A great boss has a recipe of vision, compassion, high expectations for the people who work for him, and the ability to extract those qualities from all of them. It also helps to have a heaping cup of mutual respect.
It Pays to Be Motivated
After working for three years in the design department at a company, I worked my way up to becoming the best designer in the department. It wasn’t that I had some ulterior motive; I simply loved coming to work everyday and doing something I was good at and enjoyed doing.
Then one day the director of the department dropped the big bomb and announced he was leaving the company to pursue a new venture elsewhere. That’s when I knew that in two weeks I was going to get the opportunity of a lifetime.
The Pitch That Worked
When the big Kahunas offered me this now vacant position and asked if I wanted to accept it, I told them I’d accept it under one condition: If I was going to run this department, I was going to do it my way, and if they wanted to see growth and profits, they’d all better stay the hell out of my way. I reminded them that all they do is count beans all day, and they don’t know the first thing about design. They agreed. Done deal.
Know Your People and Know Your Products
I already knew the weaknesses and strengths of everybody in the department, because I’d worked alongside them for a few years. I also knew that their potential hadn’t even begun to be tapped.
Women Are Always Right
One thing I did before I left for work on my first day as the new director of the design department was to look in the mirror. As I stood there in silence for a minute, it dawned on me that every decision I was about to make was going to affect these peoples’ lives, their families, their kids and their futures. My wife walked up behind me and gently touched me on the shoulder and said, “You can get so much more production and loyalty from people if they like you.” Well, I’m a pretty likable guy, especially with my deranged sense of humor, but I needed to find out for myself.
Be Careful What You Ask for – You Just Might Get It
I started with the newbie in this bunch of misfits, “Thelma.” (Okay, I could have done better with the name, but it’s the first name that came into my head.) She was a processor, not a designer. I started teaching her the elements of design, not so much that she would one day become a designer, but to give her an awareness and perspective of what these “fly boy” designers do and how it affects her role. I also started at the top with my best designer, “Bill,” (yeah, I know) and taught him not only what the processors do, but why every person in this department is important. In essence, I was building a team.
I Knew There Was A Reason I Didn’t Like That Game
One afternoon I wanted to get with Bill to check on the progress he was making on a very difficult $2M project that had to go out that night for production. I couldn’t find him, so I moseyed into the cafeteria to get a soda, and lo and behold, here he is playing “Pac-Man” (Namco) with, of all people, the owner of the company. The owner glanced up, smiles, and said, “Uh-oh. Here comes John. We’re fired.” I told him I’d be delighted to take over the reins of his office, and for the same compensation, of course. I then motioned for Bill to get his ass back to work, which he proceeded to do. As I was walking back down the hall with Bill not far behind me, I was looking down, hands in my pockets, shaking my head, laughing and thinking, “What the hell have I built?” (By the way, the $2M job went out on time, and it turned out perfectly.)
So What Makes a Great Boss?
The only thing I can offer from my experience of being a great boss is that a great boss first has to be a great person. I cared so much about the people who worked under my tenure, and I wasn’t going to let any of them get away without providing all of them the chance to give it their very best shot. My only role was to give them the tools to do it.
I still maintain contact with a lot of the people who worked for me, and we’ve formed some close friendships. The most rewarding thing for me wasn’t so much about how much money they made (and it was a lot) as it was to be invited to a cookout or some other function and see the beautiful children, grandchildren, families, and successes they had. I’m just glad I was able to build strength and confidence in them and to have contributed in some meek, feeble and compassionate way to ensure their happiness. After all, we were a team.
And we still are.
Editor’s note: All names (except mine) mentioned in this article aren’t their real names, so the identities of my staff remain protected. Also, for the sake of brevity, any reference to gender is “he” or “him,” even though there were both genders working in my department, and they all had equal value.