. . . supervisors, superiors, directors, chiefs, captains, head honchos. There’s a reasonably broad vocabulary for describing those in the workplace in charge of others in the workplace.
I suppose there are shadings. A lot of folks draw a distinction between manager and leader. Leader suggests someone with vision, decisiveness and a gift for inspiring others to follow. Manager has a plodding air about it, suggesting a paper shuffler, a pencil pusher, a number cruncher, all process and no passion.
Boss is certainly the most protean of the words on the list. It can sound working class. It can imply toughness. It can suggest bullying. In its adjective form – bossy – is it sexist? Sometimes, I’m sure. It’s also the indispensible word in one of the greatest schoolyard taunts ever devised: “You’re not the boss of me.”
In my twenty-some years in advertising, I’ve had 13 bosses. There’ve been other “dotted line on the org chart” quasi bosses, but exactly 13 bosses responsible to their bosses for my work.
Between my last big agency gig and starting Factory – three years, give or take – I worked for myself. I liked to joke that I finally had my best boss ever. And that I also had my best staff ever. Neither of which was necessarily true at any given time.
For the record, in the same twenty-some years in advertising, I’ve been the boss of somewhere just south of 50 advertising folk. I’ve hired, promoted, given raises, handed out bonuses, laid off and fired.
And what have I learned from having bosses and from having bossed?
There are better bosses and worse bosses, but there’s no such thing as a perfect boss. Or even a perfectly awful boss.
Instead, the best boss I ever had was pieces of this boss and that boss and the other boss. Likewise, the worst boss I ever had.
The best boss I ever had taught me things worth knowing. And remembering. The best boss I ever had loved ideas and thinking and creativity for the sake of creativity. The best boss I ever had knew how to laugh. At himself as much as at others. The best boss I ever had was a truly good and decent man. The best boss I ever had loved advertising. The medium. The industry. The job. The best boss I ever had let me do my work the way that worked for me.
The worst boss I ever had lied more than you’d want your boss to lie. The worst boss I ever had could have just as easily been an accountant or realtor or insurance broker as an ad person. The worst boss I ever had believed raises and bonuses were gifts bosses dispensed and not rewards employees earned. The worst boss I ever had was afraid, always afraid, of clients. The worst boss I ever had tried to get me to spy on his behalf (no, seriously). The worst boss I ever had was far more comfortable killing ideas than nurturing them. The worst boss I ever had was narrow minded. And too comfortable with it. The worst boss I ever had was mean. Casually and cruelly mean.
The funny thing is, some of my bosses show up on both lists. In advertising, like a lot of businesses, if you do your job well, they put you in charge of other people. Which doesn’t mean you’re good at being in charge of other people.
The worst boss I ever was had too quick a temper. The worst boss I ever was was too quick with a sharp word. The worst boss I ever was needed to learn how to lead people to better work. The worst boss I ever was let his feelings – not the good ones – show too much and too often. The worst boss I ever was should have understood the difference between being friendly with his people and being their friends. Because one is better than the other.
The best boss I ever was rewarded hard work and good work and those who delivered both. The best boss I ever was was someone you could count on to help you get across a finish line. The best boss I ever was made people better at the work they do. The best boss I ever was fought for his team when fighting was the thing that was needed. The best boss I ever was was generous with his time. The best boss I ever was remembered to say “thank you.” The best boss I ever was learned – if only a little – from his everyday mistakes and his great big failures.
Twenty-some years in the ad business – two years running Factory – I’d like to think I’m a better boss than I was before. Does that make it so? It’s not for me to say. Like most bosses, I have my worse points and my better points, I’m sure.
One thing I learned having the bosses I had is that the perfect boss isn’t out there. As much as one might wish otherwise.
Which means the perfect boss isn’t (pointing in my own direction) in here, either.
As much as I – and the folks who work here – might wish otherwise.