It used to be said that children should be seen and not heard. The only justification for a decision that a parent ever had to offer was, “Because I said so!” This authoritarianism carried into schoolrooms and workplaces, where teachers and managers simply replaced parents as the people whose word was law. But attitudes have changed and these days, if there is anything that sets me off, it is when someone says, “OK, fine. You are the boss.” Because in most instances what that person really means is, “OK, then. I don’t agree with you, but I’ll do it because you’re telling me to. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be the first to remind everyone that it wasn’t my idea.”
In today’s business world, kowtowing to one’s boss is anachronistic. And, conversely, being bossy is not a desirable attribute in a manager or anyone else. Fortunately, attitudes have changed in both the home and the workplace. Healthy debate was a way of life in our household. Though my mother usually had the last word (and still does), my sisters and I were encouraged to express our thoughts on just about everything. School was a different story, however. My dyslexia and rebelliousness meant that I was destined to be my own boss. Or, as the headmaster at Stowe School put it when I dropped out as a teenager, “Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.”
As it turned out, from that day on I have always been lucky enough to be my own boss and ended up behind bars just once, but very briefly! Latin was never my favourite subject at school – in fact, I don’t think I had a favourite subject, aside from sports – but one word in Latin class that registered with me was the verb educere. I remember being greatly surprised to learn that the root of the word education actually means to lead forth. Until that moment, I had thought of education as mere cramming in. And while a bad school teacher, like a bad boss, will indeed teach or manage by cramming his opinions into his charges, a good teacher or corporate leader will do the opposite and draw opinions and ideas out of his students or associates.
If you are noticing that you and your managers are finding yourselves, despite your best efforts, in the position of giving orders rather than listening for your employees’ decisions, first take a close look at how your office space is laid out. Much of that traditional management structure starts with the actual bricks-and-mortar plan of most office buildings, which reinforces it from the corner office on the top floor all the way down to the darker spaces afforded ‘lower level’ employees on the ground floor or in a windowless basement.
Such hierarchical floor plans are often absent at forward-thinking workplaces. We did not build a glass-and-concrete world headquarters for the Virgin Group. I have spent my career working from just three places: houseboat, home and hammock. Our companies are all located in buildings that are individually tailored to their needs, while the address of the closest thing we have to a head office says it all: “The Old Schoolhouse” is anything but a corporate cathedral.
From our company’s earliest days, when we set out beanbag chairs at our record store, inviting customers to listen to music and chat with our staff rather than trying to sell them something quickly and move them out the door, I have long been a fan of open-plan offices. Most should have lots of communal brainstorming spaces, lounges and kitchen areas where co-workers can naturally come together to talk things over. Office walls, doors, desks and counters are barriers to communication.
And now take a look at yourself: a leader is very different from a boss. Many CEOs are bosses, not leaders, directing their employees from well behind the front lines. But sitting in the boardroom listening to even the most comprehensive reports from the front can never compare with your being there and seeing, hearing and understanding those interactions with your customers for yourself. If you aren’t frequently out there leading the charge with your employees, you simply cannot stay in touch with the realities of your business.
So the next time someone says to you, “OK, you’re the boss” as they head for the door, stop them in their tracks. Say: “Not really – we’re all in this together. So come back here and tell me what you’d be doing with this if you were in my place?” Better still, next time go visit that person in his workspace, put in a shift or some hours beside him, and seek out his opinion on how things are going. Good examples are contagious, and so is real leadership.
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies.
He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog.
You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson.
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