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3 rules for the first-time boss

By Eliza Ridgeway for CNN
Experts say first-time bosses need to build credibility with their employees in order to cultivate real authority.
Experts say first-time bosses need to build credibility with their employees in order to cultivate real authority.
  • As workplace become more competitive, being a good boss takes on added importance
  • Expertise trumps formal authority when it comes to influencing employees
  • Bosses should be prepared to face complicated ethical dilemmas

(CNN) -- In an age when 20-something bosses wear hoodies to work and your newest direct reports may reside on a different continent and speak a range of languages, being a boss comes with a host of new challenges.

"Being a boss is becoming harder and harder and it actually matters a lot more now that you're good at it. Nowadays the world is so competitive and the roles you play are so complex that if you aren't good at it, you're really bad," said Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School.

So if you find yourself in a manager position for the first time, what's the best way to win over your employees and make the most of your authority?

"Boss" is just a word -- be yourself

Hill emphasizes that even seasoned CEOs have realized they need to rethink how they use authority to get the job done. Formal authority -- the official status you've won in your new role -- has surprisingly little impact on your ability to exercise effective influence, she points out.

She's been thinking about first-time bosses for a while. Her new book, "Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader," comes almost 20 years after her first work on the subject, "Becoming a Manager," was published in 1992.

"People rely too much on that formal authority as a way of influencing others. Frankly, you need to build credibility with people and develop other sources of authority and influence," she said. "You don't just want to control your employees, you want them to buy into what you're doing."

The more talented the team you manage, the less they'll care about your titular authority, Hill argues. A track record of expertise is what really wins CEOs command of a room, and new bosses need to figure out how to earn that respect -- not just act out a cliched version of authoritative rule.

Are your meeetings train wrecks?

"A lot of people go into management thinking they have to be hardcore football coach types, instead of maybe the nice but firm person that they really are," said Hank Gilman, whose new book, "You Can't Fire Everyone, and Other Lessons from an Accidental Manager," addresses the temptation new bosses feel to be somebody they aren't.

Reading a management book and trying to "fake it" won't work, Gilman said. "You just can't read a book and be like somebody else." Exercise your own style well and it will work for you, he said.

Take time for self-examination

You have to stop solving your problems by firing people and start investing in them.
--Hank Gilman, author

"I think people underestimate the emotions they're going to have," Hill said. "As you begin to face tougher and tougher decisions, stuff is only going to become more complicated."

And first-time bosses need to think about more than basic challenges in management. Ethical dilemmas come with the job, too, she says. "It's not that we want to prepare ourselves to do layoffs, but the more senior you become, the more complicated the ethical dilemmas you face, and you want to prepare yourself."

Planning ahead to manage your own feelings isn't just about you -- employees are depending on you to be your "best self," she said. "If you can't stay present in the moment with the person when you're doing (layoffs), you're not going to treat them with much dignity."

The somewhat tongue-in-cheek title for Gilman's book was born out of related woes in his industry as he was writing it. He's deputy managing editor at Fortune magazine (Fortune is owned by Time Warner, which also owns CNN.)

"You have to stop solving your problems by firing people and start investing in them," Gilman said. "Since I'm in the media business, you could say I'm speaking from experience."

But the kind of self-examination he and Hill call for isn't just about delivering bad news. In his own career as a manager, Gilman says he has tried to emphasize changes as simple as giving feedback more regularly -- a personal weak spot that he thinks needs correcting.

Build relationships that empower your team

Hill recounted the story of an executive tasked with setting up a regional office in Latin America. She had to focus on the people she didn't oversee in order to make her team a success.

"If you don't manage your relationship with your bosses and your peers, your team will not have the resources it needs to get the job done," Hill said.

By proactively cultivating the superiors who controlled the resources, Hill's executive made sure she had the power to get her employees what they needed.

"People will say that, 'if the company was well managed and well designed, I'd get what I need,'" Hill said.

"She understood that no, companies are inherently complicated political entities. She was very strategic about it and started to build the relationships and understanding."