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Career Coach: What makes a great boss? Let me count the ways.

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We just celebrated National Boss’ Day. The idea behind the day began in 1958 when Patricia Bays Haroski, an employee at State Farm Insurance Co. in Deerfield, Ill., registered the holiday with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She designated Oct. 16 as the special day because it was her boss’ birthday (who happened to be her father). She wanted a day to show appreciation for her boss and other bosses. She was also hoping that it would be a way to improve relationships between employees and supervisors. She believed that some employees did not really understand the hard work and dedication that their supervisors put into their work and the challenges they faced. In 1962, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner backed Haroski’s registration and officially proclaimed the day. The event’s popularity has grown outside the United States and is now also observed in other countries such as Australia, India, Ireland and South Africa, among others.

People have strong opinions on what does and doesn’t make a great boss (I certainly hear those views whenever I ask the question of employees). They don’t hesitate to talk about the wonderful things their current or former bosses have done as well as the terrible things some of their bosses have done. Here are some of the most common “good characteristics” I often hear from employees about great bosses:

• They ask questions and solicit opinions from their employees (all the way from the lowest ranking employee to their direct reports).

• They act on the insights they get from employees or at least explain why they can’t.

• They are visible to their employees (rather than isolated in their office or away traveling all of the time).

• They regularly seek feedback on their leadership style to make needed adjustments, recognizing that continuous improvement is important.

• They are comfortable (and not threatened) working around people who have different talents than they have. As Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz said, “Early on I realized that I had to hire people smarter and more qualified than I was in a number of different fields, and I had to let go of a lot of decision making. I can’t tell you how hard that is. But if you’ve imprinted your values on the people around you, you can dare to trust them to make the right moves.”

• They learn something personal about their employees – their children or pets’ names, their hobbies, etc.

• They share a little of their own human side. For example, they let employees know that they are leaving to go watch their child’s soccer game or they share something about their hobbies or interests. This accomplishes several things. First, it lets employees have a way of connecting to them (“oh, we both have golden retrievers”; “I love biking too”). By also sharing how they are balancing their family and work, this also helps employees see that it is okay to have a life outside of work.

• They view their one-on-one meetings with employees as opportunities to get to really know their staff, and not just rush through those meetings to get to the next set. They ask about their employees’ hopes, dreams, and aspirations at work. As management guru, John Maxwell noted, “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.”

• They serve as a role model in terms of ethical behavior. They know that everyone watches what they do and they make sure to behave with integrity.

• They value diversity and are inclusive when soliciting ideas. They also encourage their own managers below them to do the same. If they see harassing, uncivil, or inappropriate behavior (or hear about it), they investigate it promptly to ensure that the work place is free from these behaviors. They realize that by doing nothing, they are actually condoning such wrongful behavior.

• They recognize that each employee brings unique talents to the workplace, and they try to ensure that those exceptional gifts are utilized. As Warren Bennis, a well-known leadership expert, said, “Too many companies believe people are interchangeable. Effective leaders allow great people to do the work they were born to do.”

Many of us probably allow Boss’ Day to go by without comment, but Haroski was right to get us to thank our bosses for the time and dedication they give to these stressful jobs. If you have a great boss, take the time to thank him or her. Maybe that will inspire them to keep being great leaders. If you don’t have a great boss, well, maybe you should leave them a copy of my article so they know what they need to do.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean of learning and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at