Sometimes the best lessons come from people who help you see what you don’t want to do as a leader. I had such a boss a long time ago, and in retrospect, I realize that I learned not only some things NOT to do, but I also learned some very useful lessons from my experiences working with her.
The details of the situation aren’t important, other than these:
- I was in my first major managerial role (I had between 40 - 120 employees in my groups, depending on seasonality) AND I was managing my first P&L
- She was new to my organization and came from a much larger, higher-end company in a much more prestigious organization.
- It was her first role as CEO
Get to Know Your Organization Before You Act
What was hardest for me was her very directive approach to managing. Granted, she was accustomed to managing a much larger organization, so she did bring some much-needed structure to our rapidly growing company. But she also brought a fair bit of bureaucracy that fit her larger organization, but really did not fit ours, like weekly budget reviews. Monthly would have sufficed, as I can see in retrospect.
Match the structure you introduce to the stage of growth your company is in -- you can always add more as the company matures.
Get to know the culture of your new organization before you start barking orders -- in our case, the backlash to her directive style led to unnecessary resistance to some of her very good ideas. It was all in the way she introduced new ideas, and it could have gone much better.
Take time to build personal connections with your direct reports, and learn what motivates (and demotivates!) them -- honey attracts more flies than vinegar, as my Gramma used to say.
Take Responsibility to Look Around Corners
The other thing that was a hard pill to swallow, and felt unfair at the time, but was very useful for me to learn - when you’re responsible for a P&L, you have to find ways to anticipate external factors, and have contingency plans. So, for example, massive industry shortages of key products wasn’t a good excuse for missing revenue targets.
Keep aware of external factors, even if they’re out of your control. Knowing what might be coming gives some time to find a Plan B. I think that’s when I started reading the Wall Street Journal.
Teach, Coach, and Stretch Your Team
The best thing about having had SO many bosses and worked with SO many organizations over the last four decades is that I can now also see what I learned from her, despite my discontent with how she managed me.
Always have team members evaluate their own performance using the same format that you will use. Plus, when meeting to review performance, let them tell you their self-appraisal first. People are usually tougher on themselves, which means there are fewer hard messages to deliver (for the boss). AND, team members develop self-awareness, which is one key to self-improvement and a growth mindset.
Give people new projects outside their area of expertise, especially if they are “topping out” at their current level. Stretch goals are very motivating and can breathe new life into someone who’s a bit bored with their (necessary and important) work. You can't promote everyone, but you can enrich their jobs.
Take your younger, newer managers to industry conferences and trade shows. Teach them how to make the most of their time there, how to bring key insights back to the rest of the team, and how to behave with other senior executives. You'll help them develop executive presence.
That’s it -- I didn’t really like that boss very much. She didn’t really value my maverick spirit, nor did I value her hyper-structured way of working. But we did learn from one another, and I continued to advance under her for several years, eventually serving on her executive team.
What about you? What lessons did you learn from your least favorite boss?
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