How a Large Bald Man with a Goatee Made Me a Better Manager

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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery with one exception:  when your children are mimicking you when you don’t allow them to play video games.  In this article, I’m talking about imitation as flattery because it’s a lot less frustrating!

As children, we model our parent’s behavior and prepare for the time when we live on our own and start families.  As adults, our parents are gone, but our managers have replaced them as people to model.  We have all worked for great bosses, bad bosses, and seen the movie Horrible Bosses, so no doubt you can identify some of your leadership behavior as having been modeled after certain individuals.  This is the story about one of the people I reported to early in my career and the technique I permanently borrowed from him without commensurate remuneration (also known as “stealing”).  Amongst the things I learned from him, he taught me a lot about expectation setting, frank communication, and most impactfully, that companies are about the people you work with more than the name on the door.  For the purposes of this story, we will call him Alan.

About five years into my career, I was told that the empty supervisory position in the org chart I reported to was to be filled by someone who wasn’t me.  Reporting to an empty box on the org chart suited my desire for freedom of expression and control of my work product. Best of all, I had clear line of sight to “the next job” on the corporate ladder (more on this topic in the next blog).  Empty box relationships were amongst my best relationships at work.

No doubt I wanted the role, but it was a big job and it would have been my first management position, so I was able to rationalize why there was a “place holder” above me.  My new manager was being transferred from Headquarters and had previously worked for our VP (who had also been transferred from Headquarters), so he made an obvious choice for the empty box.

Alan was an intense guy–way more so than me, certainly.  There were about five of us as I recall reporting to him and the first thing Alan did was to set up individual one on one’s.  No group meeting, no lunch, no banter.  All business.  30 minutes in a conference room, alone.  The meeting was called “Expectation Setting”.  That was intimidating enough.

The conference room was close to my office and my meeting was 10:30, which was to be the last of his series of one on one meetings with the group – save the best for last, I hoped!  At 8:00 am, I saw him go in and I let out a short gasp.  Broad, thick shoulders, shaved bald head, big goatee, hands the size of boulders and eyes….  Eyes so intense that you feel that if you broke eye contact with him, your body might collapse, and your soul would evacuate the premise as fast as possible.  Even for me, someone who was not intimidated easily, Alan terrified me.

At 10:30, I went into the conference room and shook his hand.  Much to my surprise, the bones in my hand were not broken.  My body didn’t collapse and my soul, instead of racing for the exit, felt energized.  The longer I spoke with him, the more I felt at ease and that this guy was going to be an amazing boss.  Alan asked me “What do you do?”  “What do you like to do?” “What don’t you like to do?”

After I stumbled through my answers, he handed me a one-page sheet of paper.  Ah Ha!  The “expectations” part of the meeting, but it looked like nothing I had ever seen on “expectations”.  It was a one-page summary of his philosophy, beliefs, and how to understand him better and have success working for him.  He also encouraged us to make one for ourselves that we could share in the future.  End of meeting.

As I grew into more senior roles in the years that followed, I was constantly reminded that leadership is difficult and fluid – especially when it’s your first time managing.   The transition from creating work product to managing others who create work product is a daunting leap.  Early on, one’s “style” (if I can call it that) comes across as an un-synthesized hodgepodge of leadership books. Over time, you figure out the good parts and get rid of the bad.

As a result of Alan, I had a great template to go by.  I refer to my one-page summary often – in part as a snap shot of the way I was, and in part to ground me to who I want to be.  I encourage you to take 30 minutes today generate a one-page summary for your leadership or working philosophy. Here’s mine.  I hope it helps.

***

Leadership Philosophy:  Create a positive and energetic work environment; surround myself with people smarter than myself and harness their talent; and leave a lasting legacy for those who follow.

Leaders Do:

  1. Serve to clear road blocks and attract the resources necessary to be successful.
  2. Guide and direct to stay within the confines of the overall strategy- the “what.”
  3. Communicate openly at all times and provide the “why” of decisions.
  4. Focus on the process to ensure the results follow.

Leaders Don’t:

  1. Act as a roadblock or constrain the freedom of creativity of those they lead.
  2. Offer the “how” before hearing and incorporating people’s feedback.
  3. Hide information or believe that their interests are more important than anyone else’s.
  4. Focus on results without understanding the sustainability of the process.

Hot Buttons:

  1. Saying “no” to a solution without providing an alternative one.
  2. Dishonesty or lack of transparency.
  3. Not believing we ALWAYS have a choice in how we behave or what we do.

Strengths:

  1. Seeing the “big picture” and prioritizing work to meet the overall strategy.
  2. Energy level and work ethic.
  3. Outside-the-box problem solving.

Weaknesses (I’m working on them!):

  1. Patience.
  2. Talking about D or E, before I have thoroughly explained A, B and C. (i.e. Going too fast when I get excited and see the end point.)
  3. Office politics—I’m not as sensitive as I need to be.

Favorite Quotes:

“Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts, and evidence.”        – John Adams, 2nd President of the US

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”   – John Maxwell

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”  – Peter Drucker

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