Still compiling New Year's resolutions? Don't forget this one: "Manage my subordinates better."
You probably have made and broken that pledge before because you were unsure how to begin the process. But you can improve your managerial skills by identifying and avoiding supervisory blunders committed by your past bosses, good and bad.
I asked three successful leaders for lessons they gleaned from their superiors' mistakes.
"I learned the things that tend to irritate people and drive them up the wall," remembers B. Joseph White, University of Illinois president and author of "The Nature of Leadership," a new book. "I have tended to minimize them as a boss."
Negative lessons stick because "the best experiences are the ones that really get you in the gut," adds Carol Bartz, Autodesk's chief executive for 14 years and now executive chairman of the software maker.
Managers can get so caught up in playing the role of the boss, they neglect to pay attention to their subordinates, suggests Carl T. Camden, CEO of Kelly Services and former professor, ad agency co-president and bank marketing executive. He advanced to the helm of the staffing-services provider in early 2006.
Here are their top tips for cultivating good management practices:
Never humiliate staffers in front of others. Mr. White once worked as a consultant for a Silicon Valley entrepreneur known for making associates rich -- and dressing them down publicly. During one meeting, the mogul attacked a proposal from a talented manager. "That's the goddamn stupidest idea I ever heard in my life," he snarled. "I'm disappointed in you."
The woman was upset for hours, and she never really regained her sense of being a respected part of the management team.
Mr. White's observation of the brutal putdown and its fallout taught him to be more aware of others' "vulnerabilities.'' While running University of Michigan's business school years later, he began to badmouth rival institutions, then stopped himself because he knew several assembled colleagues had attended those schools.
Lightning-fast decisions may be wrong. Mr. Camden used to believe bosses should act swiftly. A KeyCorp official he reported to "would whip through all the decisions we had to make that week in the space of an hour,'' he recollects.
So, when Mr. Camden joined Kelly Services in 1995, he tried to do the same, immediately rejecting co-workers' pitch to diversify into recruiting and placing substitute teachers. "I had six very good-sounding reasons why we should not do [that],'' he says. "I focused on all the risks."
After his lieutenants pitched the idea five more times, Mr. Camden reversed his decision. Kelly launched the division in 1999. The unit, which places an average of 3,700 substitutes per day, "is one of our fastest-growing business lines," he reports. In hindsight, he sees that well-meaning bosses can fall into "a trap of being all-knowing."
Don't set impossible deadlines. Ms. Bartz, a Sun Microsystems executive before she led Autodesk, once felt frustrated by a superior who considered every deadline the No. 1 priority. "It is hard to figure out what is important," she notes.
Yet as a manager, Ms. Bartz committed a similar gaffe. She pushed one team so hard to meet the shipment deadline for a new product that team members stopped divulging its flaws. Facing intense time pressures, "everybody tells you what you want to hear," she remarks. "I just hadn't realized how big the problem was."
Ms. Bartz reassured her team members that she wanted to be told the truth. "But it took a few years to get [their] trust back," she says.
Rarely interfere with subordinates' personal time outside the office. Early in Mr. White's career, a talented and ambitious boss held three-hour staff meetings every Sunday afternoon to demonstrate that he was tougher than his internal rival. "This was a simple display of testosterone that turned everyone off," Mr. White says.
The university president now asks himself whether an intrusion is absolutely necessary before he bothers subordinates at odd hours. "If people know you strive to respect their personal space," he explains, "they will work harder during regular work time."
Remember that perception is reality. While she was a sales representative, Ms. Bartz had a team leader who gave the best territory to an agent considered an underperformer by co-workers. He got ahead by fawning over the boss. "I transferred as soon as I could," she says.
So, when Ms. Bartz became Autodesk CEO, she was surprised when a staffer complained, "Everybody thinks that so-and-so is your favorite." Ms. Bartz felt she wasn't playing favorites, but realized she had to pay closer attention to how she treated everyone and the work environment she created. Even good bosses, she concedes, can find it hard "to walk in others' shoes.''
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