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How to become a better boss

If someone is outstanding at their job, we tend to say that he or she is a born leader: Apple’s Steve Jobs was one of them. But does being a “born” leader also automatically make you a good boss?


Julian Birkinshaw

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once said during a World Business Forum in 2012: “It’s all about building great organizations. This whole game of business revolves around one thing – you build the best team and you win.” But to build the best team you need to be a good boss, not only a visionary leader, says Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and author of the book Becoming a Better Boss (2013).

Barbara Barkhausen has spoken to Professor Birkinshaw about what it takes to become a better boss and “win the game of business”.

What does a good boss look like?

This is actually more straightforward than you might think: We all want support from our boss, encouragement and recognition for what we have achieved. A good manager gives us interesting and challenging work that is valuable to the organisation, and allows employees to bring their own creativity to their daily work. He gives them support and encouragement, opens doors and gives access to information. When you ask people about this it is a near consensus that these are the key attributes of a good boss and this applies to every job.

Who can you name as an example of a good boss?

This is not necessarily a big figurehead leader. Steve Jobs for example was a great visionary, but he was a real micromanager and had an intimidating approach, so his style was not in line with what I just talked about. But one interesting transition was for example at General Electric when Jack Welch handed over to Jeff Immelt. Welch was old school, larger-than-life leader who liked to show he was the boss, whereas Immelt is more softly spoken, preferring to get people to work things out for themselves and to get the credit for it. This is an example of how big companies have evolved. Another example is the CEO of easyJet in the UK, Carolyn McCall. She is a very facilitative leader, who works very hard to get the best out of people. She is very charismatic, but also understated and gets out of her way to help employees.

Are there people who are just not suited to be a boss or can every one of us learn what it needs?

Yes, anybody can learn it. Of course there are people for whom being a good boss comes more naturally than others, but the whole point of the book is that being a good boss is actually a learned skill – it is something we all have to work on. It doesn’t happen overnight; you need to learn the skills of management gradually over time, as a lot of the key behaviours, such as giving power to others, go against our natural instincts.

What do you mean with it goes “against our natural instincts”?

We are not as rational as we think, and it is human nature to have a deep seated aversion to risk. So the vast majority of senior people in organisations are prone to seek out control, especially in difficult times. It is also human nature to hold onto information and even to credit for the achievements of those in your team.

But how can you then learn to be a better boss?

Know your own strengths and motivators, but also your own weaknesses! You might need a neutral third party for this, an executive coach for example, who observes you and gives feedback. As an example: If you’re bad at keeping quiet in meetings, then give the chairmanship to someone else. If you’re bad at handing over authority, then chop a project into pieces and only take one part of the project and formalise how often the others report back to you.

In your book you write about the “wisdom of the crowd” being an essential contributor to a good manager…

Listening to people around and beyond a corporation is vital, but it is important to do this powerfully and not stupidly. As an example: When Barack Obama first came into office he had a briefing book where the people of America could post ideas for new policies. One was to make Marihuana legal for example, so there were many unhelpful answers. This shows how important it is to ask a sufficiently narrow question, to think how you deal with the responses and to get a bunch of people that is competent and accountable.

Is a good manager from 20 years ago still a good boss today and will one from today still be good in the next 20 years in your opinion?

The technology revolution has changed the role of the manager: Now workers have access to information as well and not only managers. Managers used to channel this information. Their role has now changed from an information sharer to managing people. 20 years ago you could hide behind information, but today the manager’s role is much more visible. In the future they will have an even greater responsibility to motivate people, get things done and create an emotional connection. Information and knowledge won’t be a scarce resource anymore.

What will this mean for the qualities that executives will need to succeed in the future?

Emotional intelligence will be much more important in the future, understanding peoples’ views and concerns will become a major skill set.

After the failures during and after the financial crisis, how can we reinvent our management? Is this possible?

During the financial crisis we had to realise that traditional management has failed and that the performance by the big bank managers was highly inadequate. One solution was for regulators to impose external regulations to prevent failures, another to reinvent our management practices. Some local banks like Barclays in the UK have decided to take on responsibility and change their management approach for example. The bank is seriously looking into understanding trust and integrity, but we need to wait on this as culture change can take decades. The Swedish bank Handelsbanken is another example of reinvented management. They were unaffected by the credit crisis because they gave responsibility to the individual branch managers who have total authority within their local area. The principle works with the assumption of individual trust. And another example is the Indian company HCL Technologies, where its CEO Vineet Nayar decided that to differentiate the company he would develop a management approach he called “employees first, customers second” – assuming that happy employees lead to stronger customer relationships.

How do MBA students handle the topic leadership at business schools? Is it one of their top priorities?

I have found that not many young MBA students are interested in management and leadership. It is only the senior students that pick up the topics hungrily. But I do believe that many MBA courses are too technical and that we need to teach more how to be better managers as many graduates start out as consultants and go into management later. But then they often don’t receive any formal training anymore, when they would need it.

About Julian Birkinshaw

Julian Birkinshaw is a Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and the author of, among other titles, Reinventing Management (2010) and Becoming a Better Boss (2013). He is the co-founder of the Management Innovation Lab with Gary Hamel. The Thinkers50 Ranking placed Julian Birkinshaw on 39th position worldwide. The award was introduced in 2011 and is widely regarded as the “Oscars of management thinking”.

Facts and Figures London Business School

Students: approx. 2,000 (33% female, 67% male students)

International students: 94 %

Length of programme: 15-21 months

Cost MBA programme: £ 61,400

Accreditation: Equis, Amba, AACSB


Link to statement Jack Welch



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