Lessons I Learned From My Bosses

1) Respect is the bedrock of strong companies

I worked for a top partner at Arthur Andersen – then the leading public accounting firm in the world. When he visited audit teams at clients, he always had individually-wrapped domino-sized Chuckles candies with him. And on more than one occasion, I saw him HURL these things at staffers when they came into our work area. I’m not talking a casual toss, either. Picture Clayton Kershaw’s fastball. Not charming or funny, just obnoxious – plus, he could easily have hit someone in the eye.

Other partners would routinely have audit staff – people with masters’ degrees and CPA licenses – retrieve their cars from the parking garage. It wasn’t even intended as hazing or initiation – it was just a reflection of how unimportant they really felt the audit staff was.

The result: A constant brain drain. As soon as most professional staff had enough experience to make them attractive to private employers, they were outta there.

That experience taught me to treat everyone in the business with respect and appreciation. If they didn’t add value, their job wouldn’t exist. And that’s true for the front desk, the cleaning staff, and the accounting clerks – not just the folks who deal directly with clients, members and customers. 

2) Challenging high-potential employees stocks your bench with talent

In one position, I reported to a company president who always gave smart people big projects and then left them alone to figure it all out. The result: more often than not, their project teams accomplished amazing things.

It didn’t always pay off in the short-term; there were a couple of times that projects took longer than they would’ve in the hands of someone more experienced. And sometimes these folks rubbed people the wrong way because they were learning leadership and collaboration on the fly.

Yet the long-term result was invaluable: because smart people constantly learn from their experiences, they just get better and better. You’re building a bench of go-to people who can help your business solve problems and seize opportunities.

I learned from him that people learn most by doing, least by being told what to do. Micromanagement is ineffective and annoying. I also came to see that nearly every problem has multiple right answers. It’s smart to give people room to find a solution that works, even if looks different from the solution I would’ve chosen.  

3) Make the hard decisions, for Pete’s sake

But…that same boss was as slow as molasses when he had to deal with executives who were failing.

One of my fellow VPs was a big-picture kinda guy, and he was rightly convinced that another part of the company could be much more productive and efficient. So he spent a lot of his time and his team’s time pushing for changes over there.

Unfortunately, his own department was dropping the ball on its responsibilities – and that directly affected every other department down and even hurt paying customers. This situation went on for at least a year – despite lots of concern from customers and employees – before he was removed from his position.

Lesson learned: it’s smart to start with feedback and coaching when you have a problem person. But if you don’t see fairly quick results, leadership requires that you protect the organization’s effectiveness as a whole, even if that means firing your problem person or making another drastic change.

(Bonus lesson: Stick to your knitting. Once your own department’s perfect, then  you can criticize other groups.)

4) No one succeeds in an information vaccuum

Once I joined a company at about the same time that the president was seriously considering demoting – perhaps even outright firing – the CIO.

I didn’t know the CIO well, but he seemed sharp, high-energy, practical — all the right stuff. My responsibilities included HR, so I asked the president to explain the problem. The bottom-line was that the CIO “just didn’t understand the big picture.” I commented that he rarely included the CIO in other executive conversations – most of his in-depth conversations were held with just one other executive.

That was an eye-opener, so he changed his approach and started including the CIO in those high-level conversations. And guess what? Our CIO was a star! All he needed was context – the big picture.

What I’ve seen is that we often assign tasks – tiny fractions of projects – without providing nearly enough information about the project’s context or objectives. The result is usually results that fall short. Then we blame our employee – when the truth is that we failed them. Managers who don’t share context are usually guilty of desperately hanging onto responsibilities that they really ought to be delegating in their entirety.

5) Be absolutely predictable

One of the best managers I ever worked for always kept her promises. If you had a meeting with her, it started on time, and she rarely canceled or rescheduled. Looking back, I realize that probably 70% of the emails she sent weren’t about big decisions – they were mostly just to communicate stuff that was going on in the business. She wasn’t big on small talk, but we loved her because you could count on her to follow through. No surprises – she didn’t suddenly swoop in and reverse decisions – and we always felt like we understood where the company was headed and how that affected our priorities.

I had another colleague whose miserable time management meant that he was frequently hours late for business meetings – yet expected his staff to blow off their personal commitments to stay late so he could catch up. He was quick with a smile and small talk, but none of that overcame the resentment his team felt. The one thing they knew they could count on him to do: drop the ball.

Several lessons here: First, trust and respect exist when people can predict how you’ll behave. If you’re erratic, trust and respect aren’t possible.  Second, respecting your team’s time as if it were your own is one of the greatest relationship-building tools available for managers. It makes it possible to ask your team for the earth and get it – on those rare occasions when the situation demands it. But make everything a fire drill – and pretty soon, nothing matters.

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