Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Platonic Ideal of "Boss"

(Just got back from three much-needed and very relaxing days at the shore, and my brain is not quite in "wake" mode. I really hope this post, which wrote itself in my head the whole time I was on the beach, is as coherent as it needs to be for the topic.)

My first job in the publishing industry was not in book publishing but rather in journalism. I moved to Connecticut and took an entry-level job as an office assistant at a small legal newspaper. Since I was completely na├»ve at the time in all matters corporate America, when I took the job offer (basically because the really cool windsurfing company where I really wanted to work was taking its own sweet time in getting back to me, and I needed a job yesterday), I had absolutely no idea that I'd be working for anything other than this small, seemingly friendly little paper, based in this suburban Connecticut town. No one had bothered to inform me otherwise when I’d come for my interview. After all, I was just an office assistant (glorified receptionist, really). However, I was soon to be enlightened. On my first day at the job, first thing in the morning, someone called asking to speak to Steve Brill. I put the person on hold and asked the woman who was the editor at the time,

“Who’s Steve Brill?”

The editor’s worried response that all calls for Steve Brill should immediately be forwarded to the New York office was the first hint I got that I was somewhere a bit bigger than this 30-employee office. Soon thereafter, I learned that Brill was The Bigwig. He owned us. It was a terrifically fun place to work. Except when Steve Brill arrived, which he did every-so-often. Most of the people who worked there were either disillusioned lawyers or people like me testing out the notion of a publishing or journalism career. Only three of us were over the age of 40, and no one was over the age of 50. We were young; we were idealistic; we worked hard; and we had a great time. When Brill arrived, however, the feelings of disdain and contempt would have knocked anyone else flat on his back. I've always thought it was too bad. The man had great ideas. He later went on to found Court TV. But he’s part of the reason I left publishing and decided maybe I’d be better-suited for library work where people seemed to care about people.

Long after I’d left, GQ magazine did an article about Brill. It began something like this, “So, you think your boss is bad?” Here you go: the only thing I’ve ever had published in the print media was a letter to the editor in response to that article. Unfortunately, the editor cut it to pieces. Thus, my letter railing at the media for giving the likes of Steve Brill the time of day sounded like nothing more than a rant from a disgruntled former employee. I stand my ground, though. Why do jerks like Steve Brill and Donald Trump get all the attention in society? Why don’t we see articles in national magazines about the good bosses out there?

I was drawn to think about all this a while back when Bloglily wrote about her job she so loves. She made special note of her perfect boss, and I remember thinking, “could it be there’s more than one perfect boss in the world?” That’s because, for the past three years, I’ve been working for a perfect boss. I am, once again, working at a terrifically fun place, a place where people have a real passion for what they do, where we are all idealistic, where we work hard and have a great time. Her leadership has, of course, contributed to this environment, and it has been invaluable (although I can hear her “aw-shucks-it’s-not-me-it’s-you-guys” response to that echoing in my ear as I type).

Everyone should be fortunate enough to have a boss like this at least once in his or her lifetime, the sort who ought to be featured in the media, the sort who trusts her employees and would never, ever stoop to bullying and demeaning tactics. That’s because she’s wise enough to know that those kinds of tactics don’t engender hard work and loyalty, but it’s also because she’s just too kind. She’s the sort of boss who knows it all but would never let anyone think she knows much of anything. She leaves her employees alone, lets them make their own mistakes, but never lets them fall under her watch, always reaching out both hands to catch them. She doesn’t breathe down anyone’s neck, but if you happen to need her, she will drop everything to help you. Oh yeah, and did I mention, she’s also someone you’d want to know in real life? Someone you’d like to kick back a few beers with and be there when she lights up a room (or a building) with her laugh?

And now, much to my horror, I have to accept the fact that my perfect boss is leaving. Not only is she leaving, but she’s moving all the way across the country. To say I’m not extremely happy for her to have this golden opportunity would be to lie. I am. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that I’m extremely unhappy for those of us left behind. Since this is our last week with her, and we’ve known now for a month that she was leaving, I think I’m beginning to get past the stage at which I want to grab onto her legs and say, “No, don’t go! Don’t leave!” Maybe in another six months or so I’ll be completely through the stage?

Anyway, here’s to L. I was very, very lucky for three years. I wish it had been longer. Meanwhile, based on the tear-filled going-away party I recently attended, I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say she will be missed. Her new company’s gain is our loss. And I hope all those of you reading this post are one day lucky enough to have such a boss.


Charlotte said...

I enjoyed this tribute to your boss, Emily, and also felt slightly envious because I never once had a boss about whom I felt the same way. My bosses ranged from the merely egotistical to the pathologically insane.

Having said that, no matter what degree of horrible they were, I learned something from each of them, and one has even gone on to become a great friend.

Anonymous said...

Emily, my first comment would be to say that from what I know of you I think you would be the kind of boss that L is (if you wanted to be one day). Did you ever read "The One Minute Manager". I didn't read it but I got the gist of it (or at least I think I did). Someone who contains, who encourages, who doesn't intrude but who takes an interest and then moves on to let you do the stuff on your own (but is around if you need help). Someone who models all the qualities that she would like to see in her staff. Who leads by example, makes mistakes and is able to tolerate those in others. In typical psychology style I have to say that maybe she's not leaving you completely - you'll always be able to call her up in your mind (if not on the phone) and say: What Would L Do?

ZoesMom said...

This is a great tribute and I think Pete is right when he says that in a sense she's not leaving you completely. At the same time I feel for you because I would be in the same state should my own boss up and desert me.

Anonymous said...

L. was also one of my favorite bosses--I've had some great ones and some true sociopaths. My first publishing boss from 1981-86 became a true mentor and sadly died way too young. But the people I worked with under her STILL get together over a quarter of a century later even though we live all over the country (we're meeting up next month when I'm in Chicago). That is a tribute to this amazing woman, Sue Mahoney.

I agree with Pete that you'd be a great boss, Emily! Now who IS getting L.'s job??

Anonymous said...

I had a wonderful boss for five years. I loved her. Even when the worke we were doing sucked and I wanted nothing more than to quit, I stayed because of her and her support. Now she's gone off to travel the world and my new boss can't hold a candle to her. We keep in touch, but oh, how I miss her!

Emily Barton said...

Charlotte, I've been fortunate enough to have three great bosses in my life, but L. has definitely been the best.

Pete, thanks. I hope I'm the kind of boss she is. She's definitely been a great role model. And, of course, Steve Brill was an early role model for what not to be.

ZM, yes Pete's right. Besides, I plan to visit her on the west coast. Hang on to that great boss of yours.

Danny, I am as much in the dark when it comes to answering that question as you are. The decision has yet to be finalized. Meanwhile, you, L., and I can have our own reunions when I finally get my butt out there one of these days.

Stef, so you know EXACTLY how I feel!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I had that boss, once. For a year and a half. And then she left, and working, no matter how good, has never been AS good. But it sounds like your corporate culture is a bit more established than mine was. In the mean time, I hope you weather her leaving well, and welcome back from your time off!

Anonymous said...

The problem with bosses (or colleagues in general) is that they can very easily be contaminated by an ass****, as so well explained in the mnagement book 'the no ass**** rule'. It does not take long working with a nasty boss to get infected. That's why I once long ago decided that my first move if I ever set foot in less-than-friendly work atmosphere would be to run away as fast as legally possible.

So far, I have only had bosses like the one you regret : six of them till now. Keeping my fingers crossed.

litlove said...

Why is it always the first boss who is so memorable? Mine was an alcoholic from South Africa, rumoured to have fled his country after shooting someone. But I have to say I've never had a really good boss - it's why I've always moved ever closer to complete autonomy in the work place! I'm so glad you had that experience.

Rebecca H. said...

Sorry you have lost that boss! Whoever takes her place is going to have a tough time of it, no matter how great he/she is, to have that act to follow!

Marissa Dupont said...

L. ruled. I'm still in denial that she's gone. I didn't even get to say goodbye in person, as she snuck out of the office and sent us all a goodbye email. I barely worked with her (totally different department than mine) but I'm SO SAD. I really hope she keeps in touch with all of us.

Emily Barton said...

Court, yes, our corporate culture is well-established, so my job will continue to be fun, just very different. And I'll miss her as both a person and a mentor.

Mandarine, well, it's about time you got a good one. I'm crossing my fingers for you, too.

Litlove, another one who's never had a good boss? I'm beginning to feel extraordinarily lucky!

Dorr, yes, a very tough act to follow!

Gollygee, I heard she just walked right out. Best thing to do, but I'm so glad I wasn't there. She'll keep in touch, no doubt about it.

Anonymous said...

I mean I have had six bosses like your L. I am keeping my fingers crossed so that my lucky streak goes on forever.

Emily Barton said...

Mandarine, oh, "lost in translation," huh? That's better. Now I don't have to feel so sorry for you.