There are not many great bosses.  Personally, since I know the origins of the term “boss,” I usually prefer the term “supervisor.”

But, today, my task is to talk about one of my great bosses (supervisors).  I’ve had two; space allows for one at this time.  Some of you may be surprised that I have ever been supervised—or am supervisable.  Some of you may be surprised that I would identify one of my past supervisors as “great.”  But, I have been, and I do.  Here is what he did.

He was responsible for the functioning of more than half of the company as the Vice President of Engineering and Operations.  He also had a very busy home life—four or five small children, as I remember.  And, he was very involved with his family; I seem to remember he was a Scout Master.  It’s been a number of years ago now, so the details are a bit fuzzy to me.

I remember sitting with him in various meetings and hearing his Blackberry softly beep—a few times a minute—as email messages dropped into his inbox.   This would go on all day. He just let it happen.  He always appeared calm and reflective.  But, since I was a Director reporting in to him and leading an organization that was responsible for supporting custom deployments, he showed me what switches to flip in an Outlook email message so that I could get his attention immediately if I ever needed it.  I only used this protocol two or three times while we were working together, and he responded—immediately.

We worked together for some time before he promoted me to Director.  I had risen very quickly in the ranks in that organization, but as the Director layer was being laid down in the org chart, I spoke up and said that I wanted to be considered.  The greatest favor he did for me was to do a 360 review of my performance before promoting me—without telling me in advance—and then shared the results with me.  I still have that document in my files and refer to it occasionally.

The 360 made it clear where I was strong and where I needed to grow if I was going to be successful once promoted.  He also told me that he had thrown out a couple of comments because they were—what was the term he used—off the wall?  This helped me understand that I was not necessarily entirely among friends, also valuable.  And then he promoted me and supported my decisions.

One requirement I have of anyone who supervises me is that, behind closed doors I can be completely open with him or her.  In a position of organizational leadership, I realize that I may need to carry out certain policies with which I may not be entirely aligned, but if I am asked to lie, I will refuse to comply.  And, if I am not aligned with a given policy, I reserve the right to make that clear to my supervisor and explain my reasons.  All this was in place with him, and when I raised objections he listened and allowed my reasoning to inform his.

He was supportive of my career goals and saw to it that I got offsite training required to allow me to sit for an industry standard certification test that has proven very valuable to me.

He was also transparent and even handed with me.  When I raised concerns about how we were treating a key customer, he listened to what I had to say and was judicious in his response.  As things became more intense as I continued to point out possible ethical issues in our customer engagement practices, he was transparent about the consternation this was causing among his peers, but he aligned with the importance of doing business ethically and even went to bat with the CEO on my behalf.

One day when the only Senior Vice President in the executive staff sent him an email ranting about my unwillingness to continue deployments without acknowledging and managing risk, he simply turned his monitor around and showed me the email.  It made it clear to me exactly where I stood.  And, when I was accused by another VP of verbally abusing a customer, my supervisor, rather than being reactive (though he was at first shocked and troubled) took the time to review the recordings I had made of all referenced conversations and then come back to me and told me that, from his point of view, I had been far from aggressive and, if anything, relatively meek and the accuser was the verbally abusive party in that conversation.  And, again he went to bat for me.

When things became too hot, and we both came to understand that certain customers were being lied to and that I refused to participate in that, he provided cover for me (time) so that I could find a new job and try to exit in an orderly manner.  Within a matter of months, as I remember, he was gone, too.  And that organization continued to change its stripes on almost an annual basis until it sold itself for a pittance some time later.

Why was he a great supervisor?  Because:

  • He made it clear that he was aware of my weaknesses and wanted me to be aware of them, too.
  • Once I was promoted, he supported me in my role.
  • When I was accused of extraordinary behavior by executive staff, he was not reactive and looked at all the evidence.
  • He understood and respected my ethical boundaries and did not prevail upon me to compromise them but helped me understand the cost of them.
  • Always, even when things got really hot, he tried to be on the same side of the problem with me rather than making it my problem, not his.
  • He listened and allowed my thinking to inform his where it seemed reasonable to him.
  • He supported my professional growth and valued my dignity.
  • And, incidentally, he knew his stuff—both with regard to managing an organization and leading people, so I could learn from him.

I stayed in touch with him for years after he left that organization, and I even considered moving out of state to work with him again.  I heard other people had a similar interest.

Good bosses are as rare as hen’s teeth.  If you’re a supervisor, be a good one, get better, or leave the role.  The cost to everyone is too high to do otherwise.

  • Patrick James

    Jean, your words are thoughtful and kind and I believe a shining example that good enables good. Those in leadership are like magicians. They can create cultures within their sphere of influence that are warm, sincere, kind. This does not take away from performance but actually enables greater performance. Be sure to pass good on to others.

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