Monday, May 15, 2006

"The Best Boss I Ever Had": What's the Secret?

In a chance encounter with a bank employee in the mezzanine of an aging suburban mall, I heard the same phrase for the second time in as many months and only the third time in my career—“she’s the best boss I’ve ever had.” Referring to her manager with whom my mother and I had finished a meeting moments before, I couldn’t help ask: “what does Janet do that makes her your ‘best boss’?”

My first impression over the phone should have been a clue. I had phoned someone else to make an appointment. Although polite and helpful, Pat sounded tired and flat. She could not fit into our schedule because she was going on vacation. I thought: “I think you need it!” But, she asked, “Would I be willing to meet with another staff person who was filling in for her?” to which I quickly agreed. She put me on hold. Within seconds a new voice full of energy, lightness and gaiety vibrated over the line. The appointment was made, the required papers for the meeting clarified, and a best wishes for the day mutually shared. Later, I mentioned to my mother: “I think you’ll like Janet.”

How many of us can count beyond the fingers on one hand the “best bosses” in our lives? Over a long and varied career, before I set up my own organization, I had only one. I have used the same phrase verbatim to describe him when discussing “great leadership” with my clients. What is this about?

My first meeting with Dr. Warren was, like Janet, over the phone. I was making a “pitch” for him to hire me as the first nutritionist the organization had ever had. I was only 22 years old and miserable in my current job. I had phoned several other Medical Officers of Health in and around Toronto. Unlike the others, he immediately warmed to the idea, sight unseen. The only trouble was that he had no money in the budget. But, he promised to think about it. Yeah, right!

He was a man of his word though. Unbelievably, he found money to send me back to school to do post-graduate studies, so that I would more closely meet the job’s requirements and to give him time to budget for the position. Almost two years later I landed on his doorstep to start what proved to be a rewarding, exciting and challenging job and a boss-employee partnership that resulted in a number of innovations in the organization.

How was I so lucky? I know he inspired me with his faith in my capabilities. He never let me down when the going got tough. He rarely said, “Yes, but.” He coached me on the politics of the organization. He gave me constructive feedback, even if I didn’t like it. He went to bat for me on new ideas when others weren’t so enthusiastic. I felt cared for and respected despite being a “newbie.” I believe he was the same with everyone, as he led an organization that was a leader of change in those days. I was at the right place at the right time with the right boss! To my delight, many of his innovations have stood the test of time.

Years later, my early memories come flooding back, no less in a funeral home. As I greet the crowds of people who are paying their respects for my Dad, I listen intently to their warm, funny, poignant and complimentary stories. “He was the consummate professional.” “In spite of his high profile, he made me feel welcome even though I was a ‘greenhorn’.” He had faith in me, trusted me.” “He was inclusive, a great mentor.” “He was a man of integrity and principles.” “He stood up for his staff.” “He was warm and generous.” “He was meticulous, always well-prepared.” “He was a fierce competitor not against others but against himself.” “If it was O.K with him, it was O.K.” “He set the foundation that still exists to this day.” One former employee, in particular, wanted to talk at length to me because my Dad was quite simply, “the best boss he ever had.” He left the funeral home in tears. Little did I know that I had a role model on my doorstep, but what do daughters really “get” about the jobs their fathers do? Maybe it explains my abiding interest in the subject in some unconscious way!

We met with Janet in a windowless, utilitarian room off the reception area of the bank. In person, she exuded the same vibrancy, smiling, making eye contact with each of us and graciously extending her condolences. We had no sooner gotten down to business than another staff member (the person we met later in the mall) came to the door with an urgent message. After Janet excused herself to take the phone, we knew something serious was amiss.

On her return, we learned she had moments before lost her sister-in-law to cancer. We were now in a different place---a shared experience. We offered to postpone the meeting. “No”, she said. “Let’s complete the task and then I will begin to mourn.” Such composure! But, as she worked with us, I noticed a slight tremor in her hand when she offered us a pen for signatures. Her demeanor was more subdued, yet still much more upbeat than many. Tears welled up in her eyes every once in a while. We soldiered on together.

In the mall, Iris told me why Janet was the “best boss she had ever had.” “She always has time for everyone.” “She shows respect for me.” “She listens.” “She’s great at multi-tasking.” “She takes care of us.” “She’s positive.” “We can depend on her.” “She’s a wonderful mentor.”

What is at the heart of “best boss”? I believe it is an abiding real regard for another beyond yourself and a willingness to work side-by-side (not one above the other) with a belief that something better will be created together. A “best boss” is no slacker either modeling what is expected of everyone else. At the same time, a “best boss” isn’t perfect. For example, Dr. Warren was disorganized. However, he made sure he had a well-organized team around to make up for his lack in that area.

No matter who we are, we each need support (emotional and structural), encouragement, and individualized attention to rise to the next level of our capabilities. That means not only a strong respectful relationship with our “boss” but one from which we learn.

The research supports this conclusion---how a manager relates (builds relationships) can affect up to 70% of group performance. Shall we surmise that this applies to the individuals making up the group?

That’s the secret---relating, one person at a time.

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