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Some Assembly Required: The Role of Company Culture in Building Best Bosses

by Richard McGourty on

It has been said that people don’t quit their jobs; they quit their bosses.  Therefore, all you need for 100% retention is to be a great boss – right?

It’s not that simple, of course, but a colleague here at Vantage, Duncan Ferguson, has developed what he calls The Best Boss Project. His findings make a compelling case that any business is well-advised to invest in selecting and developing excellent bosses.

He interviewed people who shared what a difference it made to their careers to have a great boss – especially early on. They often spoke with great feeling about how that one leader made a lasting impact – for example, a CHRO who recalled a time when a prior boss asked him to give an important presentation early in his career. He was reluctant, but his boss encouraged him. The CHRO said, “He trusted me and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him and ask, ‘What would Bill do?’” Obviously, quite a bit of time has passed since that presentation, but the man spoke as if it occurred yesterday. As the Best Boss project unfolded, this pattern surfaced again and again: people are profoundly affected by an outstanding boss, and the memories stay with them for a long time.

The tendency is to exalt the personality of those people who are cited as “best bosses”.  That’s certainly an important factor, but there’s more to it than that. A recent article by Hayley Benham-Archdeacon broadens our understanding of the “best boss impact,” revealing how the managers at Trader Joe’s are largely responsible for getting the company voted one of Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” by employees.

A Fair Division of Labor Leads to a “We Are All in This Together” Culture

Trader Joe’s has a surprising organizational structure at the store level. The store manager is the “Captain,” and below him/her are eight to twelve “Mates” (middle managers); their direct reports are the “Crew.” In many organizations, those with seniority would settle into the more desirable shifts and avoid the least attractive tasks. Not so at Trader Joe’s. As Benham-Archdeacon puts it: “Tasks are rotated… [so] no one [middle manager] is stuck with taking in the frozen truck at 4 a.m. every single morning, or closing out our computers every night until midnight.” The division of labor creates a “we are all in this together” atmosphere, and encourages everyone to think in terms of “the store” and not just their section or job.

Autonomy for the Crew

The Mates encourage the crew to take ownership of their work. They are given creative reign over how to display the goods, signage and whatever else is needed. The fact that each Trader Joe’s has eight to twelve Mates, more than other grocers would see as necessary, enables the Mates to delegate knowing that someone will be available if needed.

Rules That Promote Work-Life Balance

Workplaces which allow employees to give their paid time off to a co-worker in need create not only a humane culture, but one beneficial to the bottom line. Trader Joe’s does this, cultivating a culture of reciprocity and an attitude of, “We’ve got one another’s backs.” The Mates are also known for being flexible in scheduling crew members who are up against life issues – for example, crunch time at school or the disruption that comes with an illness in the family.

So, while Trader Joe’s gets high marks for selecting and developing a cadre of extraordinary managers, they also deserve credit for making it possible for these men and women to be great bosses by having a flexible structure and sensible policies. The company provides a compelling example – and they’re not the only ones. When it comes to leadership, there’s a need for “both-and” thinking– both the selection/development of great individuals and putting in place the structures and policies which help them advance the business, grow as leaders, and support those who report to them.

In addition to hiring and developing great leaders, what workplace practices can you adopt to release “Best Boss” potential?

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