My first real job was working for a multi-location electronic distributor where I was responsible for all the intra-company transactions. I was a young kid, 18 years old,with little exposure to professional organizations. I had a few part-time jobs in local Pizza shops and Drug stores, but nothing that required professional business to business communication. So this was a real learning experience for me. I was raised by hardworking blue-collar immigrants that always called a spade a spade! I was raised to expect more of myself than anyone else would ever expect of me! And the only reason I wasn’t in college was because my partial tuition scholarship meant that I’d need to work to pay the freight. At eighteen, my social life was much too important to me to juggle full-time classes, a full-time job and a hectic social life. So I quit school after two semesters and went to work.
Electronic component distribution was a male dominated industry and the only women were employed in secretarial roles. My job was part administrative and part inside sales. I became suspect by the women and the men. Suspected of sleeping with someone. Remember this was 1968 and the only way you got out of the secretarial pool was by making nice with some executive! I can’t explain how I got this position without the prerequisite hanky panky. All I know is that I applied and was hired.
I was given the nickel tour, shown to my new office and just started doing what I was told by my boss or whoever was on the other end of the phone line! There was no training program. However, there was what seemed like an insurmountable amount of paperwork. So I went about the task of organizing the piles of paper and trying to figure out a system of accomplishing what was expected of me. After about three months, I had squared away all the residual paperwork and thought that I had a grasp of what was going on.
With one exception, I had amassed boxes of pink papers and I couldn’t figure out what they were or why I had them! I’d kept asking my boss about these piles and I never got a straight answer. So I just kept saving them.
Every night before I left the office, I’d organize all the work on my desk into priority piles for the next day. Many mornings I’d notice that my papers were shuffled. But I had no clue as to who the culprit might be!
Then one morning as I walked into my office, an elderly man in khakies, a white short sleeved shirt, a burr haircut, and a fat cigar in his mouth was bent over my desk. I was both relieved and outraged that the janitor was responsible for fingering my papers! I immediately set to explaining the importance of the order to this man and suggested that I’d clean my desktop and he should stick to emptying my trash bins. He picked up my trashcan and left without a word!
Several weeks later I was called to the front office to meet the president. Boy, was I ever surprised to see the “janitor” sitting behind the president’s desk! He stared me in the eye as I entered the room and as I reached his desk asked, “ do you know who I am?” I barely managed to respond “ I don’t think there is a right answer to that question.”
What ensued was a long discussion about how I liked my job, and what I thought about the company. Morey was particularly interested in what thoughts I might have about improving my performance. This led to the topic of all those piles of pink papers that I still had no clue about! Suffice it to say that those pink sheets represented about $100,000.00 in misapplied debits. I spent many weeks tracking, tracing, and clearing these inappropriate charges from our accounts. $100,000.00 was a huge amount of money in 1968. My boss got fired and I got an assistant. As the months passed, I would still on occasion find Morey hunched over my desk in the mornings when I arrived. But my papers were always retained in their original order and my department continued to grow as my responsibilities increased.
About eighteen months passed before I was again called to Morey’s office. It was late in the evening and it was bitter cold and snowing outside. Morey said he wanted to talk to me and he would drive me home so that I would not have to wait for the bus in the bad weather. As I returned to his office with hat and coat in hand, all eyebrows were raised. The guys all made lurid comments about motel Cadillac, implying the backseat of Morey’s Cadillac was about to get some exercise! And although I was naive about a great many things, I knew with certainty that Morey was not the lecherous sort! So off we went.
After some small talk, Morey informed me that I would be moved into purchasing as a purchasing agent. I was dumbfounded! This was unheard of - a woman purchasing agent! I protested that I knew nothing about purchasing and wasn’t sure that I could do the job. I will always remember Morey’s response. “ So, you’ll learn., just as you did with your current job. And if you make a mistake, we’ll talk about it. I’ll let you know why it was wrong and what you should to do to make sure that you don’t repeat the error. If you make the same mistake twice, we’ll probably have a very frank discussion about your intelligence. And if you repeat it a third time, we’ll sit down and read the Help Wanted Ads together”.
This was my first lesson in mentoring. We learn the most meaningful lessons from our mistakes not our successes. I did take the job and eventually left the company for a more challenging opportunity with a supplier. But Morey will be near and dear to my heart as one of the best bosses I ever had! He worked the daylights out of me, underpaid me, and forced me to learn survival in a male dominated sexist industry. I can never thank him enough! I loved the challenge, the opportunity, and reveled in the sense of accomplishment! I was tired and starving but having the time of my life. Little did I know that it would take me twenty-five years to find my next great boss in a similarly stimulating work environment.
How many great bosses should you expect to have in your career? If your experience is anything like mine, the answer is two or three in a lifetime. So what makes a great boss? I think the answer is different for each of us. But I also believe that a common set of attributes distinguish the really great leaders form the rest of the pack:
· Enjoy what they are doing and convey that they thoroughly enjoy doing it
· Build a team inspired by challenge and energized by accomplishment
· Always available to give guidance or advice and never give orders
· Allow for mistakes with the expectation of improvement
· Breed trust
· Value truth.
· Foster debate
· Demonstrate generosity of spirit by giving credit and visibility
· Teach true leadership by example
· Compensate for corporate cultural deficiencies
My second great boss distinguished herself because she managed to achieve and maintain these attributes in the face of an unimaginably negative corporate culture, toxic really. Ultimately, she sacrificed her health to protect her employees. That’s a choice no one should have to make!
Many corporations are no longer being managed by the functional experts ( sales, marketing, engineering, manufacturing) but by the support functions (finance and Human Resources). The pressure to deliver continuous growth has shifted the focus of senior executives away from managing the real business to managing the numbers in boxes to meet the expectations of Wall Street analysts. This is reported to be in the best interest of shareholders. However, I believe that most shareholders are more interested in the long term success of a company than they are in short term profit taking at the expense of long term viability.
These are companies that have little regard for family and require heavy travel including meetings over weekends to cut expenses. They view their employees as expendable resources in the form of headcount that expands and shrinks with the monthly or quarterly results. And focus on continuous downsizing with no regard of how or who will get the real job done - the job of delivering on expectations to the customer.
There is no question that the result of this type of culture is the erosion of service to an all time low.
This trend has created stress on workers that we are only beginning to recognize. I’ve found that most employees like their jobs and even like their immediate boss. What’s killing them is the continuous requirement to do more, to do it with less, to continue to do it without recognition or reward, and a corporate expectation that they kindly understand that the company owes them no security for their efforts!
This is a workforce that NEVER has an opportunity to celebrate their successes because it’s just never enough! Unfortunately, there aren’t enough jobs in America for everyone caught in this kind of “toxic” environment to just get out. So we are now developing entire organizations that are “in waiting”. Waiting for retirement, waiting for a lay-off package, waiting to be vested, waiting for their next interview, waiting for the results of their last interview, waiting for vacation, waiting for the weekend, or waiting to be rescued.
Most employees believe that they are on a sinking ship. They can’t meet customer expectations, and no one will give them any concrete direction, tools, or help to accomplish the stated mission, the mission “visioned” ( means hallucinated in reality) by senior management just before the last round of cutbacks. All workers hear are demands to do more with less and they don’t know how! It’s no wonder that the investment bulletin boards of many companies have been taken over by employees to bash executive management for lack of leadership!
And saddest of all is that even great bosses and mentors disappear in toxic corporate environments … when they are most needed. And as we look to corporations to turn this economy, it’s those great bosses and mentors that are the missing link in corporate America’s ability to inspire it’s employees, customers, and shareholders to believe in corporate sustainability, ethics, transparency, and commitment to real top line growth.