Bosses I have known

The Thinker by Rodin

I should know what a great boss is like. After all I’ve had a lot of bad ones. Now that I am a boss myself I am trying to figure out how I can be the best boss I can to my employees. In one sense it is easy to be a well-liked boss. But that doesn’t mean I can be both a well liked and an effective boss. That’s when it gets trickier. To do both is sort of like riding a unicycle while juggling balls in the air. I’m not there yet.

But first a survey of bosses I’ve had. I wonder how many of these will seem familiar to you. I will arbitrarily start with my first “professional” job in 1981 when I was working at what was then known as the Defense Mapping Agency. It started with boss who was a lush. If the red, bulbish nose wasn’t a give away, his breath betrayed his secret. Except for being divorced he was a real Andy Capp. I don’t ever recall him holding a meeting with us. But I do recall his going off most lunch hours with one of his employees to spend some time in the back of his van where the curtains were always closed. It was pretty obvious they were not out there to meditate. The good part was that he was so inebriated he never hassled me about my work. His evenings were spent bar hopping. In spite of being an alcoholic he generally seemed happy, if somewhat sedate. I left that job in 1986 and wasn’t surprised when he died a year later from cirrhosis of the liver. He was probably in his late 40s when he died.

The next boss was a tall African American gentleman who ran a shop full of COBOL programmers. He lived in his office and we didn’t see much of him. But at least he held occasional meetings. In one such meeting he gave us the bad news that we were not entitled to a fifteen minute break in the morning and afternoon. But he seemed competent and jovial, if somewhat distant. When I had questions he earnestly answered them. But I was one of a dozen employees he supervised. I was a measly GS-7 at the time, so he hardly noticed me and left it to my mentor to direct my day-to-day work.

I left that job to spend a year outside the government working for an organization affiliated with the Democratic Party. I was 30 at the time but this boss was 26. We should have gotten along great because after all we were both liberal Democrats. He was brilliant, soft spoken, wore starched white shirts and a tie, and smoked like a chimney. He was very aloof. Fortunately his supervisory work was not too demanding. Basically he ran the computers and the budding network at the time. I was one of two programmers, and neither of us had computer science degrees. We were however inexpensive, a key attribute in that financially challenged organization. I was there a year when I was summarily laid off. At least that’s what they said. The boss once removed gave me the bad news. I never got the feeling that my boss liked me. Our relationship was superficial. I most likely wasn’t quite what he had in mind and he probably wasn’t too sad to see me go. But then I was something of an odd man out at the place. I was a type B in a place full of type A’s. They liked to work late and didn’t understand why I didn’t. Their social life was defined by their work life.

I spent three months in a contract job before I returned to the bosom of the federal employment, now wiser about the ways of the world. My new boss was five years or so older than me, skinny as a rail, bookish and carried dog-eared science fiction novels with him. I suspected he was gay since he lived alone and never showed any interest in women. But he was a geek through and through. Why he accepted a supervisory position I’ll never understand. He was not management material. Maybe he just wanted the extra money, or saw the grade as a status symbol. At first he didn’t seem to like me at all. I had to become a nerd like him before he warmed up to me. He held sporadic meetings but largely left us alone. Like many programmers I have met he didn’t come alive until about 4 PM and could often be found hanging around until after midnight. He survived on Clark bars from the vending machines in the Pentagon. I think after a while he resented me because in a couple years I picked up the same level of domain knowledge about the system we ran that he had. Perhaps that’s why soon afterward he took a job elsewhere. He could no longer perform the role of system hero and he liked the hero role.

Eventually we were reorganized. I was thrown into a different division and got a boss who suffered from severe diabetes and seemed to be a few years from retirement. He was nice and easy to talk to but he only seemed to vaguely understand the complex work I was doing. He was very impressed by my hard work and professionalism so he gave me choicer assignments. I certainly appreciated him for that. But eventually one of his project managers whom I worked for decided she didn’t like me. She threw me off her team. He was too intimated by her to back me up. Appeals to his boss didn’t work. So I left that agency and joined the non-defense side of Club Fed.

The next boss never saw the human me, but did see me as a key strategic asset. I was a valiant knight on his complex chessboard. I was a key asset because I could competently manage complex projects and didn’t need much direction. But working for him was very strange. We had offices across the hall from each other but he hardly ever spoke to me. He put out these “I’m an executive and you’re not” vibes. He dressed in fancy three-piece suits. He had clients constantly streaming in and out of his office. He rarely raised his voice. Everything he said he said in a soft, confidential tone of voice. But he was very insistent on competence, something I found rather unusual in the federal government. He hired very selectively. He was not beyond intimidating those who worked for him until they jumped ship and became someone else’s problem. He struck me as competent but very pompous. Eventually though he got his comeuppance: a new executive arrived who disliked him and made his life a living hell. Since he was of retirement age when it was suggested that he retire he was arm-twisted into leaving. But you knew he hated it. He loved the role of director. My boss had dreams of being an executive too, and this executive cruelly dashed them. I felt sorry for him. He was aloof and pompous all right, but he was still competent. He deserved better for thirty years of service. Literally one day he was there and the next day he was gone. We never had a chance to even give him a goodbye luncheon.

His heir apparent and my next boss was his lunch buddy, actually a contractor and former federal employee who spent years in the office doing work far less interesting than mine. He took the contracting job to get away from stress, since he used to be a hotshot executive who worked at the Justice Department. To say the least we were surprised by his appointment. We had GS-14s who had been waiting years in the wings for their big chance to be boss only to find their hopes summarily dashed. They should have joined his lunch club. This new boss was a low-key boss who was at least very approachable. But he was very overworked. His bosses were throwing assignments at him until he was hip deep in them. Nonetheless he projected an aura of confidence and competence and never gave a hint that he was overwhelmed by all the work. But he was a good boss in the sense that he listened sincerely to you. He was also a devout born again Christian. If he could have done it he would have invited me to a prayer meeting. He wore his religion on his sleeve and peppered his conversations with “Praise Jesus”. I confess I was impressed to learn he and his wife spent their vacations feeding the homeless. I admired the sincerity of his faith. He was one of the few Christians I have met who actually seemed Christ-like. But he had too many responsibilities to be very effective supervising any of us. He did however wring a promotion in the process.

Again the obvious GS-14 candidates were overlooked. So a GS-15 who had no supervisory experience suddenly got the job. He ended up being put on special projects and spent at least 75% of his time not being our supervisor. I rarely traded more than a couple sentences a month with him. He was a boss in name only, but he seemed sincerely happy for me when I told him I found a job in another agency. The subtext: I had escaped from the zoo. Congratulations.

For the first time in my career in my current job I have a female boss. I finally hit the boss jackpot. I can think of nothing about her to dislike and lots to admire. She is extremely competent. She traverses the fine line between empowerment and micromanagement very effectively. She does not feel at all like a boss. She feels like a peer. She loves gossip and she thrives on office politics. She is not the least bit stuffy and has a very snarky attitude, but never about individuals. All this by itself would not make her a stellar boss. What makes her great is that she trusts and empowers me. She can’t always make money appear out of a hat but she will almost always work with me to help my visions and strategies come true. She opens doors for me. She smoothes the path when she knows it must be smoothed. If all this weren’t enough she is technically competent. She reads all the same professional journals I do. She is truly a delight to work for in spite of the fact that both our jobs can be pretty demanding. I often get to work and pinch myself wondering how long my good fortune will last. I hope, but don’t expect, that she will continue to be my boss until the day I retire.

Today I spent most of my day giving performance feedback to my employees. I am blessed with terrific employees, none of whom I would ever consider firing or even trading. But most of them are up to their necks in family or personal issues that are very challenging. So I spend a lot of my time accommodating their unique situations and finding ways to get the work done in spite of these obstacles. I try very hard not to be critical. I try instead to empower them, just like my boss empowers me. So mostly I watch them fly and marvel at how well they do their job without my guidance. I try to be a nurturing presence in their professional lives. I try to get to know them as human beings. I give constructive feedback and suggest ways to improve things rather than criticize them for minor mistakes. I don’t think any of them are planning an exit. I count my blessings. I understand that I can only succeed with their help, respect and cooperation. I find that the most important thing I can do is to earn their respect and to trust in their judgment. While not all employees can thrive in such an environment, mine can. So I think I’ve got the juggling balls part figured out. Now I need to figure out how to ride a unicycle at the same time.

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