Nine bosses…

I started working in my little corner of this big, faceless bureaucracy almost seven years ago. In that time, I’ve had nine different direct line bosses. With a bit of rounding that means I can expect to see a new boss approving my leave requests and fussing over my use of passive voice every nine and one third months on average. Breaking in a new boss is something of a process. Personally, I strongly oppose asking anyone to do that consistently every nine months.

Because life in the bureaucracy resembles farce almost as much as it does tragedy, it’s not all bad news. The new boss that I found out about having this morning has been my new boss on three other separate occasions during these last seven years. At least he’s a known quantity to me and me to him. It smooths the rough edges of the transition a bit.

Still, when the powers that be are making a big pitch for “earning back the trust of the employees,” a surprise reorganization first thing on Monday morning doesn’t exactly instill confidence. With Communications with a Capital C right there in the name on the sign, you might think that would be a skill we’d try to practice from time to time.

You might think that, but you’d mostly be wrong.

What great looks like…

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.


There’s a long list of perks when it comes to not being the boss. One of the big ones is that you’re not the guy running interference and providing cover for a bunch of other people when things don’t go exactly according to plan. Keeping your people out of hot water comes with the territory; even when that means you have to take the body blows yourself. At least that’s how it was when I was a boss.

Look, I’ve been around this man’s Big Government Agency a long time and I know that occasionally a few shots are going to get through. It happens. But when it happens more often than not, I start getting nervous… and that’s when my very strong tendency towards self preservation kicks in because I’m not in the habit of letting myself get hung out to dry for anyone.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

There’s a difference between being friends and being friendly…

I like the people I work with well enough. By that I mean I don’t generally want to fold, spindle, or mutilate them by the end of the day. After some of the colleagues I’ve had in the past, I consider that a win. We spend eight hours a day with each other and for the most part manage to stay remarkably friendly with one another. That’s where the problem seems to start.

I’m perfectly willing to be friendly with everyone in the office, but I’m not particular interested in being their friend. I don’t want to come over to their homes for dinner. I don’t particularly want to hang out with them in any setting that’s something other than the office. They’re nice enough people mostly, but I’ve got my own friends already thanks. Adding them to the mix seems to blur the line a little too much between business and personal lives and I’m not cool with that at all. Maybe I’m the deviant in the group, but I’m just not interested in hanging out with my boss or the guy I spend 40-hours a week sitting next to. I see enough of them already.

I completely understand that the manager’s handbook says we have to do team building activities, but since it’s building the work team, how about we do it on work time, huh? Picking a random Wednesday and buying pizza for everyone would have been way better for my morale than royally jacking up one of the two days a week I actually get away from the office. Since I don’t detect any malicious intent here, I’m writing this one off as a strong concept hobbled by poor execution… but let’s try not to make the same mistake again.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Closed door…

There’s a good chance that when I’m sitting in an office alone with the door closed I’m doing something important and I don’t want to be interrupted. The closed door should have been a dead giveaway. The shake of my head when you peered through the window could have been another good indication. The look of disbelief followed one of smoldering hatred when you walked in and started talking about getting your timesheet signed should probably have stopped you dead in your tracks. But no, despite the voices coming out of the speakerphone middle of the table, I actually had to tell you that I was on a teleconference and that no, this wasn’t a good time for us to discuss it. Actually, I think the exact phrase was “Christ on a crutch, I’m on a call here. Get the eff out.”

Fact is, I was doing a phone interview for a promotion with a different big government agency. If I don’t get the position, I know who I will forever blame for it. If my boss was sitting behind closed doors, wandering in just to discuss routine operational questions would be the furthest thing from my mind. The door’s closed for a reason. If it’s critical, I’ll make my own decision, leave a note, or send an email, but unless the fence line is about to be overrun by shotgun toting rednecks, I’m not taking it upon myself to decided whatever’s on my mind is more important than whatever the boss happens to be working on.
Good judgment, I suppose, isn’t something I should expect… but the ability of people to operate without me at my desk for 30 minutes seems like something they should be able to manage. Or not.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

A matter of priorities…

So far we’ve had two meetings today with the Uberboss. One topic was a training program that no one wants to participate in and the other is about a report that literally no one is going to read. How do I know that no one will read it? Easy. The office that requested the report in the first place no longer exists. But I digress.

I’m not saying that management has its priorities jacked up, but at some point in the near future, we might want to actually schedule a meeting about the year’s budget request that has been rejected twice now by the home office. Way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was an MBA student, I learned that having a budget and sticking to it was among the most important things I needed to do as a manager. Maybe I missed the day when they went over the part where they were joking and really the budget was just something you should blow off since no one really needs money anyway. Or maybe he just went to a different school.

So, once again our fearless leader is at war with his own superiors. Yeah, I’m sure this is going to end well. Maybe we should just schedule a meeting to talk about new signage for office doors… Which would be funny if it weren’t already on the calendar for next week.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Dan Rather…

Everyone has their quirks, but the one that probably annoys me most (at the moment) is one individual who has taken to providing regular accounts of the morning’s news to me before I even sit down at my desk in the morning. I’m not exaggerating. He’s standing at my right elbow before I’ve even set my bag down each morning and starts in with whatever “emergencies” are happening around the country. If there are no fires or earthquakes, he’s on to the local news and weather… and I’m still trying to get my computer booted. This drones on for 20-30 minutes every morning despite my best efforts to politely redirect his attention and sometimes my blatantly impolite efforts of staring at the now-booted monitor and responding to his review of the highlight reel with the occasional grunt. Uh huh.

I’m deeply interested in the events of the world. Before I get to the office, I’ve usually at least scanned the headlines of the local paper, the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post. If it’s a light news day, I’ve probably already looked over Drudge and the AP wire as well. But at half past six in the morning, I don’t want to have a philosophical conversation about what’s going on anywhere. What I want to do is spend the first 30 minutes of the day focusing on email that came in over night and otherwise preparing for the day before the rest of the staff wanders in. But no, instead of doing that, it’s like I’ve got my own dim witted Dan Rather giving me a daily morning news brief.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.