One of the nicer aspects of writing is that I’m my own boss. Since I’ve self-published, I don’t even have an agent or an editor or a publisher yapping in my ear.
Before I started writing full-time, I spent a quarter century working in corporate America, where everyone has a boss. Even CEOs have bosses. They are accountable to boards and shareholders even though some don’t act like it.
I did have one notable “bossless” period, in 1994, I think. At the time, I was director over the application group developing a code generator application. On a day that I was out of the office, my boss called his direct reports (sans me) into a meeting and informed them he was moving to a different part of the company, effective immediately. He informed everyone in attendance who they’d report to in his absence.
I, of course, being out of the office, was oblivious to all of this. When I returned to work the next day, I asked my team if they’d seen my boss and was told that he’d transferred yesterday. I asked for the scoop. My peers informed me that the new quoting system for the direct business was sinking fast and he’d been moved to that department to save the day. I went about my business.
Over the next few weeks, word of my boss’s transfer spread. People would come up to me in the hallways and ask who I worked for now. “I work on Presto,” I always replied. Presto was the name of the code generator application. Since the moment of my boss’s transfer, none of the higher ups had deigned to speak with me. As far as I was concerned, I had no boss and this suited me just fine.
For several months, I led my group without the benefit of oversight. It was heavenly. Don’t get me wrong, my recently transferred boss was one of the good ones. He gave me enough rope to succeed or fail (‘fail faster’ was one of his mantras) on my own terms and coached me in his own unique fashion, always ‘encouraging’ and never ‘’telling’.
Well, all good things must end, and so it was with my bossless run. About three months later, it came to a head when I visited the CIO to ask whether I’d attend the company’s annual senior manager soiree. I’d attended the previous year but had yet to receive an invitation this time around and I knew they’d gone out. The CIO informed me that the rules were simple this year: everyone working for him was invited; those who didn’t, weren’t. Then he asked who I reported to.
“I work on Presto,” I replied, giving him the same glib answer I gave anyone who asked.
“Don’t be a smartass, Garson,” the CIO said. “Who do you work for?”
“You tell me,” I answered. “Until April, I knew who my boss was. Then, you transferred him. Since then, I’ve just come into work every day and tried to lead my team in the right direction.”
“Goddamnit, who’s your boss?”
“I work on Presto,” I repeated. “Do I get to attend the meeting or not?”
“Goddamnit, you work for me and yes, you’re invited.” He picked up the phone and dialed the admin responsible for the upcoming event. “Put Garson on the list,” he shouted into the mouthpiece. “He works for me.” Then he slammed the phone back onto its cradle. “By the way,” he said in an offhand way, “I hired a new guy. Starting Monday, you report to him. Now get out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied with mixed emotion and hoping that my next boss was one of the good ones.
Like everyone, I churned through many bosses, some good, like the one who transferred, and some not so good, like the one who replaced him. In nearly 26 years, I had more bosses than I can count on my fingers and I learned from every one of them – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Do you remember the movie City Slickers? Billy Crystal and his buds head out west for a cattle drive. Crystal’s character, Mitch, meets Jack Palance’s Curly, a grizzled old cowboy with great advice.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what *you* have to find out.
As it turns out, Curly’s advice works well for bosses too. In your career, you’ll undoubtedly have many bosses. Like me, you’ll endure the bad ones and thrive under the good ones, but you can learn from all of them. When reflecting on your boss and what he or she has to offer, don’t come up with a long laundry list of likes and dislikes, pros and cons, or strengths and weaknesses. If you do, you’ll end up with a list too long and unwieldy to learn from.
The trick is to figure out that one thing for each of your bosses, that one lesson you don’t want to forget. I’ve taken away something from each and every boss. From some of them, I learned “do this.” From others, I learned “don’t do that.”
Here’s a few of my learnings, in no particular order.
From the boss who transferred away – do fail faster. This one stuck with me. Adopting this attitude creates a liberated environment free of the all too common fear of failure, which handcuffs progress.
From my first boss in the computer room – don’t publicly berate your employees.
From my first boss in programming – don’t evaluate options based solely on tenure of the person submitting. Choose based on merit.
From my first boss after entering management – do lead with a small wake. Though not a boater, I knew exactly what he meant. I enjoyed adversarial confrontation too much when I was younger.
I could go on. For each and every boss I’ve had, I know the one do or don’t registering most with me. As my wise, transferred ex-boss would say, I encourage you to do the same.
Till the next post, chris