Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part I)

Leo Tolstoy said that happy families are all alike, but dysfunctional families are all unhappy in their own particular way. Management lessons you receive from your mentors are pretty much the same, too. They reflect the best practices and some gleanings of a lifetime of achievement and success. They can seem a little plain, clichéd, or easily forgettable. Or maybe I just didn’t pay attention when things are working. Therefore, the things I learned from my inspirational bosses blurred together, but the lessons from bad bosses I’ve endured remain stark and memorable.

After college, I put my English degree to use in various low-wage jobs where I quoted Shakespeare and Melville to unimpressed co-workers. I worked in retail, I worked in warehouses, I worked in a plant operating a piece of machinery that could have removed my arm, and I worked in a pseudo-office environments for a variety of bosses and foremen. Some showed me the right way to do things specific to that job. Others, though, taught me the wrong way to do anything.

Donny, the Produce Manager
I put myself through college working in a grocery store as a bagger, a checker, and eventually, a produce clerk. After the ownership changed, the new owners brought in managers from their other stores to run ours, their new flagship store. They replaced a thoroughly professional produce manager, who showed his keen insight into management by bringing me aboard, with a younger, less expensive manager. Donny had managed the produce department at the new owners’ first grocery store and felt he had a special relationship with one of the owners in particular. This special relationship did not prevent Donny from assigning denigrating nicknames to the owners, and Donny loved to share them with other employees.

Donny’s tenure lasted about a year with the store, during which time he did the minimum work required to keep his employment, relying on his employee to carry the burden of bringing the department’s appearance to standard. Donny spent his days reading the newspaper in the store’s break room and, when he was on the sales floor, regaling me with stories of his satyrical youth and attempts at a satyrical present. Possibly a step ahead of termination, Donny secured an assistant manager position at a larger chain’s store, ironically one owned by the store’s previous owners. Donny closed out his tenure by spending even more time in the break room and making a show of how little he was doing and cared.

Strangely, Donny’s new job and its expectations of effort and professionalism did not suit him. He approached my store’s ownership and management for a position with our store again. He was rebuffed, and not in the fun way his satyrical tastes preferred.

Donny taught me a couple things about workplace relationships. First and foremost, a special affinity or cordiality with someone further up the org chart will not necessarily provide any extra benefits if one is not a productive employee. Don’t mistake a kind word now and then, some bawdy humor shared with a smirk, or other fraternity with professional esteem.

Secondly, Donny emphasized that burning bridges can very often work against your long-term best interests. Remember all the “It’s not you, it’s me” speeches your friends have gotten when they’ve broken up? Use that template for your exit interviews, because someday you might find yourself in another situation in a position to accept work or consulting projects from the very organization or people you cannot stand now. After all, you’re really looking to leave an entire situation, not just a company or some people. Remain diplomatic, and you’ll keep your options open.

Thirdly requires another anecdote. Donny found a contest in one of the monthly produce periodicals. A fruit grower urged produce managers to celebrate National Pear Month by creating an elaborate display of the grower’s pears. Contest participants could send pictures of their creations to win fabulous prizes with the grower’s logo on them. Donny ordered several cases of exotic pears that the customers of our bread-and-butter small grocery would never actually buy, created a simple display on a simple table, photographed his child eating a pear by it, and won something from the contest.

The story offers many counter-examples to what one should do: squandering company resources for personal advancement, for example. But Donny had his eyes open for a small opportunity, an esoteric chance, and he put effort toward it, yielding success. In the course of our day-to-day work life, it’s far too easy to get bogged down in the forest, looking at the trees, and miss a very interesting and potentially beneficial vine or shrub growing amid the trees. Even bad managers can provide good lessons, so don’t dismiss everything they do or say. Just most of it.

(Part II)

Comments are closed.

wordpress visitors