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Monday, October 6, 2008

an ode to the bad managers of my past

I never had a mentor. Once a boss promised to teach me how to manage people, but then she promptly disappeared to "work from home" for weeks on end and was never seen again.

What I had instead were anti-mentors: bosses who were so bad that they unwittingly formed the start of my thinking on management, by providing a perfect model of what not to do.

My first boss was so afraid of offending anyone or making waves that he stood idly by while the organization crumbled around him. About half the staff there did little to no work, and he said nothing about it. He would sometimes complain about people behind their back but he never addressed anything to anyone's face. It was impossible to get warned about anything, let alone fired. One coworker and I used to speculate on how outrageous someone's behavior would have to be before he would be forced to say something to them. At one point, we decided that I could come to work wrapped in a bath towel, as if I'd just stepped out of the shower, and he wouldn't comment on it. We resorted to begging the higher-ups to hire a real manager, but our pleas went nowhere and we eventually left.

Later, I had another boss who openly talked about how she hadn't wanted the promotion that had made her the manager of our department, and it was clear that her strategy was to pretend nothing had changed. Requests from other departments for work from us would sit in her in-box for days because she either didn't want or didn't know how to assign work. Eventually the department that had sent the request would call to check on it, at which point she would assign it to someone who would be forced to drop everything to complete it at the last minute. A co-worker and I used to devise ways to get work done despite her; at one point we installed a work order box outside the department and announced that all incoming jobs had to be requested via a form left in the box, so we could just grab jobs and do them, before they got bottlenecked with our alleged "manager."

I had another boss who brought me in to "fix" problems on the staff and who loved to sit in his office and complain to me about how those problem staffers were holding the organization back. Ironically, he also loved giving flowery speeches about the importance of strong management -- until I told him it was time to start holding those problem staffers accountable and insisting they start getting some results. Then he filibustered for months, coming up with one reason after another why we couldn't take any action, until I finally realized he would never bring himself to make waves. Many years later, long after I left in frustration at his inaction, those problem staffers are still there, their problem behaviors unchanged.

I could go on and on. But the point is this: My bad bosses taught me what eventually became the foundation of my own approach to management, by teaching me what not to do. Once you know what not to do, the path to what you should do becomes remarkably clear.

By working for managers who allowed their desire to be nice to lead them to avoid unpopular/difficult decisions and conversations, I learned how crucial it is to address problems straightforwardly. By working for managers who tolerated shoddy work, I learned the importance of setting a clear and high bar and expecting people to meet it. By working with managers who didn't know how to delegate, I learned how key it is to be hands-on in keeping work moving, including laying out clear expectations about results, checking in on progress, and holding people accountable for their performance. And from various other bad managers, I learned to see and use authority as just one more tool in the toolbox for getting things done; it's not something that should make you nervous or something to lord over others, just something that helps you run things in the way they should be run, and to back up your words with action.

And now that I manage other managers, I make damn sure none of them are going to be the nightmare manager that someone else is writing about someday.

So here's a shout-out to all the bad managers from my past. You put me on the path to my current job and, in the words of the terrible Chicago ballad, you're the inspiration. Thank you!

12 comments:

Jackie Cameron said...

AAM - great stuff. I expect that many of use thought we were alone in having experiences similar to yours. What I know ( and do ) now is very much based on the learning during the "bad" times. I loved your story about working round one of your bad bosses. I wonder how many others are doing this - and how much time it wastes... But sometimes it is the only way ( top marks for creativity in solving a problem).
Reading this post made me smile - but it is actually quite sad too.

Evil HR Lady said...

So, seriously, when can I come work for you? Not joking here. Sign me up. (Salary is negotiable, but I only want 20 hours per week and telecommuting. Not that I'm picky.)

John & Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

All of those experiences are bad enough, but what about a manager who is indecisive, won't delegate, won't answer requests necessary to do your job, and then when you just go ahead and do it, catch holy hell? Also spends staff meeting time badmouthing colleagues and former workers and talking about very inappropriate personal issues. Also, said manager is a bully - mean, undermining, intimidating, degrading and narcissistic. Needless to say, we have all jumped ship with symptoms of PTSD, and said manager is still there, slowly sinking the ship because nobody higher up wants to deal with it.

I honestly think that sometimes bad managers (yours or mine) aren't ultimately the problem; it's that people who could do something to correct the situation choose for a variety of reasons (I would like to see a post on this!) not to. In addition, bad managers like mine are very good at hiding the most egregious of their behaviors, so it is your word against them - an often losing proposition with HR and the higher ups.

Of course, AAM would never tolerate such behavior from a manager!:)

Needless to say, I, too, learned a lot from said manager about managing my own employees - with respect and kindness (Golden Rule) and open communication, never expecting more of them than I do of myself, lavishing praise when due, delegating so they feel ownership and pride in their work rather than just issuing orders, and quietly, but firmly and quickly dealing with problems when they arise. As a result, I have been blessed with (mostly) wonderful, supportive employees. So I guess all our examples are further proof we often learn best the hard way. Being a bad manager will result in you having bad workers, as they will be the only ones who will stick around long term in such a situation.

Ask a Manager said...

Jackie: I agree -- it is sad, at its core. And incredibly frustrating when you are living through it.

EHRL: We are going to go into business together. Maybe we will hire ourselves out to fire people all the time.

Anonymous: Yes! It is ultimately the fault of the person above them who lets them get away with it, and those people are themselves bad managers. In fact, in the case of the first and second managers I described, in both cases I ended up going to their boss to beg for intervention. In the first case, nothing happened, and in the second case, they did nothing until I resigned for another job, at which point they promised to address the problems. Too late!

Evil HR Lady said...

AAM--let's do it. I'm an expert in layoffs. You've done a lot more for cause and non-willful non-performance. I've even got database skills.

What fun! A firing consulting business.

Anonymous said...

AAM - thank you for presenting reality when it comes to bad managers; so many times we think we are the only ones experiencing something and question our way of thinking or responding. You are the real deal ! I hope your employees know what a treasure you are - happy boss's day early ! :)

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

http://blog.threestarleadership.com/2008/10/08/10808-a-midweek-look-at-the-business-blogs.aspx

Wally Bock

Anonymous said...

Great post. Hindsight's not the only thing that helps you see 20/20.

Dan McCarthy said...

Alison –

It’s possible to learn and grow through bad boss experience, but it doesn’t always happen. I’ve seen bad bosses spawn more bad bosses, or employees that are mismanaged become burned out, cynical, bad apples, etc…

Congratulations for having the ability to take these hardships and turn them into constructive lessons.

Donald Glover said...

Wow! Just found this blog. It sums everything up perfectly. Here is the type of manager, Calvin Rowland, I left, the worm. As discussed over on buzzle.com:

GOT BAIT???

The "Worm" is the hardest to find, and probably one of the most dangerous. This manager is an expert manipulator and rises up through the ranks not through their own expertise and good works, but rather through the alliances they make. Unfortunately, those alliances are usually made through personal connections; such as being friends with the boss’ wife.

This manager will have literally wormed their way into every faction of your organization. And because the alliances ARE personal in nature, the entire management team will have lost their ability to be objective about the "Worm’s" talents, abilities, and contributions; leaving you all vulnerable to the "Worm’s" manipulations.

Unfortunately for you, your employees are smart. You see, the truly dangerous aspect of this manager is the fact that your employees SEE THAT YOU ARE BEING MANIPULATED!!! So, why on earth would they want to follow a leader who can so easily be lead astray? The answer is simply, they DON’T; and they WON’T follow you. Oh, they will show up and collect their checks, but their energies, ambitions, creativity, and innovations will be spent elsewhere.

Thank you for this blog and opening my eyes.

Justin Downey said...

Totally agree.

I took this a step further in my post: "Learning the Most from the Worst" where I apply to business what I've learned from some of the worst around.