Thursday, March 17, 2011

What do you want in a boss?

Oh, and did you spot that compound correctly on the TLC?
Those big spots can really smear, you know.
Photo credit: The Collared Sheep
Via the New York Times, I read recently about Google and their initiative to ask their employees what they want in a boss. Using data mining (hey, it's Google), they came up with 8 important things, in order from most important to least important:
  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower your team and don't micromanage.
  3. Express interest in team members' success and personal well-being.
  4. Be productive and results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team.
  6. Help your employees with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team.
While I can't help but really like this list, I find it fascinating how (relatively) unimportant it is for the group leader/manager to be a technical adviser. I'm not quite sure how that works, but it's worth pointing out that Google has a reputation for hiring highly intelligent and skilled people (or, at least, they used to.) Here's their comments about the technical competence issue:
For much of its 13-year history, particularly the early years, Google has taken a pretty simple approach to management: Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff. If they become stuck, they’ll ask their bosses, whose deep technical expertise propelled them into management in the first place.

But Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”
I really don't know how to process this; in the academic world, the professor (the boss) is usually the smartest and/or most knowledgeable person in the room. But again, the distribution of experience and talent is going to be a lot different at Google than it going to be in a typical academic chemistry group. (I suspect that the distribution of medicinal and/or process chemistry knowledge in an industrial setting is a lot closer to Google's distribution than an academic groups.)

I think Mr. Bock sells it short when tends to imply that the manager doesn't have to have the same level of technical knowledge as his subordinates. That sort of imbalance seems dangerous somehow, and I can't quite put my finger on it.

While I think that these skills are going to be difficult to grow in people (you either have skills #2, #3, #4, #5 and #7 or you don't), I certainly agree that they're very important. (Presumably, you can learn to develop your people's careers.) It will be interesting to see if anything comes out of this initiative by Google.


  1. My old boss fails at all of those - little wonder that
    1. all but one leavers (myself included) from the chemistry department used to work for him....
    2. his group has produced nothing of value over the past six years

  2. From the upper-management side I would think that they would want the managers to be good quality control. Hence promoting the technically efficient. This can give workers confidence too. Though, I bet they rarely think about it.

    From an academic perspective ... I have observed many advisors (luckily none of them were my advisors) who are sorely lacking in 1 thru 8. Its just something that we don't prepare/get prepared for

  3. I agree with that list. Where I work, the technical managers are generally skilled scientists but have been in management a long time and aren't as current on the field. I don't think technical skills are as important as people skills. A very technical boss tends to be more of an "in the weeds" boss and will tend to guide the team towards his/her vision instead of letting the researchers lead.

  4. In my experience, most academic advisors do not fit in that list above.

  5. I agree with the list based on two key points listed later: "helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers" and "whose deep technical expertise propelled them into management".

    If the manager has enough technical expertise to ask the key questions and not dictate the answer, then the group will move forward, creatively, and with group-think in check. If the answers and direction are dictated by the expert then it's into the weeds as Unstable Isotope points out. If the non-expert can't ask the key questions, picks on only the few inane points they understand, or just can't really grasp what is going on, then you're in Dilbert world.

  6. I think it must be very difficult to be a highly skilled technical boss and be hands off. It must be deeply frustrating to watch if the teams goes in a direction you don't necessarily agree with. A good manager knows when they're going off the rails versus just a different direction.

    As far as the difference between academic advisors and technical managers. Technical managers are much more likely to have business training in management methods plus are constrained by workplace rules more than an academic advisor.

    A lot of people may think management training is B.S. but I think we all know that the skills listed above are not obvious to all people.

  7. It must be deeply frustrating to watch if the teams goes in a direction you don't necessarily agree with. A good manager knows when they're going off the rails versus just a different direction.

    Agree. Also, there has to be enough trustworthy accountability that someone remembers who made which decision and why. That's really tough to do.

  8. This list misses the fact that technical expertise is far more important on a strategic level than anything else mentioned here. This list covers more day-to-day, tactical considerations (the "99% perspiration part").
    The manager is responsible for assigning goals and projects. In chemistry, if a lack of technical expertise leads a supervisor to assign a project that is chemically impossible, no amount of employee cuddling will make that project successful.

  9. I think for managing a technical field, technical expertise is also critical for 1, 4, 5, and 7. You may not need the person with the best technical skills to be the manager, but you do need someone highly skilled or they won't be able to coach, produce results, communicate, or develop vision and strategy. The best coach isn't usually the best player, but he should have the deepest understanding of the technical aspects of the game and the ability to communicate that understanding.

  10. I think a lot of this is related to feeling comfortable enough with your boss to be able to ask those technical questions without feeling like a complete idiot. If you don't have a good rapport with your boss, you aren't going to feel comfortable. If your boss treats you like you're smart and competent and trusts you to do the job on your own, it's very empowering.

  11. anon 2:52pm,
    I've had bosses on both ends of the spectrum, extremely intimidating and extremely trusting.

    I agree. Trust is the best way to foster a good and productive scientific professional relationship.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20