What makes a good boss?

I have seen the following quote a few times now on LinkedIn (it came up again today) and elsewhere and identified with it each time I saw it :


So it got me thinking, what does make a good boss?

Hire smart people

There is the old adage, that a good boss hires people that are smarter than themselves. How often does this actually happen in practice, in the legal industry in particular, but also business more generally? While I can claim (in most instances) to have hired people smarter than myself over the years, too often in my view those hiring become threatened by someone smarter than themselves, especially if they are a senior hire. I guess it is less threatening to hire a super smart graduate, than a super smart person one level below you on the promotion ladder.

This is however a false economy and the “boss” is doing themselves a disservice. Over my twenty plus years in legal practice,  I was able to grow a large high performing legal team by hiring smart people at all levels and guess what, it made my life easier! Instead of having to hand hold each person every step of the way and lie awake at night wondering if they had got it right, I let those smart people run and had smart people turning out excellent work, on time, resulting in happy clients.

Can you teach smart?

I have lost count of how many job interviews I conducted ranging from raw graduates through to partners over the years. I was often heard to say, especially for graduate positions and junior to mid-level staff something like”We can teach this person the ropes here and give them all the training  and support in the world, but we can’t teach them to be smart.” Some of the best hires I have seen over the years is when the person hiring looks beyond the nice suit (although that is also needed, along with polished shoes!) and looks at (and preferably experiences first hand via an internship or clerkship) whether the candidate is smart. Academic results are important of course, but smart in practice, doing the work the candidate will be asked to do, is vital.

How does a good boss manage smart people?

You have already hired many smart people or will do so from now on, how do you manage those smart people? Much like the quote from Tina Fey above, in my view, you hired those people because they were smart and talented so it is vital you give them room to spread their wings and show you how they can soar.

Set guidelines, provide support, be accessible for queries and set realistic deliverables and deadlines of course, but otherwise get out of the way and let those smart and talented achievers show you what they can do!

Give feedback in a timely manner, give credit where credit is due, but above all else, let those smart people soar. You won’t regret it.

What else makes a good boss?

Managing smart people aside, what else makes a good boss? Some approaches that I have employed in managing legal teams include :

  • Set clear expectations from the outset of hiring and at the commencement of each discreet task;
  • Set clear deliverables and deadlines;
  • Provide the staff member with the necessary material or information including where to go and find it if needed;
  • Implement and then walk the talk of an “open door” policy where the staff member is encouraged to come and ask questions if unclear or seeking guidance. I always made it clear that the mostly junior of staff was always welcome to walk through my (open) door and ask questions or seek advice if needed;
  • Entrench a culture of learning and that there are no stupid questions. I always made sure my team they could ask questions of myself and others even if they thought it was “stupid” (it basically never was).
  • Similarly, my team meetings had a standing agenda item of “Lessons learnt”. This was a free flowing discussion where team members were encouraged to speak to lessons they had learnt in the past week, especially mistakes they made so that the whole team could learn from those mistakes. In the beginning it would often take myself or one of the other partners to start off with a lesson learnt or mistake made, but once it became clear to all that there were no recriminations and it was a very useful exercise, this sharing of lessons learnt became part of the team culture and it became one of the most useful agenda items of the weekly team meeting.
  • As “the Boss”, you have to walk the talk. While accepting that legal firms and indeed all businesses have hierarchies, don’t ask a team member to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. While timeframes are usually tight, don’t set crazy deadlines or if timeframes are that tight, be there in the trenches with the team. I’ve lost count of how many simple confidentiality agreement reviews I ended up doing myself as they were urgent and my team was already busy on other important work!
  • Be a role model. Mentor, train, invest in and grow your staff. Nothing made me happier over the years than seeing staff members who I had hired as graduates make their way through the firm to ultimately become top shelf lawyers, whether they be in private practice or in-house, working for government or a partner.

Are you a good boss?

Having read the above, are you a good boss or do you work for a good boss? Even if you are, we can all do better. Take my word, hiring smart people, mentoring and training them while giving them the freedom to soar is not just satisfying, but profitable, aids retention and it makes your life easier!

What do you think makes a good or bad boss? Please comment below.

Malcolm McBratney



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