Today is “Boss’ Day” and, as she does often, Ann Marie Klotz posed a question that inspired some reflection. “What is the best thing you have ever learned from a supervisor?” The challenge in that question is picking just one lesson as the “best”. I was blessed to spend my formative professional years working for an amazing supervisor, mentor, and friend (whom I won’t publicly name, but those who know me know who he is). I will always be indebted to him for giving me a fresh start from a previous position that was, to put it kindly, not a great fit (that’s another post for another day). In the 4 1/2 years I spent working with him, I learned many of the lessons that would become a part of my own management philosophy and still are the foundation of my approach even now that it has been over 6 years since we worked together.
One of my constant areas of growth has been in my almost bipolar approach to bridging the gap between thought and action. In my early days, I would either spend so much time thinking that I would almost talk myself out of acting or, I would succumb to foot-in-mouth disease and act without even consulting my inner voice. Early on in my work, my foot met my mouth in an almost dramatic fashion. What was worse was that my supervisor heard about my misstep from someone other than me. He came to me, wide-eyed and surprised, trying to figure out what the heck had happened. I was embarrassed, almost ashamed, as I recounted what I probably never thought was a good idea to begin with, and yet this idea found its way out of my mouth in an almost out-of-body experience. After I briefed him, he let me know that he was about to head into a meeting with his superiors where he was going to have to discuss this. Now I felt even worse. I offered to send e-mails, even go to his superiors to explain what had happened and to let them know this was all and only my doing. He would have none of it. He said “its my job to take the heat, not you. This will pass”.
That lesson has never left me to this day, and that moment created a trust and faith that would never be broken. While we did not always agree, I always knew we were on the same team, and that made me want to work harder for him and to make him proud.
As I mentioned above, I learned many lessons from him. I’ve tried to capture a few of the key ones that still resonate with me today.
Explain when you can, so staff trusts when you can’t
My supervisor was extremely open with me and my coworkers. He vetted ideas with us and let us know about the politics behind decisions. He even let us know when there were times he didn’t necessarily agree with something, but had to support it anyway. So, when there were times he couldn’t share and asked us just to “trust him” – we did. It was easy to, because we knew there were larger forces at play and that this was one of those moments we had to be left in the dark, sometimes for our own benefit.
Don’t overreact to mistakes
The lesson shared below was the first and only time I didn’t share a mistake (of which there were quite a few over almost 5 years). I knew that our office was a safe space to make mistakes. That didn’t mean there weren’t consequences, but I knew we were all better off if I was completely open about them and was able to do that because I knew they didn’t impact his faith in me and my ability to do my job.
From external folks, scatter the praise but hoard the criticism
My supervisor looked at our staff as a family, and during peak times we spent more time with each other than our actual families. He saw it as his duty to make sure that any praise that our area received was linked to one of us. He didn’t need it, but knew that in our formative years we did. However, he was also very protective of us. He never threw us under the proverbial bus and often shielded us from criticism, whether deserved or not. We always knew he “had our backs”
Give some breathing room
My supervisor definitely were on opposite ends of the J/P spectrum. While for some that might materialize as micromanaging, that was never the case in our relationship. His one rule was that he should never be caught by surprise at a meeting, which meant that we should always keep him in the loop. However, he trusted us in our day-to-day work and let us run with our ideas and play to our strengths. This, I think, benefited him as well as his portfolio increased over time with more areas and responsibilities reporting to him. He knew we would get our work done, and do it well.
As I mentioned before, our office was in many ways a family, partly because we spent so much time together. My supervisor took time to celebrate what was going on in our non-work lives. He took an interest in our lives, celebrated engagements and births, and mourned break-ups and deaths. He knew that we sometimes sacrificed time with others to be present at work, and wanted to make sure we could still live as integrated lives as possible.
What lessons have you taken from your past supervisors? What has become a part, or will become a part, of your management styles?