A while back I ran one of my occasional “You Ask It, I’ll Answer It” special features. Last night while trying to bring some semblance of coherence to my notes I discovered a leftover question that was asked but apparently not yet answered. I aim to remedy that oversight this evening, but I beg to be allowed some creative license with the question. As written, it asks “What makes an excellent boss?” That’s probably about as subjective a question as you could ask of any employee, but I’m going to take a swing at answering it by way of talking about a guy I use to work for – and wish I could again.
It was a long time ago. I was twenty five and three years out of college. A refugee from an abortive career as a professional educator, Uncle Sam offered to take me in, train me, and let me stay a civilian – as long as I was willing to go wherever he told me to go at the end of the initial six month training program. When the bosses at the schoolhouse asked if I was ok going to DC, I was thrilled. As it turns out, being a low-graded employee in the imperial city doesn’t make it a location at the top of too many people’s dream sheets.
The guy I worked for in DC was probably as close to a perfect boss as I could have hoped to find on my arrival. He’d been everywhere, done everything, and seemed to know everyone no matter where you went. He’d get you a place in meetings half a dozen levels above your pay grade and then put you on the spot to offer an opinion as an expert in your field. Nothing was off limits and any door you wanted to open was opened. Every day with this guy was not just a master class in the profession, but also in the politics of the office.
Professional growth comes with mistakes. While he was happy enough to let you flail around finding a solution, I never managed to screw something up so badly that he couldn’t fix it with a couple of phone calls. I did my time, put in the work, and he made sure the promotions and raises followed. He took care of his people and that counts for far more than I realized at the time. Despite the dissent from an old guard he was determined that his organization was going to be infused thoroughly with new blood. The more seasoned I become the more I appreciate just how far he was sticking his neck out to make that happen.
I can’t even speculate what turns my career may have taken if I had landed in Washington and found a hidebound boss too concerned with grade, or structure, or process. God knows in the years that followed, I’ve run into enough of them to compile volumes of what it is to work for an assortment of bad bosses. There have been some damned good ones in the mix too. You almost always here about the bad ones, but there are still bosses out there who at least try to do the right thing.
My experience, though, has been that the really great ones only show up once in a career – and that’s largely dependent on being in the right place at the right time. It seems more likely to spend 30 years bumping along with bosses that fall somewhere towards the middle of the bell curve. I was fortunate to have one really impressive boss experience right out of the gate in this career… but taking the bad with the good it also means my mental achievement bar for what it means to be great is set almost impossibly high.