Want to be a better leader? Copy these qualities, habits, and plain-old good policies that top managers live by.

By Kathleen M. Harris
Updated February 20, 2019
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Pick your boss, not the job—there’s a reason career coaches say this. Who you report to has a huge impact on your growth, happiness, and success. And when you are a great boss, you’ll motivate your team to work hard, boost retention rates, and create a satisfying work environment. “Good bosses make everybody’s life better,” says Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures. Leadership is a skill you can learn and practice; we asked bosses in a variety of fields to ID the habits the most raved-about managers have in common.

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“Trust fuels the ability to give honest feedback, to have difficult conversations, and to partner together to build great things,” says Jennifer Hyman, cofounder and CEO of Rent the Runway. It’s a two-way street: While bosses need to trust their team to get the job done, they also have to prove they’ll make good on their word and act in the team’s best interest. “Your team will trust you if you do what you say you’re going to do,” says Joan Sullivan, CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Being open and approachable and owning up to mistakes helps too. Say “I don’t know” when you lack answers—then go and find them.

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Learn a bit about everyone’s life outside the office. It can help you better understand their strengths and challenges and create new opportunities (the person on a charity board, for example, could be in charge of a community service project). Showing that you’re human is important, says Kerry Cooper, president of Rothy's, a shoe company. Modeling positive behavior—taking your kids to visit the office, not sending late-night emails, accepting someone’s need for a mental health day—contributes to a happier, healthier work environment.

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Caron Pinkus, a high school principal in New York City, says the best boss she ever had took the time to hear multiple perspectives, then thoughtfully made a decision. “The ability to listen and then swiftly decide is something I have carried into my leadership style,” says Pinkus. Creating a collaborative energy can help you get more out of your team because they’ll feel that they have a voice and know that a great idea can come from anyone. Even if you disagree with a recommendation, make it clear that you heard what the person had to say and explain why you decided on a different path. “Teams need to feel engaged,” says Shannon King, senior vice president of partnerships for A&E Networks. “That comes from feeling like their contributions are meaningful.”

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A good leader reminds her team of the whys behind the work to keep them inspired, focused, and passionate. This is especially critical in entrepreneurship, says Hyman: “Focusing on our mission to empower women helps all the little stressful things feel way more manageable.” A strong vision can also help guide tough decisions. When a leader connects the day-to-day to a broader purpose, it becomes clearer what falls outside the line.

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Just as important as having an eye on the big picture is showing appreciation for the tiny victories along the way. Taking a moment to toast a win, give a shoutout at a staff meeting, or commiserate after a grueling week can have a lasting effect. “I know firsthand that being a teacher is really hard work,” says Pinkus. “I’ve seen how just a thank-you from your boss on a hard day can go a long way.”

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The best bosses are self-aware and understand what it feels like to work for them, says Robert Sutton, PhD, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss ($10; amazon.com). Then they share that insight. “Insecurity prevents us from being frank about these things,” says Sullivan. But when you are, it can head off miscommunication or misplaced anxiety. Maybe you keep your door shut because it helps you focus, not because you’re closed off. Share that info—and the best way to catch your attention. If you value efficiency and don’t like making small talk, let your employees know that. Your honesty will help when you interrupt a story about someone’s weekend to start a meeting.

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A good hire goes beyond a résumé of accomplishments—think about how a new person will add to (or detract from) the whole. “Too many new managers forget the interpersonal part of putting teams together,” says King. And research shows that having diverse perspectives can positively impact both creative and financial performance. First decide what skills, personality type, or professional background may be missing from your team, then zero in on those qualities during the interview process. Sullivan assesses softer skills by asking about hopes, fears, and visions. Give small assignments that allow you to see the person in action.

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More than two-thirds of recent college graduates stay at their first job for a year or less, according to one 2016 survey. If you want employees to stick around for a while, show them you recognize that their career path is bigger than this one role. “It’s the job of a boss to figure out how to support the professional growth of their employees inside and beyond the organization,” says Sullivan. Discover their unique strengths and play to them. Don’t assume you know what motivates each member of your team; ask. For some, it may be feeling that they’re making an impact. For others, it may be learning new things or being invited to meetings. Some may perform best when there’s time to prepare, while others shine when brainstorming on their feet; give both types of people a chance to succeed (for example, allow your team to share ideas through Google Docs before a meeting).

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Control: It’s a hard thing for a new manager to let go of. “You don’t accomplish the big stuff by micromanaging people,” says Joe McCannon, founder of the crowdfunding platform Shared Nation. If your team feels like you’re going to swoop in with your ideas, or if they don’t check their work because they assume you will, output (and attitudes) will suffer. “I struggled with learning how to delegate, but then you learn that sometimes other people are going to do better than you, and it’s a delightful realization,” says McCannon.

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Beginning any new job can be exciting and overwhelming. The best bosses discuss expectations and work styles from the start. “This is vital to ensuring someone’s success, and most people don’t put as much emphasis on it as they should,” says Sullivan. Learn about your new employee. Ask, “How do you like to get feedback?” “How should I contact you if I need you on short notice?” “Do you work better in a quiet environment or a collaborative one?” “What do you want out of your boss?” Share your preferences too. How do you like to be approached with questions? How often do you meet with your direct reports? “The biggest mistake people make is not taking the time to review communication styles,” says Sullivan. Also, discuss the culture of success, recommends Simi. Explain how you and the company measure success and what good performance means.

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There’s a difference between micromanaging and stepping in when an employee is struggling. If an employee has hit a wall or has a big deadline approaching, ask what they need to get the work done and, most important, wait for their suggestions. “Employees should look to you not to fix a problem for them but to empower them to find the right solution,” says Sullivan. If an employee is really blocked, brainstorm together. If you know a task is tedious and requires extra focus, suggest a day to work from home. If they’re having trouble getting a sign-off from a client, make the phone call together. “A good boss will guide you and remove obstacles on your behalf,” says King.