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From good boss to great

Saskatchewan farm advisor and HR specialist Marianne Hawkins offers practical tips on making the transition

We’ve all heard the adage “people quit bosses, not jobs.” Maybe you have quit a boss yourself. If so, you’ll remember why. Perhaps they were always complaining, or maybe they played favourites, or they treated you as if they thought you were always trying to cheat them.

Maybe, too, they would never admit their own mistakes, or look to blame others. Most of us have seen that before. Or their expectations might have always been unclear, i.e. you’d get a job done and then they’d say that it wasn’t done the way they wanted it done at all. Grrrr… every day you felt like you were just being set up to fail.

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Working for a bad boss can feel like pole vaulting blindfolded. You have no idea where the bar is. But it happens so often. Even if few bosses get away with being outright mean anymore, you can still find lots who are rude, verging on abusive.

That’s the bad boss. Now for the good.

If you’ve had a really good boss, you’ll know why you liked working for them, and why you got more done than you ever did with the bad boss.

A great boss has an open door, and an open ear to ideas and suggestions from employees. They provide clear and consistent feedback that motivates workers to do their best work. And when that best work gets done, they notice it, and say it out loud. They know how to say “thank you.”

Marianne Hawkins, a chartered professional in human resources and a certified farm advisor with Canadian Association of Farm Advisors (CAFA), is regularly asked how to become a better boss. Her clients are passionate about their farms, companies, organizations and communities, and she provides them with business, HR and IT advice as well as training, research and project management services.

The first rule

First and foremost, great bosses share specific and consistent characteristics in how they interact with others, says Hawkins, who has a management consulting practice, Plain View Consulting, based in Swift Current.

Good bosses can be counted on to be calm and keep their cool, she says.

Marianne Hawkins.
photo: Supplied

“I’d describe them as being empathetic, even-keeled, present, level headed,” Hawkins says. “They don’t get overly excited, they’re confident in themselves, and they have faith in others.”

There’s even a term for the kind of workplace that this consistency fosters. It’s “a psychologically safe environment.”

This is a work environment where everything doesn’t have to start with trying to figure out what mood the boss is in, so workers feel safe and confident about asking questions or making suggestions. They don’t have to be afraid of negative consequences or having to guess how the boss may react.

“They are able to come to work and feel they’re part of a great team, one where, as the worker, they can share their suggestions or ideas or mistakes,” Hawkins says.

Feedback

A great boss also recognizes the value of feedback to employees. These bosses don’t let time lag before delivering it, and they deliver it in a genuine, sincere and informed way.

“Poor feedback is really dangerous for employee relations,” Hawkins says, adding that a good boss understands it’s important to listen and first really understand, not merely pronounce upon something.

“If you don’t do the listening, you are just acting as the judge” she says.

Also, don’t save feedback and encouragement for a rainy day, Hawkins stresses. “Feedback is so effective when it’s given in the moment, or in a timely manner, like end of work day or at end of work week.”

Set an example

Great bosses also set an example, and they lay down the expectations for how they want the job done by how they do their own work. In other words, they’re passionate and driven, but not to the point where they’re setting unrealistic standards for employees.

That’s so important in a farm work environment where long hours and risks in the workplace can create stressful and dangerous working conditions, notes Hawkins. It means a good boss will not only set the pace, but remain vigilant about what’s going on with everyone else in the workplace, being watchful for any changes in worker behaviour, such as fatigue or personal distraction.

An excellent communicator

Hawkins says she sees two key essentials to being a great boss. One is being a very effective communicator.

“In my opinion, the most effective manager and leader of people is basically someone who is a good communicator,” she says. “They have very strong interpersonal skills.”

Secondly, it’s important to recognize that while a great farm boss is a blend of both manager and leader, there’s a distinction to be drawn between those roles, and the great farm boss recognizes the right time to assume more of one role or the other, says Hawkins.

Being the manager is about daily decision-making and guiding workers through immediate tasks at hand, troubleshooting and problem-solving, and managing the daily to-do’s.

“A manager is going to be more tactical. They’re thinking short term, about controlling the daily activities,” she says, adding you’re in the manager’s role when doing things like texting employees about the job tasks, and explaining what needs to be done next.

In the leader’s role, you are thinking more strategically, Hawkins says. That’s when you’re doing longer-term planning, and sharing your vision, and encouraging employees to make it happen.

Learning how best to communicate with employees means knowing when to be a manager and when to be a leader.

“When it’s not high-stress season, that’s the time for a farm leader to wear the leader and visionary hat,” she says. That’s the time when meetings are happening, training videos and manuals come out, there are reviews of operating procedures and protocols, and the floor is open for employees to talk and brainstorm about what they feel they need, or like or dislike in the workplace.

And again, that’s when a great boss is listening to what their team wants to contribute.

Show employees they matter

As Hawkins also points out, one of the most fundamental needs of employees is knowing their contribution is important, and that they’re valued as people too.

“I think what a good farm boss does is let the employees know they do matter beyond the actual farm or workplace,” says Hawkins. “They do that, I think, by building rapport. They listen regularly, daily. Maybe they make a note of personal employee information like the names of their immediate family members, pets, hobbies, or key dates, like tracking birthdays, anniversaries, holidays.

“It’s about being genuinely interested in getting to know the worker better.”

Hawkins adds that going the extra mile on that front is flipping the concept of an exit interview and having the “stay interview,” too. “In addition to having an annual performance review system, consider having an ongoing feedback system,” she says. “At the end of each season, or special assignment or task, you have a way to listen and talk with the employee.”

Engage with employees

Great bosses are those who consistently demonstrate that they are genuinely engaged when interacting with their team.

One of the very simple tips Hawkins offers when coaching clients who want to get better at engaging with their employees is just to smile more often.

“It might not be in your nature to smile,” says Hawkins. “But it’s an easy thing to do.”

Another is to maintain eye contact with employees when speaking with them. Eye contact signals you’re listening and not otherwise preoccupied, she says.

As Hawkins says, “It’s really tough to be distracted if you’re looking that person in the eye.”

You make the connection, and you transfer respect. Instantly, she says, you’re on your way to becoming the kind of boss you keep a job for.

Further reading

What should a good boss read?

First, Hawkins turns to Dale Carnegie’s timeless classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. E-books and other resources for developing the skills for improving confidence and communication are available at dalecarnegie.com.

She also recommends checking out free online resources of “Darren Daily,” delivered by Darren Hardy, world-renowned author and American productivity and leadership specialist.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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