Leadership lessons: how to be a good boss

NatWest Business Builder: Self Awareness
Faye Watts, business consultant and founder at FUSE Accountants.
Faye Watts, business consultant and founder at FUSE Accountants.

There’s truth to the maxim that people leave managers, not businesses. So how do you become the kind of leader people want to work for?

As an SME founder, you may find yourself managing a growing team without having had adequate preparation in the art of leadership. Your management style will affect company performance, yet, like many leaders, you may feel uncertain as to how to get the best out of your staff.

“When I started my business nearly 10 years ago I didn’t intend to be a boss nor appreciate the importance of good leadership,” says Faye Watts, business consultant and founder at FUSE Accountants. “I now have a team of 10, and leadership has become the core focus of my role. Going from employer to leader takes soft skills training, an understanding of people, and the realisation that your people feed off you, so every action you take is being witnessed by your team.”

Your leadership skills can have a dramatic impact on your ability to retain staff. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 75% of workers who voluntarily left their job did so because of their boss or immediate line manager. So how can you get it right? Here are some golden rules.

1. Be flexible

Paula Hutchings, owner/director at Marketing Vision Consultancy, learned first-hand the damage an inflexible boss can do to a workforce.

“After maternity leave, I was offered a full-time-or-nothing option on returning to work with zero flexibility or room for negotiation. So I chose to leave,” she says.

“One of the biggest mistakes a boss can make is not listening properly to the reasons why an employee has decided to leave the organisation and/or not taking the time to see if small changes may result in the employee deciding to stay.”

Inflexibility can also manifest as a rigid approach to working style, says Ricky Muddimer, co-founder and director of business consultancy Thinking Focus.

“If you work for someone with a fixed mindset, it can be infuriating: they’re inflexible, prescriptive in the way you should approach a task, or not open to the opinions of others. It shows a lack of trust in your people,” he says.

The management solution

Try to adopt a more flexible approach to working styles and structures. “Being a good boss means finding the right balance between what’s important to you or the company, and what’s in it for the employees personally,” says Muddimer. “You can’t expect your employees to have the same priorities as you, but the more flexible and open you are to their way of working and how they use their skills, the more they will buy into your plans and priorities.”

2. Stay tuned to your staff

Along with flexibility comes the ability to listen to your team and take their opinions on board. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about being a good boss is to consider everything from all perspectives, not just mine, and to listen and encourage,” says Katherine Caswell, chief commercial officer at sales promotion consultancy Opia.

It’s a similar story for London-based property developer Nicole Bremner, founder of East Eight and London Central Developments. She now manages a team of five staff at East Eight, and places listening at the heart of her role.

“We all have personal issues in our lives we need to deal with, and part of being a good boss is ensuring we remain empathetic to those personal issues while still remaining firm on policies in place,” she says.

“Being a good boss means finding the right balance between what’s important to you or the company, and what’s in it for the employees personally”
Ricky Muddimer, co-founder and director, Thinking Focus

She adds that managers need to be willing to act on what they hear, and to allow staff roles to evolve and develop in line with their needs.

“Beware of keeping a person in a role long term because that’s the role you need them to fulfil,” she says.

The management solution

Keith Bevan, sales and marketing director of business services provider Suresite, which employs 49 people in Preston, Lancashire, says small business leaders should talk with every member of their team on a daily basis to understand their workload and deadlines and any potential barriers to achieving them.

“It also really helps if the leader is privy to information about any external pressures and stresses that could impact on the employee’s ability to perform,” he says.

If checking in daily is impractical, aim to create regular opportunities for discussion and feedback, suggests Watts. “We do two reviews per year and give the team an opportunity to tell us how they would run FUSE or whether they would do anything differently to get them thinking about the client needs and those of the business as a whole.”

3. Learn to let go

As your business grows, you’ll have to trust your team to take on some of the tasks you initially carried out yourself. Failure to do so can make staff feel undervalued and frustrated.

“Micro-managing is never advised,” says Bremmer. “I’d rather my team make mistakes or get stuck and then ask for help, than to ask me for help along the way or have me guide them through. Hopefully, they’ll come up with a better way or system than I’ve even thought of.”

The management solution

With a mixture of support, trust and guidance, you can nurture your team so they’re able to fulfil their responsibilities in the way that works best for them.

“In my earliest days as a leader, if someone’s work was not up to standard, I’d want to redo it myself and pull all the cards in closer to my chest,” says Bevan. “As my confidence and ability developed, my strategy changed to coaching people through how they could perform a task even better next time around. I’ve also learned it’s very important that people feel they can approach you and ask for a tighter brief or greater explanation if necessary.”

Tips for becoming a great boss

Ricky Muddimer offers the following advice to help you become a better leader.

  • Understand how the people working for you see the world It will be different from how you see the world. Inspirational leaders can communicate from other people’s perspectives.
  • Have a growth mindset This sees the world as abundant, with growth and success created through effort and learning.
  • Provide structure and clarity Ensure people understand what’s expected of them and by when.
  • Connect your people to your purpose At an organisational, departmental or team level, establish what’s the ‘ding’ you’re trying to make in your universe and communicate it clearly and regularly to your people.
  • Help people to get out of their own way and believe in themselves We all need someone in our corner rooting for us and this is the role of a good boss.

Further Reading


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