I walked across the parking lot, straightening my tie as I walked, the pages of my notebook flying up in the air with each step. I was late for my meeting with my boss, the college president. I had been on the phone with a consulting firm and the large-scale web and video campaign that we had wanted to make was going to cost significantly more to create than I had expected. To top it off, I had some bad news to give the president on a series the local television station was running on the rising cost of Higher Education.
When I got to his office, the president’s secretary told me to go in, he was waiting for me. As soon as a I entered, I apologized for my lateness and started immediately with the bad news. The president listened, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t get upset, he didn’t get mad, he just looked at me. A previous boss had a bad habit of getting frustrated as soon as something didn’t go his way. This was new, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My boss had a military background with teaching experience at both the U.S. Military and the U.S. Naval Academies and I thought for the briefest of seconds that I might be in more trouble than I expected. Maybe I should start packing my bags? When he did speak, he didn’t talk dollar signs or viewership numbers. Instead, he asked how I was doing and about my wife and infant daughter?
I was taken aback. I told him that everyone was fine and asked if he had heard what I had said, if he needed me to repeat anything. “Oh no, I heard you the first time, but those are all temporary setbacks.”
He could see the look of confusion on my face so he asked: “Are you working hard?” I told him that I had put in extra hours the previous week and had worked over the weekend. He then asked if we had a good strategy in place. I said we were taking a few risks, but that we had a good plan to meet our goals and were following business best practices.
I can still remember what he said next, “Then why should I get upset, these are all minor setbacks. We’ll find a way to tackle them together, it’s the big problems that I worry about it. These are nothing.”
I had never had a boss respond that way and, in that moment, he taught me a valuable lesson: Technology can let you down, processes can break down, but never take people for granted.
Leading with the personal touch
Several years later, I had moved on and was working in a new job. I hadn’t been in the job long, when I learned another lesson in leadership. I left work one evening after a long day. My car usually came alive as soon as I turned the key, but this time it took forever to start. I made a note to get the car in for a tune-up as soon as possible. I pulled out and got maybe a quarter of a mile before it ground to a halt. I threw my hands up in the air in disgust.
Of course, my car died in front of my company security gate. The guard called me a tow truck. I walked back to my office crestfallen. My wife and I had a ton of bills and the last thing we needed was a huge repair bill. I wasn’t sure what I was going to tell my wife, but I needed to call her to pick me up.
Before I got back to my cubicle, my boss saw me in the hallway. He could see that I wasn’t happy. When I told him that my car had died, he asked how I was going to get home. I told him that I was getting ready to call my wife. He told me to give him a second and that he would drive me home. I told him that I appreciated the gesture, but I reminded him that I lived close to an hour away. I knew that he rarely left the office until 7 or 8 p.m. However, my boss told me not to worry about it. He said I was doing him a favor, getting him out of the office at a decent hour.
He grabbed his keys and we headed out the door. His car was lined with work papers and newspapers on the floor, but I wasn’t about to complain, I got a ride home. And an hour later, we pulled up to my house. The drive happened too many years to count, but when I think about leadership, that story jumps out of my mind every time. When I needed someone, my boss gave me the pick-me-up that I needed.
Remembering what’s important
I was reminded once again about the importance of a great boss a few years later. This time I was sitting down with another manager in one of our regular meetings. We had just gotten started and I was having problems focusing. In one corner, I heard someone making coffee. In another, I heard coworkers brainstorming names for a new service the company was offering. They were calling out names, but it sounded more like a game of pick-up basketball. I tried to concentrate, but the noise and the pain in my stomach that had started earlier that morning was getting worse. I refocused and started to give my boss an update on the team.
Before I could get far into our discussion, she asked if I was feeling alright. I told her that I was having tightness in my stomach, but I would be fine. She stopped me and told me to go home. “No, we need to talk,” I told her.
“No, we can wait, you’re going home. You don’t look well, get out of here.”
I protested, but she gave me a look that meant business. She was already on her feet, grabbing my arm and leading me through the maze of cubicles back to my desk. I threw my notebook on my desk, not even worrying about my bag, and headed out to my car. The drive was a blur. When I got home, my father-in-law drove me to the emergency room.
Two hours later, the doctor diagnosed me with an inflamed appendicitis and scheduled me for an appendectomy. Before the nurse took me back to surgery, my wife left a message for my boss that the doctor had said I would be out of the office for a few days and that her push out the door saved me from my appendix bursting.
I’ve had great bosses and not so great bosses, they all had their strengths and weaknesses, but the great ones have all had one thing in common, they cared about their people.