What Did You Learn From The Best Boss You Ever Had?

Stop yelling at your team is the first (albeit indirect) advice given to bosses by Deborah Mills-Scofield.

Ms. Mills-Scofield is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early stage venture capital firm in Cleveland, OH, and an innovation and strategy consultant. This week, she writes for the Harvard Business Review Blog about “Four Lessons From the Best Bosses I Ever Had.”

Her article focuses on her time at AT&T Bell Labs, where her patent remains one of the highest-revenue generating patents ever for AT&T & Lucent.

There, her first boss had a habit of yelling. It’s amazing to find that across many industries—business, R&D, and law—supervisors are still prone to yelling. “Still” because this style of aggressive management has been proven time and time again to be counter-productive. Yet, time and time again, practiced.

Nevertheless, Ms. Mills-Scofield lists the many opportunities provided to her by this same boss (once he ceased to yell). Among her opportunities are a few from which law firm managers could learn.

First, champion the work of your associates.

They say that those who can, do. And, those who can’t, teach. But, in reality, those who want to succeed must do both.

Leaders in business should train their subordinates both formally and informally. Establishing a mentorship program is a great start. But, mentorship is more than just showing somebody the ropes.

Mentorship involves teaching your associates how to work productively, how to take responsibility for their mistakes, when to take risks, and when to take credit.

“That first boss, the reformed yeller, provided multiple opportunities for visibility up to the president of Bell Labs, coaching me all the way. He went out on a limb to make me the first person promoted to Member of Technical Staff (MTS) without a Ph.D. or M.S., and under the age of 25,” writes Ms. Mills-Scofield.

“He gave me the freedom to design my own role and the autonomy to accomplish my goals, only ‘interfering’ to remove obstacles and create more visibility.”

So many bosses are blinded by jealousy or fear for their own career advancement, they don’t champion the hard work of subordinates. Great businesses are composed of brilliant minds and hard workers, but—most importantly—management who recognizes and develops both.

Next, throw out prescribed “vacation days.”

“While I had ‘official’ vacation days, no one ever kept tabs on them unless the number to be carried over was too large,” explains Ms. Mills-Scofield.

Management can create whatever rules and regulations regarding vacation or holiday hours that they want. Too many times, law firms find themselves touting the party line, instead of the people line.

What will make life easier on your people? Often time off is the solution needed to improve efficiency and job satisfaction—both essential to increased work product.

“My manager-mentors made it clear that I mattered not just for what I could do, but also for who I was… Boss #2, for instance, required that I take two consecutive weeks of vacation to fully relax. My assistant took care of everything and virtually banned me from checking email, even though we would still do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day—an important ritual for us no matter where I was in the world.”

This brings us to a third important lesson: maintain a close relationship with your assistant.

Don’t overlook the value of your assistant, both during and outside office hours.

Lastly, be both a lawyer and a human.

Yes, occasionally law firm managers can lose their temper or yell at associates. We are all human. But, then apologize afterward and make concerted efforts to change.

Yes, Ms. Mills-Scofield admits she had generous maternity leave and a work-from-home flexibility, but she also talks about learning from her bosses who listened to her needs as a professional and a person.

The best bosses are still fallible, which his why Ms. Mills-Scofield’s story reminds us that great leaders help their associates learn from their successes, mistakes, and not share their regrets. Stop focusing on what policy or politics say at the office. instead, start listening to your employees’ needs.

In the end, a successful law firm benefits most from its human capital—provided managers and employees act like people (and not lawyers) every once in awhile.

-WB

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