement. I’m not warm and fuzzy, so when people management requires that of me, I’m not good at it. At all.

I think this is an important topic to discuss because not everyone is great at everything. Nor should you be.

I really started to thrive in my career when I was given big puzzles to sort out or massive, seemingly impossible objectives to achieve. I always struggled when I needed to manage bunches of different personalities, especially younger teams that are still developing, or deal with the daily human things that are an inevitable part of managing bunches of individual people that have bunches of individual quirks. It’s just not my strength.

That’s not to say I don’t like working with people and teams. I do, very much, and believe deeply in things like collaboration and encouraging people to contribute in line with their strengths. In fact, I’m really good at observing and understanding those behaviors from the outside. And I work well with experienced teams that require less hands-on guidance and are more self-driven (so it really feels more like working with peers than “managing” people). The more results I delivered in my career and the more forthright I was about my strengths and weaknesses, the more I got to work on projects that were better suited to my strengths.

All of this “me, me ,me” is meant to be a personal example focused on this:

Part of why people struggle in their careers is our collective insistence that they do things that they aren’t really good at. Almost every bit of business literature you read these days (don’t even get me started on some of it) talks about how successful business leaders are great mentors, or great team leaders, or great strategists, or great marketers. And I just don’t think it’s that simple.

There’s probably something that you don’t know much about, or that you aren’t really good at, but that you’ve felt compelled to do anyway because it was considered a prerequisite of a promotion or a different step in your career that you wanted to take. You probably struggled with it, felt guilty that you weren’t good at it, hesitated to talk to your boss about it because if you admitted that it wasn’t your strong suit, you’d probably limit your career development opportunities.

(We all have to do stuff we don’t particularly enjoy as part of our jobs. That’s just part of the gig, and not exactly what I’m talking about. We all have to learn to improve at some things that we may not love, too, because they’re essential to our work. That’s not what I’m talking about either.)

But there is an absolute moment of diminishing returns when grinding endlessly against your weaknesses becomes a liability, and your effort will be much better spent leveraging the things you’re actually good at.

So, I’m not a good boss. I’ve come to terms with that, I’m honest with the people I work with about it, and I do my best to improve where I can to mitigate the impact of it. There are lots of things I can do where I don’t need to be that kind of boss, so I’ve focused on those and found lots of success.

You don’t have to be good at everything, either. In fact I promise you that if you do a really good gut check on what you aren’t good at, learn to work around it and even use it to your advantage, you’ll be a far cry ahead of the game from the people writing about success based on a bunch of generalizations instead of living the actual crunchiness of it.

Success is messy, imperfect, and never ever summed up in 9 quick tips in a magazine. The accepted norms are simply the middle of the bell curve, and probably an idealized one at that.

So make peace with your custom blend of professional skills, put down the management book, and go get your perfectly imperfect hands dirty.

  • Jess Tiede

    Great blog! I can relate to admitting when something is not your strength — I am a horrible teacher. Because I am in eMarketing, my family believes that I can teach them to be great Internet researchers and consumers despite their lacking computer skills. I remind them that just because a person is good at something doesn’t mean that they can teach it to others. Teaching is a skill with which I have NOT been blessed!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Another great example, Jess. And fantastic that you’re aware of it so you aren’t trying to shoehorn yourself into that role.

  • Evan_Hamilton

    Great post and point. And I’d actually argue that telling your employees that you’re a bad boss IS you becoming a better boss, because you’re setting clear expectations.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I think that’s a fair point. It doesn’t make me better at the people management side of things day to day, but it does help make it clear to people where I know I’m going to have challenges so we can try to work on them together from the start.

  • http://twitter.com/mor_trisha Trisha Liu

    Thank you for sharing this confession Amber! Boy does it resonate for me. People have encouraged and supported me in being a people manager, but it just isn’t for me. I love being able to distill confusing processes into plain language, to help others make sense of what is needed. To cut through noise and identify what is really important. But the “people are messy” aspect of being a manager is not for me.

    You aptly distinguish that “not good at it” is different from “don’t enjoy it.” My struggle sometimes is in knowing the difference between “not good at it” and “challenging my comfort zone”.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Not everyone is a people manager. There’s just as much need for us, the process and problem people. Truth, though, that it’s sometimes hard to know when you’re pushing too hard or not challenging yourself enough. I think that’s a lot of trial and error.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amber-Authier/677003654 Amber Authier

    Very interesting post Amber. I’ve always thought of myself as a good boss. But in reading your post, I realize I am good at identifying and fostering the development of people’s natural skills. I’m not overly warm either but I can certainly tell people when they are striving for something that is not essitenail to their success, and really not needed in their careers. I think the people that work for me appreciate that and I have a strong, dedicated team because of it. Now if only I could figure out how to get more comfortable with budget development. ;-)

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Amber, those are great qualities to have. And I’d argue they’re much harder to cultivate – or outsource – than budget development.

  • Jordan Slabaugh

    Amber, I’ve fallen in love with your line “success is messy, imperfect, and never ever summed up in 9 quick tips in a magazine.” I think it’s true in all areas of life, but the workplace in particular often dictates that we put on airs about perfection so that we fake it until we make it. Some of the best people (and bosses) I’ve ever worked with were those who could admit an element of their ownership that wasn’t a strength for them. And, then trust and lean on others to help with those things. Kudos for the admission.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      It sure is messy. Hell, LIFE is messy. We all want everyone to look at what we’ve accomplished and make it look easy. But go talk to anyone who has actually DONE something of value and they’ll tell you they had to focus hard on what they were good at, and rely on help for the things they weren’t good at. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

  • Carmelo

    Wow, so well said! I think that sometimes these books and articles and posts and experts get caught up in the point they are trying to make. As a teacher / author, you can’t be giving equal emphasis to every side and still make your case.

    This is why your post here is so valuable. We have to decide for ourselves what works for us and what doesn’t. Read with circumspection! How does this apply to me?

    I see why you say that your post isn’t about not doing what you dislike or aren’t good at but, as you say, there’s a point of diminishing returns. There are a growing number (still way too few) of companies that are focusing on allowing employees to only do what they are best at. Not an easy thing to accomplish as a company but I believe a worthy goal and with conscious effort … achievable!

    What a waste of talent if we insist on spending most of our life trying to improve on our weaknesses.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I believe in improving what you’re not good at, but only to a point. I suck at ice skating, but there’s absolutely zero value to me (unless I really have a dream of ice skating) to spend time and effort learning to be better at it.

      In my profession, my clients and employers value the things I do well. It’s a better investment in THEM to hone what I’m great at and look to others who can fill in the skills and talents I don’t have. Trying to be everything to everyone is a sure way to make yourself mediocre across the board!

  • http://twitter.com/C_Pappas Christina Pappas

    I dont think Im a good boss either and there are other things I cannot do. The challenge though is that to move up within a organization, you have to figure out how to be a boss. You might not be a ‘good’ boss but you need to learn the skills to mentor, coach, lead and accelerate your team. I dont know how to do that other than to watch how it’s being done now by the people around me.

    I love your point about recognizing the things we cannot do and somehow finding a way to say ‘no, I cannot do that’. I actually lost a job recently because I was moved into a position that I wasnt qualified for. The HR group said that I was qualified because the keywords in my resume – once inserted into a program of some sort – said I could do the job. It was an extremely frustrating time for me.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I think the skills you’ve mentioned – mentoring, coaching, leading, accelerating – are different than ‘managing’. And I definitely can tell you that my ability to do those things is directly proportional to the level of project and team I’m working with. Difficult truth, but truth nonetheless.

      So I don’t know that I think you have to learn to “be a good boss”, because there’s a big difference between managing and mentoring, or managing and leading.

      I’m sorry you had that kind of experience, though. Sometimes it’s the Peter Principle at work (great workers = great management and leadership in all suits), sometimes it’s just the laziness of a business to realize that success in a role is FAR more than ticking a bunch of boxes on a list.

  • geofflivingston

    I, too, am a Lousy Boss. I’ve stopped trying. It’s bad for all parties. Like you say, play to your strengths.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I have to make peace with it since I’m trying to grow a business, but that means relying on other people to fill in where I’m weak. And probably just sucking at some parts of what I need to do with full disclosure.

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