Tina Fey: Managers don't boss, they lead

Tina Fey on Oct. 2, 2010. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Tina Fey is a gifted comedic talent; becoming the youngest person to win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor cemented her reputation.

But she's more than funny: She's also an insightful manager. In her warm and funny memoir, Bossypants, Fey said that she learned that "Being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, 'I am the boss! I am the boss!'" Rather, "being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way."

That brief paragraph gets to the heart of what good managers do: Bring the best out of others by working with them, not against them. Sure it's obvious, but too often overlooked.

Fey credits Lorne Michaels, who was her boss when she wrote and acted on Saturday Night Live, with lessons on how to enable creative people to succeed. These lessons hold true for more than those who make their living by making others laugh, but also for those who make their living working hard so others will not laugh at them.

"When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago Improvisers and stir."
Fey earned her comedic chops at Chicago's famed Second City. When she joined the cast of SNL, she worked what she labels the Harvard types. "The Harvard guys check the logic and construction of every joke, and the Improvisers teach them how to be human." Right there is a classic formula for stimulating creativity - getting opposites to play well together. Easy to say but it takes a skilled and insightful boss to enable people of different sensibilities to work well together.

"The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11.30."
As Fey puts it, "You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke you can until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go." Striving for perfection may sound laudable but it thwarts the ending process - getting things done on time and on budget. Managers can allow their teams to create but deadlines are delivery dates not arbitrary marks on a calendar.

Never tell a person he's crazy.
Fey credits Michaels with a gentle hand when working with stars whose behaviors drive others nuts. What we can learn from Michaels is that people do not change their personality but when motivated to change by an opportunity - to do work they want to do or get promoted - they can be directed to focus their energies on the work rather then themselves.

These three lessons will hold any manager looking for insight into how to get the best out of her team in good stead. But there is something else that good managers can teach us, and in this regard Fey is no exception. She is a very hard worker. On her show 30 Rock she serves as executive producer as well as writes and stars in the production. Her self-discipline is evident and her willingness to put in the long hours to get the work done in the best possible way gives her credibility with her team.

Managers can emulate Fey's example by holding themselves accountable for getting the others to do the best work possible. A manager's personal example communicates far more than words. Those who do the work and share the credit are those others want to follow. Even when they are the boss!

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