Great Boss: Explaining Things

Giving orders is often the boss’s path of least resistance.  It keeps things under their control by parceling out information to subordinates in tiny chunks such that the employee has little choice but to follow instructions exactly as they are delivered.  And it is fast – at least in the short term.

It might even be the best approach for some employees.  Earlier in the week, I wrote a post about “Business Clueless” employees, people that make no effort to understand how the business works and how their contribution fits into the overall picture.  Such an employee will likely be most effective when the boss simply issues them a stream of simple orders.  And while there seem to be an abundance of “Business Cluelessness” out there, it isn’t the best way to manage and motivate good employees.

At the other extreme is benign neglect.  The boss, too busy or uninterested in the employee’s work, simply drops a task in their laps and walks away.  It is up to the employee to do their best to sort through priorities, possible approaches, potential outcomes, and the political environment.  And if they need advice, help, or just an explanation, it is up to them to find it (and in most cases, from someone other than their overscheduled, under-empathetic boss).

My best boss steered a course between these two extremes.  He explained things to me.  We talked through what we were trying to accomplish, the rationale behind possible approaches to problems, and the political implications of potential courses of action.

His willingness to clue me in (and thus made me substantially more “Business Clued-in,”) and that was a key element in what made him great.

The bad examples

While I’ve seen bosses use the “do it like this” approach, issuing detailed directives to employees and expecting those to be followed to the letter, I’ve never personally had such a boss.  I recall observing one boss-peer who used this approach.  When I visited his office, the guy couldn’t go more than five minutes without a subordinate knocking on his door to ask for clarification or fresh instructions.

Those subordinates were afraid of making a mistake (and yes, punishment did figure highly in this boss’s management toolbox), and they need constant reassurance that they were doing it the “boss’s way” – particularly when they worried he might be doing it wrong.  For the employees, the approach was stifling, allowing them no opportunity to express their own thinking or creativity – in fact, they were only one step above being robots.

For the boss, it was also hell – at least that’s the way I interpreted his routine.  There was little time to do anything other than issue more edicts.  Needless to say, this type of management style is self-limiting.  The manager could not possibly have handled more than 6-8 people this way, thus making any further progress up the management ladder basically impossible.

I did experience plenty of the “benign neglect” style of manager.  One of these was a boss from back when I was a mere coop student.  On my first day working for him, he handed me some steel parts, a set of calipers, and then set me off in a room by myself telling me to “make a drawing of this.”  And then he made himself scarce.

I interpreted this as some kind of test and in the absence of any other information I set about making blueprint quality drawings.  My boss expressed surprise at the amount of time it took for me to complete the task two days later when I handed him the finished product.  Apparently, he would have been happy with dimensioned sketches.

Of course, he really didn’t care – it was my time that was wasted, after all, which was something he didn’t particularly value.

The absence of issuing orders to subordinates is a far cry from explaining things.  I’ve had a number of bosses over the years that allowed flexibility in how I accomplished a task, but didn’t bother explaining why it was set in front of me or its significance to the bigger picture.  Inevitably, this led to misapplication of effort and an employee who felt vaguely betrayed when it came to light that he missed the mark.

In one of these positions I had responsibility for technical sales, serving an international customer.  My boss never offered any explanation of the customer’s significance to the company, what we were trying to accomplish, or what the strategy was being employed to achieve the intended end result.  I filled in the blanks, myself, making plenty of errors along the way.  While this wasn’t as detrimental as issuing orders, it certainly led to frustration, wasted effort, and plenty of miscues.

In one particular instance, I set to work on the redesign of a competitor’s product (the customer had complained about this particular item).  My thought was that if I could improve the product, we could potentially capture that business.  What I didn’t understand was that there would be no tooling money available to make the switch, no matter how much my work improved the product’s performance.

I wasted many hours developing a derivative design that ultimately ended up being put in the hands of our biggest competitor!

A little explanation and guidance would have saved me from making that mistake.

My Great Boss

In contrast to issuing orders or exhibiting benign neglect, my great boss was involved but not directive.  This was a touch that was undoubtedly challenging to achieve – offering advice, insight, rationale, but still leaving me room to develop my own approach.  Most of the time he was able to get this complex equation just right, allowing me to do some of my most effective work and achieving more than I ever had while enjoying my job immensely.

One specific example was an acquisition we worked together.  My great boss and I had many, lengthy conversations concerning the advantages and disadvantages of making the purchase (we called them “Synergies” and “Anergies,” and both of these terms will eventually make their way onto the front cover of one of my Corporate Thrillers.)  He gave me a free hand in approaching the analysis of the deal and in conducting the negotiations – freedom which I appreciated – but was still available when I had questions or became stuck.  I learned more from that project than in the dozen or more acquisitions I completed later in my career.

One thing that was different in this relationship – I was able to go to my great boss without any fear of negative consequences.  He would talk through issues, concerns, or even entertain my stupid ideas, without offering direct criticism or consequence.  With other bosses, there was often a price to pay when asking their advice – you sometimes looked dumb and often dropped in standing in their eyes.

As a result of this open and frank communication channel, I was able learn many of my most valuable management lessons.  I remember one occasion when my great boss asked me to help put together a presentation, he offered me this simple insight “…in every presentation I make, I like to provide at least one new insight, conclusion, or piece of data.  That’s how your superiors know you have something of value to offer.”  That little observation helped improve every major presentation I gave afterward.

A picture of the real Ethiopia, with St Gyorgis Church behind some of the Spears clan.  This church is one of several in the city of Lilibela, and a World Heritage Site.

A picture of the real Ethiopia, with St Gyorgis Church behind some of the Spears clan.  This church is one of several in the city of Lilibela, and a World Heritage Site.

There were dozens of these “ah-ha” moments.  My great boss effectively passed along a career’s worth of hard-won knowledge in these interactions.  Explaining things to me as he did resulted in him having the most significant impact on my managerial development and my career by an order of magnitude compared any other boss.

In the instances when I’ve been able to employ the same strategy, I’ve also experienced “ah-ha’s.”  These have come when a subordinate comes up with a novel and better way of doing something than what I had, myself envisioned.  In those instances, I thank my lucky stars that I managed to only suggested ideas rather than issue orders.


When your boss is willing to explain but not direct, she is offering you a gift – the gift of her years of experience, broader perspective, and keen insight.  Such assistance shows respect for your value as an employee, and demonstrates that your boss places importance on your education, development, and contribution.

A boss that doesn’t explain the work environment, motivations, politics, objectives or anything else that impacts your ability to perform, cannot truly be called “great.”

Posts in the Greatest Boss Series (in Chronological Order):

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To the left is the audiobook cover for INCENTIVIZE.  This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.