Paul Burri is a Santa Barbara SCORE Counselor, a serial entrepreneur and has published about 300+ business-related articles for the Noozhawk for about 6 years. This article was published in June of 2006 and is still very relevant for those considering starting their own business. 

For whom would you rather work? A strong boss or a weak one? How do you tell the difference? On the other hand, which one should you be if you own the company? 

(Note: The intent of this article is to give you some idea of how to be a better manager by looking at an example of a poor one.) 

A weak boss is one who is not certain of his position within the company. He is afraid to “break the rules.” He never takes any chances. He rarely accepts responsibility. He insists that everything performed by the people under him, be meticulously planned, reviewed (and sometimes re-reviewed) and approved by him and sometimes by his boss. A weak boss rarely makes any decisions of his own. He may allow you to make them for him but that is mainly so that if you fail, he can place the blame on you rather than on himself. A weak boss is usually a long time employee who has been with the company for many years and has reached his position simply by being there so many years. He is usually the one who has reached his level of incompetence. 

If you are unfamiliar with the phrase “level of incompetence,” it is meant to describe a situation whereby an employee has slowly risen step by step within a company until he reaches the point where any job bigger or with more responsibility than he presently has, will be beyond his capabilities. He has reached his level of competence and for anything above that, he would be incompetent. (See The Peter Principle by Laurence Peter & Raymond Hull.) 

A strong boss is one who is confident in his abilities and who is willing to allow the people under him to take chances, try new things and even to allow them to make mistakes. A strong boss will take the responsibility for the actions of his people and rightfully so. That goes with the territory of management. As a manager, you are fully responsible for the actions - the successes and the failures - of your people. 

As a strong boss, you may chastise one of your people for making a dumb mistake, or for being incompetent in some way, or for breaking a rule but you will do it privately and only after you have accepted the blame from the people above you - your boss or bosses. 

Many years ago I had the worst boss of my entire career. I’ll call him Ralph D. My title was Manufacturing Manager and Ralph was VP of Operations. I have always been what I call a we person. (I wrote about this in an earlier column but if you missed it, a we person is one who almost immediately identifies himself with his company and who uses phrases like, “We have a problem,” -or- “We had a great sales month in July.” -or- “How should we handle this situation?”) 

So, being a we person, it was only a few days after starting to work for Ralph that I began to bring him suggestions about ways to improve the operations for which I was responsible. In one case in particular, I suggested a different design for the tooling on a particular machine. The tooling had been designed by our parent company, was made by the parent company, was very expensive, would break after only a few weeks of use and on top of all that, was difficult and slow for the machine operator to use. 

Ralph told me that he’d think about my idea. 

It wasn’t too long afterward that I began to bring many more ideas to Ralph. I was excited about all the improvements I could make in my department, the largest in the company with more than half the company employees reporting to me. Most mornings I would wake up, eager to get to work to work on some of my ideas. Yes, eager to get to work. 

About thirteen months after I had started working for Ralph, he finally approved my idea for the new tooling - but only for one prototype tool. Our machine shop made the tool and it cost us about 1/4 of what we had been paying our parent company for the tool it replaced. I installed it in the machine. The first day we used it, the operator increased her production by 320%. Several months went by and we were still using the same tool whereas the original parent company tooling would have broken and been replaced at least two or three times during the same time. To sum it up, my design cost 25% of the original tooling, lasted at least twenty times longer and increased production by 320%. 

Finally Ralph gave me his approval to make the full set of tooling required. Although outwardly Ralph appeared to be a strong boss - he was gruff and unsmiling most of the time - he was the weak, take-no-chances type I described before. 

In a subsequent column, more about Ralph and how he changed me from an eager-to-get-to-work employee to one who hated every day and who quit as soon as he found another job.

© 2006 Paul Burri

Strong Boss versus Weak Boss or (How to be a Better Manager)