Teachers and Bosses I Have Known

by Joe Conklin

Done right, working toward an MBA can be an intellectually stimulating experience. For most people who aspire to be managers, it at least helps them figure out what else they have to learn.

During my studies, points made by professors occasionally sounded odd when first expressed.

I recall the computer systems professor once saying data committees are in charge of reminding management it needs information to make decisions. I imagined the chair of the committee walking into the corner office and engaging in this brief conversation:

CEO: “Good morning. What’s on your mind?”

Committee chair: “I’m here to convey an important reminder. Did you know you need information before making a decision?”

CEO: “Thanks for letting me know. I think I might have forgotten that.”

Committee chair: “Glad to help. See you same time next year.”

Obviously, the professor had more detail and substance in mind than suggested by his isolated comment.

At other times, the point being made seemed to go against intuition. I never quite understood why borrowed money was a source of funds but at the same time had to be subtracted from the cash flow statement. I always had thought if something was a source of funds it added to what you already had.

Picking Supervisors’ Brains

As interesting as the MBA program was, an equally valuable source of career advice before, during and since has been my experiences with various supervisors. Since I can’t live long enough to make all the mistakes that teach worthwhile lessons, I enjoy picking up whatever wisdom my bosses care to relate or suggest by their actions.

My earliest boss ran his office on a tight budget. Instead of giving the people on the cleaning staff a small raise, on one occasion he decided to reduce their duties and keep their pay the same.

Although he was a successful businessman in the community by this time, I think his mind was stuck in the period back when he was first starting and had to watch every penny to scrape by. I wondered if he was creating problems by not adjusting his perspective to reflect the present.

A valuable lesson was provided by the manager of the country club I worked at one summer while in college. While he was obsequious with the club members, the summer staff members were treated as minimum wage, easily replaced no-name servants who did not deserve any particular courtesy or consideration. After being managed this way, I resolved to adopt a different style in my future professional employment.

It Could Be Worse

Certain traits that bothered me a lot early in my career grew easier to accept as I worked under an increasing number of bosses. My first boss out of college was a retired army officer with a salty tongue. Although he was conscientious and tried to be fair, I found myself wanting him to exercise a little more self-control with his language.

After joining the government later, I had another boss who never used a derogatory term. However, all his energy went to convincing every client he was his or her best friend. He forgot to keep appointments with his staff members, did not remember what they were working on and did not trouble himself with studying staff reports or analysis in any meaningful detail. In retrospect, the salty language of the other boss suddenly did not seem so bad.

Along the way I also learned there is sometimes a larger picture behind a boss’s actions. In one of my jobs, my boss valiantly tried to get me to respond to vague feedback from upper management. I would try to improve something, be told it did not work and end up in a heated debate with my immediate boss. I was not allowed to communicate with upper management for more information.

My boss’s boss, the department manager, was encouraging, sympathetic and seemed determined to help me figure things out. On leaving the company, I learned the vague feedback was coming from him. My immediate boss was caught in a good cop, bad cop game, and he had been forced to be the bad cop. I understood his position much more clearly and left with a lowered opinion of the department manager. From that day forward, I became a big fan of straight dealing in my professional relationships.

A Losing Battle for Quality

About 10 years later, I watched with admiration as my then boss never gave up attempting to convince upper management to try various quality tools and techniques. Unfortunately, constant reorganizations forced him to run the same script past an ever changing cast of characters in the executive suite.

I admired him for believing so strongly in what he was doing. His ability to advocate for quality enables him to carry out his vision in a more supportive organizational environment today.

I doubt my experience is unique. Consider what insights might be found in reflecting on your experiences with bosses. Looking for opportunities to talk to them informally about their life stories, philosophies, victories, defeats and ongoing challenges just might yield your next useful piece of career wisdom. I hope you get started right away.

JOSEPH D. CONKLIN is a statistician with the U.S. Department of Energy, helping assess the quality of its natural gas survey data. Conklin earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. An ASQ member, he holds the following ASQ certifications: quality engineer, reliability engineer, quality auditor, quality manager and software quality engineer.

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