Great Teammate vs. Great Boss

Seize your moment as a new manager | Photo by Aha!

August 12, 2022

Great Teammate vs. Great Boss

by Brian de Haaff

Let's talk about bad bosses. No matter what stage you are in your career, you have likely racked up at least one negative experience with a manager. Egotistical, quick to blame, micromanaging, a foul temper — each type of lousy boss is unpleasant in their own way. But flip it around and think about the best boss you ever had.

Exceptional leaders who are morally sound share a fundamental trait: integrity. When your words match your actions and you demonstrate fairness and consistency, people know they can deeply trust you.

Great bosses are honest and humble. You navigate a variety of perspectives and priorities, honoring the needs of the team and business above all.

There is not one obvious path to becoming a superb boss. In most cases, strong individual contributors who perform at a high level over time transition well into a lead role. After all, the best teammates and bosses are not so different from each other — both focus on the success of the team and make everyone around them better.

But leadership is a learned skill. It can take time to develop the additional competencies that are needed to flourish as a manager — strategic thinking, decisiveness, and interpersonal skills to name a few. Most people want to help others succeed but may not have had great leadership modeled for them.

Truly excelling as a manager requires shifting your focus outward — prioritizing and celebrating the team's collective wins as your own.

As you progress in your career, success is less about personal achievement and more about how you support those around you to achieve. It is worth noting that you do not need to lead a team to experience this. At Aha! we have advanced roles for folks who do not manage anyone directly but serve as technical leaders and mentors. And for those who do want to grow into a people manager role, we promote from within whenever possible — so team leads know firsthand how to do the work they are overseeing.

I believe most star teammates can easily transition into a leadership role if they focus on gaining some key skills. I asked some of the highest performers I know — members of the Aha! team — to share their thoughts on what some of those skills are. Responses came from a mix of team leads and individual contributors across different functional groups, from product management and engineering to marketing and Product Success.

Here are the highlights from what the team shared:

Proceed purposefully

"Navigating team dynamics and solving complex problems is tough. This is true whether you are joining a new company as a leader or you are recently promoted and now overseeing a group of your former peers. My advice? Go slow before you go fast. Take time to understand what each person does and how the team works together to deliver value. Then identify how to engage the team's collective skills so you can best support team and individual wins." — Deb Gay, Product Success

Forget knowledge

"You already have deep technical skills and extensive subject matter expertise. But the smartest managers are constantly learning from their direct reports — a new coding framework, a process improvement, or a novel way of thinking about an old problem. Set aside your existing knowledge from time to time so you can be open to fully absorbing new learnings from your team." — Jonathan Steel, Engineering

Empathize selectively

"Sensitivity and compassion are valuable traits for any boss. But internalizing people's personal struggles or drama will zap your energy and distract you from the team's goals. Get to know people on a personal level, but maintain focus on productivity and performance. This requires some emotional distance so you can evaluate a team member's contributions objectively. Then you can better decide when to offer extra kindness and when to reiterate expectations for the role." — Molly Hinrichs, Marketing

Protect fiercely

"The best managers advocate for their team — carefully weighing each person's workload and capacity against the value you are working to deliver to customers. For example, my team lead is always mindful of the effort that goes into releasing new functionality every week. Whenever possible, he rearranges the schedule or pulls in extra teammates to help. Since no single product manager is typically responsible for consecutive weeks of launches, we all feel galvanized to do our strongest work." — Chrissi Bernardo, Product Management

Praise more

"I would encourage all managers to give extensive feedback — including positive feedback. It costs nothing to tell someone they did a great job, but it has an outsized impact on morale. My team lead at Aha! makes a conscious effort to share meaningful praise regularly, which motivates me and my peers to continue learning and growing. Positive words shared often are an important way to celebrate teamwork." — Will Lawrence, Engineering

Here is a simple test: do you feel real joy when the people you manage achieve success? If yes, then you are on your way to becoming a truly excellent boss.

Take a few moments each day to consider the needs of the team and how you can help them. This is the crux of what makes a great teammate and a great boss — you focus on the success of the people around you. Practicing small acts of service is a simple way to empower the team to shine. After all, their success and happiness are yours too.

Our team is happy, productive, and hiring — join us!

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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