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Be a boss without being bossy


(MoneyWatch) Plato said "The measure of a man is what he does with power." Power has always played a central role in so many areas of business, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. But when it comes to the power that comes with employing and managing people, to me, the measure of a boss is how little he or she "bosses."

People who work with me know that one way to really get under my skin (in good fun) is to call me "the Boss." It always conjures up images of some old-school, heavy-handed, central casting corporate overlord, forcing his will on his minions. That's the last thing in the world I ever want to be -- in fact, I have no desire to be anyone's boss at all, it just happens to come with the territory of owning a business. One of my company's core values is humility, both in our dealings outside the company and within, so if the word "boss" (or any of its iterations) is to be used at all, I prefer it used as a noun, not a verb.

I think and hope that anyone who works at Skooba Design would tell you that -- other than my signing the checks -- we are about as close to a company of equals as you'll find. We don't use titlesanywhere but on business cards, we fight for our beliefs and opinions passionately, without risk or penalty (and I lose at least as many of those arguments as I win), and everyone is given all the freedom and authority they can handle.

It starts with having great people, trusting them, ensuring they trust you, and letting them breathe. If you do, your role as the Big Cheese should mostly be limited to:

Overall vision/direction: When a business has great employees, having the time for "big picture" thinking and planning is usually a top priority for any owner. If you have people who can participate in the top level vision and direction-setting, by all means involve them. But generally speaking, your "bossiest" responsibility is to set the course and keep the business focused on staying on it.

Non-negotiables: There are always things that the founder or owner of a business feels so strongly about that there's no point in discussing them. They might be related to the image of the company or representation of a brand, customer interactions, or even the office decor. If you feel so strongly about something that it is truly written in stone, that's your prerogative. Just make sure it's really something worth throwing your weight around.

Stalemates: There are times when democracy and consensus simply don't work in business. Sometimes people or groups can't agree on something important, a project has gone as far as it can go, a discussion is deteriorating. When there's no other choice but to make an executive decision (as my father used to say, "weighing the votes instead of counting them"), make the call. But always encourage people to solve their own problems so you don't have to.

Discipline: The worst part of being the boss. Obviously the larger a company is, the more likely it is to have a human resources manager, or even an entire department. But for many small businesses, the owner is that department. And that means having to correct, warn, and at times, fire people. It often can't (and shouldn't) be delegated, and it sucks.

Money: In a company with even a small number of people, day-to-day transactions are usually handled by employees, whether in sales, accounts payable/receivable or purchasing. But the overall finances of the business are, of course, the responsibility -- as critical as any -- of the boss. Cash, debt, investors, major expenses, real estate, profit and loss, inventory... even with a supporting staff, in a small business, these are almost always the boss' burden.

Of course, every business is different. But for the most part, if it doesn't fall into one of these five categories, a good, effective boss should stay out of it as much as possible, unless and until he or she has a real reason to get involved. Set the scene of your business, and let your people do their thing.

Great people will still make mistakes, and so will owners and managers, probably just as often. So the whole thing really comes down to choosing your battles. Don't wield your authority unless you absolutely must, and never be bossy just to prove you're the boss. As Margaret Thatcher said, "Power is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

Image courtesy of Flickr user Okko Pyykko

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