Who’s the Boss?

Last week I participated in a discussion with a varied group of professionals that gather weekly for discussions on interesting or pressing business subjects. The topic was about CEOs: what are the top three characteristics of a good CEO? Needless to say, we came up with many more than three; my observation being that are too many companies with top executives who thought their title was Chief EGO!

One of the characteristics that most agreed on was that the CEO had to know both how to choose good people to work for them and how to delegate work to those people. Hiring good people is not easy to do, but not always for the reasons we think. One participant noted that there are many good people waiting to be hired, but CEO’s were not good at hiring them. His comment reminded me of an occasion, quite a while ago, when I needed to hire two really good people, and both positions were filled with my former bosses! Here is how it happened.

I had been working at a software company in Montreal during an economic downturn in Canada. The COO had sent out a memo that the company needed to decrease the number of employees, but that it would be done through attrition for the most part. Of course, two weeks later my manager and I were called into the Director’s office and received our pink slips together!

My manager and I went in different directions, and in a few months she was hired by another company. She introduced me to one of her colleagues, and after a few weeks of discussions, he hired me to work at the new company. Unfortunately, before I ever started, he was given notice, as was my former manager. I did not even get a chance to start the job.

About six months after this, I went to work for a major Canadian IT consulting company, a subdivision of one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world at the time. I was part of the new “Y2K” division of the company. We had many clients to service and needed to ramp up quickly. During the subsequent 18 months, our business unit was to grow from 16 to 175 employees. As a member of the management team, I needed help and I needed it fast.

I thought back to my two former managers, one of whom I had not even had a chance to work for. I respected them both as very competent in our field as well as excellent managers. As chance would have it they were both still in transition at the time and I was able to hire them! With two great people to help lead my business group, we began to rock and roll as we ramped up. Within 12 months, both of my hires were promoted to senior management positions and one eventually became the Managing Director of the business unit.

This is an amusing story, you are probably asking now, but what is the relevance to the opening discussion of this post? The answer is easy: if you want to be successful hire the best people that you can find. You will find the best people when you try to hire someone who can potentially take your place. Chance affected the circumstances that allowed me to hire two former managers, but if I had not been willing to take the chance that one or both of them could supersede me, then my group within the business unit would not have been as successful as it was.

I also recognized that I would gain from my former manager’s wisdom and experience, and become a better manager myself. And, as a final note to all of you executives, directors and managers: when you have good people working for you, keep the relationship going when they leave your employ: you just never know when you might be looking!

7 thoughts on “Who’s the Boss?

  1. Great Story Kevin! My history has been somewhat similar to the situation you describe in your blog post and I must be honest, it is a great lesson that I learned early in my career.

    It seems that the key to successful leadership is not necessarily the mundane details of day to day operations, but more so the people and resources that they choose to be surrounded by. My first ‘ah ha’ moment was when I was working on a large scale project and was forced to make a decision on a critical component of the project. The lesson I gained was that my resources, be it a person, system, or combination there of, provided me with the data I needed to make a sound business call. The article you post discusses this very thing and I think it is important for any long term manager to understand; otherwise the details will force the leader to burn out and be far less effective.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom!

    – Tim Kamer

    • Kevin R Callahan


      Thanks for your post. Part of a leaders role is to be able to use their resources well. The best managers don’t know everything; they know how to get the best from their people!



  2. Hello Kevin,

    I fully agree with your statements.

    I would add that the CEO can be the boss, but the customer is king.

    For me, one of the characteristics of a good CEO is that he does not only surround him/herself with people who can supersede him/her. He also has to listen to his/her customers. In many cases this means that the piramide needs to be reversed, meaning that the customer front line people become much more important than one might think.

    Best regards,

    • Kevin R Callahan


      A very good point. the worst thing a CEO can do is isolate themselves, not only from their own staff but from their customers as well.



  3. Kevin,

    We’ve good examples of great leaders surrounding themselves with good people. But the truth is all people are better when they are led well. Muhammad Yunus understood that people come up to, or down to, the level set for them by their leaders. He wrote, “One cannot but wonder how an environment can make people despair and sit idle and then, by changing the conditions, one can transform the same people into matchless performers.”

    Another great example is the transformation of the NUMMI workforce from being an unredeemable group of drunk, lazy, disgruntled, sloppy workers under GM to being the best, most innovative workforce in the US under Toyota — using the same people.

    There’s a big difference between managers and leaders. Managers try to get the most out of their employees. Leaders give their colleagues the opportunity to be their best.

    I talk about this in my upcoming book “Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal” (A bold faced self promotion: it’s already available as an audio book at a prepublication discount at http://www.payloadz.com/go?id=1171016 ). Leadership determines whether or not a company can continue to create competitive advantage by solving customer problems. The principal leadership job is to create an environment where people’s work helps them define to themselves who they are.

  4. Lucky me that I found this blog of yours. I’ll be a continuous visitor for sure!!!

  5. Indeed a very interesting writing and experience of yours. There are plenty of people who can do their assignments and run the responsibilities, but very little number of people can do a good job assigning/dividing the tasks and placing the right people on right position. Good bosses are difficult to find!

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