an ode to the bad managers of my past

Posts this week have included some reprints of older posts that I still love. This post concludes our reprints and was probably my favorite post ever. It was originally published on October 7, 2008.

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!

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie

    I agree – that is a terrible song. :)

    I’ve had managers that ran the gamut from a spectacularly good mentor who set the bar too high for most people to touch it in this lifetime to someone so horrible I quit with nothing else lined up shortly after getting a 43% raise.

    I thought it was good money at the time, until I worked for this person and realized they weren’t paying me for my talent but rather it was payment to check my dignity at the door when I walked in. Turns out the cost of my dignity is a lot more than my work product is worth.

    Lessons learned equally from both ends of the spectrum. Although it’s a lot easier to not be bad boss than it is to be super mentor. I keep trying, though.

  2. WFH victims

    Hah. My manager WFH 95% of the time. When we had a new hire who was a PITA she told me that she didn’t want him as her problem and I should stop asking her to provide him with some guidance (because he was needy). We’re about to hire someone else and ironically I’ve been told to set him up with a desk superclose to my office to manage.

    1. KellyK

      That sounds really annoying. If these people report to your manager too, she should…I don’t know…manage them.

      As a side rant, it irritates the heck out of me when people “work” from home instead of working from home. Flexibility is such a useful thing, and when people turn flexibility into “I’m going to be totally unreachable and ignore important tasks,” it screws things up for everyone else. (In a good environment, that wouldn’t happen–the person not working would just be fired for not doing their job. But it seems way more common to hear “No, we can’t have people work from home because one person took horrible advantage.”)

      1. Jamie

        I’ll be honest – that’s why I’m wary of it. Especially on things where it’s hard to measure product. IME it’s been abused more than it’s been utilized properly.

        Fortunately, I’m not the one who makes those calls so my bias doesn’t affect anyone but myself. But this is why I don’t work from home as much as I would be allowed – because I know how others will perceive it.

        It is a shame.

      2. starts & ends with A

        She does work. But, because she’s so rarely on site, other people are skeptical of what she does and doesn’t do.

  3. Kelly O

    I could not possibly agree more with you on this one. I have always wanted that “mentor” relationship but so far have managed to learn more from people who clearly showed how not to do things.

  4. Ornery PR

    I once worked a job at a very small startup (2 guys and me), and we worked out of the owner’s home for the first couple months until we could afford office space. A market opened up for us in New York (we were based in the West) and my boss left town to try to establish something there. A couple days turned into a couple weeks, and finally he called me to see if I could ship out some more of his personal items. Well, those “personal” items ended up being a portion of his marijuana stash because apparently he was getting low. When I went in his closet to check out the stash, there were 2o large mason jars all filled with weed! His so-called personal stash! It was surreal.

    Anyway, this was not the most egregious thing he did, surprise, surprise. He used to stand over my shoulder as I was designing a marketing peice and tell me to move things pixel by pixel. That got me more riled up than the drugs thing.

    Sadly, he was not the worst boss I’ve ever had, but from him I learned what felony amounts of weed are, why to never work from someone’s home, and to appreciate bosses who give me space.

  5. NewReader

    Some bosses are a “What NOT to do” guide book. They show you step by step what not to do.

    They have sharpened me in ways they never intended. I take time to appreciate other people, kind gestures, and thoughtful words. I cannot say I would do this WELL now, if it had not been for the “guide book bosses.”

    I am quicker to notice when someone does not cuss a blue streak, raise their voice or slam things around when faced with an ordinary work problem.

    Some one goes over a difficult task with me in detail- I go out of my way to make sure that person feels they have been thanked and they are appreciated.

    When I see a boss who does not malign others behind their backs, I start thinking I have a good boss on my job.

    But most importantly, I have come to understand that these issues are a lack of managerial skills. Skilled managers either do not have these problems or they work to keep their shortcomings to a minimum.

  6. Spreadsheet Monkey

    Alison, I’m impressed that bad managers early in your career inspired you to be better, not just decide that things normally work that way and end up being like them.

    I’ve had a few bad managers, but two of them were so bad that when I get a good manager I’m very leery of it and keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. A friend said that it sound like I have PTSD from the last bad boss (I was at that job for 3 1/2 years, and knew from day 1 it was a bad fit).

    1. NewReader

      Good point, Spreadsheet, it is like a PTSD. That would make a great subject to chat about- how do we get over the injuries sustained in dealing with bad boss?

      I have seen people almost paralyzed by the trauma, almost unable to move on to another job. I would describe them as broken and defeated. I have had my share of punches so I know how hard this stuff is.

  7. Caroline

    The Ode to Bad Managers of My Past reminds me of a favorite quotation:
    “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning”
    –Catherine Aird

  8. iceyone

    I’ve had 5 jobs (been working for 13 years full time!) and have to say most managers couldn’t manage their way out of a brown paper bag!

    It seems the peter principle is alive and well – it is really who you know, not what you know!

    My current manager isn’t perfect, but has a managing style that is fair and he trusts us to get our work done (and treats us like adults!)

    I would say you don’t have to be a leader to be a manager and you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader!

    If I ever become a manager (and at this stage I’m not sure I’m really cut out for it!) I would think back to my first 4 managers and do the exact opposite!

    It’s quite simple – treat workers with respect, give them challenges, help them grow, pay them well and be happy for them when they want to move on – of course asking for 1 of these is sometimes too much!

    1. Jamie

      I think leadership is a key part of management.

      Here may be instances, but in y experience in order to manage well you need to be ale o lead your team.

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