Great bosses help you achieve your goals. So, how do you find one?

by By Leslie Stevens-Huffman | July 2007

It's often said people don't leave companies - they leave bosses. The expression suggests that bad chemistry with their supervisors can cause employees to quit. But the relationship between you and your boss is more complicated than that, and in truth even a boss you adore may not be a good match for you professionally. Professional growth, raises and promotions all contribute to career satisfaction, and there's a huge correlation between successful employees and their boss's managerial skills.

Believe it or not, you have as much to say about selecting your ideal boss as your boss has to say about selecting you. Start by recognizing that the interview process should go both ways - then hone your boss-election skills.

"Having the right boss does several things for an employee. It's the difference between just putting in time and being committed," says Jim Councelman, vice president of leadership development for Development Dimensions International, a Cleveland, Ohio-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership selection and development.

"There are a variety of studies which show that employees who are putting all of their psychological and emotional energies into the job stay longer and have higher job satisfaction," he says. "Good bosses are able to engage their employees."

Decide What You Like - and Need

"Think about the good bosses and the bad bosses that you've had," prompts Bob Selden, an international organizational consultant and author. "What was it about each situation and each boss that made it good or made it bad?"

To start, develop a list of attributes and managerial competencies that will bring out your best performance and engage you. You'll not only have to look in your rear-view mirror at previous bosses, but glance toward the future and your next career move. For example, if you want to take on more responsibility, you'll want a boss who'll help you grow to the next level. It's easy to say that you prefer a hands-off managerial style - no one like a boss who breathes down their neck - but if you have a tendency to become complacent, a boss who manages diligently, or will coach you to a higher competency level, might be what you need to get that raise or promotion.

Then, prioritize your list based on what you need to succeed. This will help you evaluate prospective supervisors on more than their personalities.

Turn the Tables

Two weeks into your new gig, you don't want to discover that your boss is totally disorganized and hasn't finished last year's performance reviews. To ferret out this type of intelligence, take advantage of the same interviewing techniques prospective employers are using on you. When it's your turn, ask "behavioral interviewing questions," which will help you assess your prospective boss's behavior and track record. "Candidates need to remember that it's a two-way street," says Selden. "You're selecting them as much as they're selecting you."

What's a behavioral question? "Don't just ask if your new boss will help you get promoted, ask them to describe a time when they helped someone get promoted," suggests Councelman. "Ask for specific examples of where they've done certain things or displayed certain behaviors. If they say they believe in employee development, ask to see a copy of a development plan. In assessing your new boss, behavior trumps style and friendliness, so ask for the specifics."

If you're nervous about asking such questions, try framing your requests in a positive way. For example, say something like, "I really want to work here a long time and be successful in my position, so I want to know what you'll expect of me. Do you have a copy of the performance plan for this position that I can review?"

Seldon has another example: "During the interview, when the boss asks if you have any questions, say that you're keen on the job and that you always strive to be a good employee. Given that, what does he think characterizes a good employee?"

Asking how your prospective boss defines a good and bad employee will provide insight into whether you'll be a good match for his expectations. You can also find out more about his track record by asking to spend time with other employees he's managing and reading blogs written by his direct reports.

In addition, Selden says you should closely observe your prospective boss's reaction to questions. They should answer enthusiastically. A good boss will demonstrate pride in his managerial achievements.

If during the interview, the boss does all the talking and never gives you a chance to ask questions, or if he doesn't recognize that your comfort level with the match is just as important as his, that's a red flag.

"The interviewing process is not generally set-up as a two-way street," says Councelman. "So as a candidate you need to make it that way. If the company doesn't see the value in both parties being satisfied with the match, you need to go work somewhere else."

Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif. who has more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.