What Do Bosses Do Today? Rethinking this still-essential role for a new world

By Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback

Being a great boss has always been hard. The challenge for organizations today is that it’s getting both harder and more essential at the same time. How and where will organizations find great bosses who can effectively exercise their responsibility for the performance of others?

Being a great boss has always been hard. The challenge for organizations today is that it’s getting both harder and more essential at the same time.

This is the consequence of the forces now reshaping the world: an intensely competitive global arena; constant technological innovation that presents a steady stream of golden opportunities and lethal challenges; a multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce that harbors a wide and often conflicting diversity of attitudes about authority, time, and workplace relationships; an inexorable trend toward more fluid, amorphous, and dispersed organizational structures; and weaker structural ties between enterprise and employee.

In such a difficult and complex environment, how and where will organizations find great bosses who can effectively exercise their responsibility for the performance of others?
This is a critical question because that role – responsibility for the work others do – is not going away, no matter what you call it: boss, manager, leader, or simply “person in charge.” Technology and the other forces at work are certainly changing how it’s practiced, the context in which it’s practiced, and what’s required to be effective in it. But it will remain essential.

What will attract and hold talent in this transient world is the boss rather than the organization. It will be the boss and the world she creates that will make work sticky for talented people.

Indeed, the role is growing more essential than ever. Why? Because all those forces are creating a more fluid, tenuous, ambiguous, and impermanent workplace, a setting in which relationships between enterprise and individual are largely short-term and even transactional. In such a world, how does an organization create the kind of commitment that good work requires in a diverse and transient workforce that no longer has much reason to care about the long-term success of the enterprise?

What will attract and hold talent in this world, we believe, is the boss rather than the organization. It is the boss who will provide the glue that binds worker and work. It was once said, “People go to work for a company but quit a boss.” More and more, we think, people will go to work for a boss. Certainly, in a transient world, it will be the boss and the world she creates that will make work sticky for talented people.

The need to find and develop such bosses will only grow more urgent for every organization. In developed economies, demographic shifts are shrinking the pool of employable talent. In developing economies, expanding educational and economic opportunities are lifting people’s aspirations and expectations. And everywhere, the inexorable shift to service and knowledge-based economies is truly making people, especially their ideas and judgment, the key asset. As a result, the world will see a vast seller’s market for talent. Those with skills and knowledge will have enormous freedom to choose where, how, on what, and for whom they will work. Today’s economy masks this looming problem, which will become increasingly apparent as conditions improve over the coming years. As they do, only good bosses will be able to attract, hold, and elicit the best efforts of a limited supply of good people.

Bosses perform one core task: they exert influence. Everything they do is meant to make a difference not only in what others do but also in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions.

The inadequacy of current management thinking

The rising importance of the boss will only reveal the inadequacy of traditional thinking about what it means to take responsibility for others. For decades, the world has persisted in defining this crucial function as essentially a list of activities or skills – motivating, controlling, communicating, leading, planning, coordinating, and the like. Such thinking feels old-fashioned today only because the world has focused so steadfastly in the past two or so decades on one component, leadership – fostering difficult change and guiding people through it.

But the notion of management, including leadership, as a to-do list continues today. Pick up a standard text or reference and most likely you will find a chapter devoted to each of those traditional activities. Look at most management development programs and you will see modules focused on them. We once heard a manager, as he emerged from such a program, describe his job as “a bag of tricks” that he must pull out, one by one, and use as appropriate. Such an approach clearly falls short in today’s world.

In fact, we already see in our research, teaching, and consulting the results of this approach – those in charge are struggling to cope. They’re not sure where to focus their time, attention, and effort to produce the results they need from others.

The consequences are serious:
First and foremost, too many bosses are satisfied to close the “performance gap” – the difference between what’s expected from their groups and actual performance. But they rarely go on to close the “opportunity gap” – the difference between actual performance and what they and their people are capable of achieving.

Second, organizations struggle to identify and develop promising candidates. How can they find such people when it’s not clear what will be required of them? Hence the focus by default on short-term results. Good bosses become those with the latest good results. Yet we all recognize that today’s results may not predict tomorrow’s. A great boss produces strong results over time. In today’s transient world, however, a hard-driving but destructive boss can produce results in a series of two-year assignments while leaving behind a trail of diminished commitment and morale that only time will reveal.

Finally, if bosses themselves don’t know what’s required to be great, how can they continue to develop and grow in their roles? Becoming a great boss is a long, difficult journey of personal development based on learning from experience. If they don’t know the destination of that journey and cannot assess themselves constantly along the way, how can they keep growing?

What’s needed is a more useful, integrated way of thinking about the essence of what bosses do. We propose an approach that focuses on three imperatives.


The Three Imperatives

As we’ve already said, a boss is anyone responsible for the performance of others, the one who must answer if their performance falls short.

To carry out this responsibility, bosses perform one core task: they exert influence. This is the fundamental task of leadership. Everything they do is meant to make a difference not only in what others do but also in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. Only by exerting influence can a boss make others more productive both individually and, especially, as members of a cohesive group pursuing a common purpose.

All of which leads to one simple but critical question: How does a boss influence others in today’s world, the world being reshaped by the forces just summarized? The answer we propose is the three imperatives, the three basic ways bosses influence others in this world:

1. Manage yourself

2. Manage your network

3. Manage your team

People traditionally think of the third imperative as “management,” but today all three are critical to success. Taken together, they encompass the crucial activities all effective bosses must perform to shape what others do.


Manage Yourself

Because leadership is a social activity – in essence, people relating to people – it necessarily begins with the manager as a person. What the manager thinks and feels, her skills and knowledge, the beliefs and values that drive her actions and relationships with others, all matter to the people she must influence, whether they report to her or not. These people watch closely in order to arrive at an answer to this most basic question: “Is this someone I can trust as a boss?”

By trust we mean the belief that a boss can be counted on to do the right thing. We find it useful to divide trust into two components: character (valuing and intending to do the right thing) and competence (knowing what to do and how to do it). Trust, in other words, is people’s belief in the manager’s ability and desire – both are critical. It is, we suggest, the beginning of effective management, the foundation of all influence other than coercion. Without it, nothing else a boss does will have much effect.

As obvious as this may seem, we still see many managers who try to build their relationships not on trust but around either authority – “Do what I say because I’m the boss!” – or around personal ties – “Do it because we’re friends.” Both authority and friendship are in the end problematic sources of influence. Basing influence solely or primarily on personal ties is always fraught with difficulty. Authority is more complex. It is a useful tool, at times essential, but best used sparingly and not as the primary means of influence. A focus on trust will avoid those traps.




Manage Your Network

No group or unit within an organization can succeed on its own. Each requires the support and collaboration of other groups, both inside and outside its organization. Thus, the effective boss must influence not only those who report to him but a wide array of others over whom he has no formal control.

In spite of this obvious need, it’s widely known that managers at all levels devote too little time or effort to building a web of robust ongoing relationships. Many fail to do it because they eschew “politics.” They hate the notion that “who you know is more important than what you know,” and so they don’t appreciate that both are equally important in today’s complex and amorphous organizations. They don’t understand that every organization is inherently, unavoidably, a political environment where resources of all kinds go to those with the most influence. Finally, they don’t realize that one can build a network – that is, build influence in a political environment – without “playing politics,” which is the pursuit of influence for personal or parochial goals. It is possible to create extensive relationships and operate effectively through them with honesty, integrity, and for the benefit of all involved.

For all these reasons, most managers in our experience build inadequate networks because they only work with colleagues when a need arises, typically a problem that requires joint effort to resolve. Effective managers, however, consciously and proactively build and maintain a web of ongoing relationships, a network focused on mutual advantage and comprising those they need (and who need them), now and in the future. Through these relationships, which exist beyond any immediate issue or problem, they are able to influence and be influenced by colleagues.




Manage Your Team

We use the word “team” deliberately. A team is a group of people who do collective work and are mutually committed to a common team purpose and challenging goals related to that purpose. Not all groups are teams; indeed, most are surely not. In a real team, the collective “we” trumps the “I” of each member, including the manager. In a real team, members hold themselves and each other jointly accountable. They share a genuine conviction that all will succeed or fail together.

An effective manager strives to transform his group into a team for two powerful reasons. First, for work that requires a complex mix of diverse skills, experience, and knowledge, teams are more creative and productive than groups of individuals who merely cooperate. Second – the crux of this imperative – teams create powerful bonds among members, based on people’s need to belong, and these bonds exert strong influence on members’ actions, thoughts, and feelings. Thus, a manager can influence others more effectively through the team than one-on-one with individuals. “Do it because your colleagues are counting on you” is far more compelling than “Do it because I’m the boss.”

No manager can unilaterally make a group into a team. But he can shape and guide the group to put in place those features that create a team: a compelling purpose, challenging goals based on that purpose, and clarity about how the team does its work, how members interact, and how it assesses its performance.

The value of creating a cohesive team has long been recognized, but most managers we encounter merely talk about “their team” as they persist in managing one-on-one the individuals who work for them. They ignore the management possibilities of creating a real team whose members are bound by common purpose and managing them as a whole through those bonds. Thus they miss a means of influence far more powerful than anything they can do one-on-one.

The three imperatives can be summarized this way:
Is this the only way to describe what managers must do today? No, of course not. But it’s a clear, inclusive, straightforward, and integrated approach that fits today’s work and organizations well.

The three imperatives replace the traditional list of managerial to-do’s with three core goals that define the outcomes a manager must achieve in order to influence others. The manager never has to ask, “When do I do that?” because all three can and must be incorporated or reflected in virtually everything a manager does.

The three imperatives are specific and action-based, not generic activities or abstract principles. Building and sustaining a network or transforming a group into a team are goals that suggest specific actions. Even trust-building becomes action-oriented when thought of as steps that demonstrate competence and character.

The three imperatives help bosses deal with the day-to-day chaos of management. As the work of managers becomes even more unpredictable and fragmented, they provide a simple, clear, underlying framework making choices and taking action. For every problem, for example, the manager can ask, “How can I deal with this in a way that fosters trust, helps us connect or re-connect with others, builds the team, or advances the team’s purpose, goals, and plans?

The three imperatives are about both execution and innovation, change and continuity, managing and leading. Anyone responsible for the work of others must perform both sides of these dualities well. The three imperatives provide the foundation for doing this and a way – through the purpose, goals, and plans of team-building – to identify when one or the other is needed.

Finally, the three imperatives are a framework for personal growth and a means of assessing leadership capability. Bosses master the imperatives only through a personal journey that takes time, experience, and reflection. Such growth, however, does not happen spontaneously. It requires the kind of roadmap the three imperatives provide, something that shows the destination – mastery – and provides the means of constant self-assessment along the way.

The boss’s key job now is to foster and support the forces of integration while avoiding, discouraging, or countering the forces of disintegration.

A better fit with the world today

As companies grow more fluid and less rigid in structure, as workgroups become more temporary, as authority relationships grow less clear-cut and permanent, organizations need a concept of “taking responsibility” that is equally flexible and no longer bound to rigid hierarchies or based on formal authority. Here, too, the three imperatives serve the purpose because they work equally well in hierarchies and non-hierarchies.

They apply to anyone responsible for the performance of others, anyone who must exert influence, regardless of the organizational context. They apply whether responsibility is assigned by an organization, assumed by an individual, or conferred by members of a group themselves.

Years ago, we could talk about the third imperative – Manage Your Team – as if it constituted the whole of being a boss. Those in charge were expected to work with their peers and colleagues, to be “team players,” but few considered that more than a peripheral part of the job. In today’s world, managing the context – the organization beyond one’s own group – has become an essential part of what those responsible for others must do.

As the workplace and work groups become multi-generational and cross-cultural, organizations need to think about leadership and management in ways flexible enough to apply across highly diverse work environments. The three imperatives fill this need. To our knowledge, trust is a basic requirement, the basic foundation of influence, in all cultures and for all generations. In the same way, the paramount importance of strong, ongoing relationships pursued for mutual advantage is universally acknowledged. And the desire to belong to a group pursuing a meaningful purpose is a powerful motivator across cultures and generations as well.

The role of the boss in today’s world, and the role of the three imperatives, might be summed up this way:

Every group of people, from giant corporations to temporary small teams, embodies opposing forces. Some of the forces – ego, individuality, envy, personal competition, a sense of “I” or “we” against “them” – push group members apart. These forces of disintegration mean that every group, left to its own devices, will most likely fragment and even fall apart eventually.

Other forces within the group – compelling purpose, challenging goals, the need to belong, the desire to be part of something bigger and more important than oneself – pull members together. These forces of integration enable the group to accomplish work not possible any other way.

Many of the changes now occurring in the world that we identified at the beginning tend to exacerbate the forces of disintegration or weaken the forces of integration. They tend to work against the formation and sustenance of close-knit organizations of any kind.

Thus, the boss’s key job now is to foster and support the forces of integration while avoiding, discouraging, or countering the forces of disintegration. As we said earlier, the boss creates the glue that binds workers to work and to each other. This has always been some part of the boss’s job. Now it’s the core.

And the three imperatives are aimed squarely at that core.

About the authors

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. She is the faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative and has chaired numerous HBS Executive Education programs, including the Young Presidents’ Organization Presidents’ Seminar and the High Potentials Leadership Program. She is the author, with Kent Lineback, of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader and the author of Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership (2nd Edition). Hill has authored numerous HBR articles, and organizations with which Professor Hill has worked include General Electric, Reed Elsevier, Accenture, Pfizer, IBM, MasterCard, Mitsubishi, Morgan Stanley, the National Bank of Kuwait, Areva, and The Economist.

Before becoming a bestselling business author, consultant, and speaker, Kent Lineback served many years as a manager and executive in organizations of all types – public, private, not-for-profit, and government. In these leadership roles, he piloted the rapid growth of a highly successful internal start-up, oversaw ongoing operations, and guided a mid-sized public firm through strategic change. As a business author, he has co-authored two Harvard Business Review articles and written or collaborated on 14 books, including most recently Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (Harvard Business Press 2011).



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