Management Lessons From My Bad Bosses (Part III)

(Part I, Part II)

Ron, “I Own the Business”
Ron was an older gentleman operating a computer assembly and sales business from a converted shotgun shack in the southwest corner of St. Louis. The living room was what you might call the commercial sales division with three desks and tables piled with papers and unopened mail. Ron was not very organized. The dining room was a retail sales floor of sorts with a number of custom assembled machines on display to, generally, nobody. The old kitchen held the bookkeeper and the woman whose sole job was filing return material authorization requests for the cut-rate components that Ron favored. An addition and shed that filled the former back yard held a number of young technicians assembling computers and slightly older technicians repairing computers. The one car garage facing the alley was the loading dock, with a desk for the receiving clerk to check in and label individual components to make it easier for the RMA lady to process when they came back and steel shelves that held a number of broken bits of computers Ron accepted in trade. Piles of boxes littered the floor, since the receiving clerk discarded packing material over his shoulder as he worked. Ron hired me to be a clerk Friday, which meant to do whatever he wanted. In my three months there, this included filing copies of invoices from years past, acting as accounts receivable by calling, without training in the niceties or legalities of bill collection, numbers printed on inches of fan-folded, pin-fed, green-and-white lined paper, receiving (and receiving a tongue-lashing for wasting time in cleaning up the loading dock), computer delivery or pick-up in the far-flung suburbs of St. Louis, and ultimately as a computer assembler when one left in a fit of apoplectic pique.

Ron was the worst boss you could imagine: His self-importance and scattered brain combined to provide moments where he would cross from the front office through the showroom to the accounting room to get the accountant to get “that guy” (the clerk Friday) to come to place a telephone call for him. Instead of coming to get “that guy,” the accountant instead made the call from her phone to ask the call recipient to hold for Ron. Another time, Ron came up to me as I was stocking parts, and led with a noun of direct address to address me directly: “Mark,” he said, gesturing at me. “Brian,” I corrected. “Mark,” he continued, wondering what the gag was. Ron fired me, essentially, by telling me that I would not be needed after Christmas when I told him I was taking the week of Christmas off to have dinner with my father 400 miles away. My father was in a brief remission from cancer that would prove terminal, and my brother had leave from the Marine Corps. I took Ron seriously, unlike one of the sales people who brought in doughnuts every time Ron fired her—and Ron’s wife assured her that she was not fired. But on the Monday of the week after Christmas, Ron called me at home the first work day after Christmas to find out where I was. After I could not convince him that he fired me, I quit over the phone. “Without any warning?” he asked.

I’m sorry to go on so long about Ron, but he is a treasure trove of stories that seem parablic, but actually happened.

Ron’s business stayed afloat not because of Ron’s business acumen, but because of dedicated employees led by Ron’s wife who kept the business going and managed its transition from a business forms printer into a computer dealer in the early 1990s as the business world was rapidly transitioning to desktop computers. The core of loyal employees kept the business a going concern, so some amount of bluster and possible incompetence at the top might not be fatal for a business, but it does make a difference. Ron also reminds me that too much in the trappings of success and importance—spend four minutes to get that guy to dial a telephone—impede progress and efficiency. One really has to gauge whether additional staff and whatnot actually improve efficiency or whether they merely prove Parkinson’s Law.

(Part IV to come)

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