My first boss was short and thick-necked and told me not to come back until all my baseball programs had been sold.
I was 11.
My second boss was a janitor who told me not to sweep so fast, because it made him look bad.
I was 14.
My third boss was a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager who wore horn-rimmed glasses and a crew cut and told me my goal in life should be to ensure “our” chicken tasted exactly like a Kentucky Fried franchise’s in California. He eventually fired me.
I was 16.
My fourth boss was a camp counselor, my fifth was a maintenance supervisor, my sixth was an ice cream store manager, my seventh a principal, my eighth a recording studio engineer, my ninth a contracts expert (my first female boss) and after that, the list gets too long, because I was a musician and every club owner and record company executive was my boss in some way.
And then I got into newspapers.
In the 30 years that I’ve been at the Free Press, I’ve had three immediate bosses (thank you, Joe, Dave and Gene) and, let’s see, one, two, three, four, five, six —maybe seven? — higher-up bosses. The most recent, Paul Anger, our esteemed editor and publisher, just retired last weekend.
Soon, I imagine, there will be someone new.
How to deal with a boss
I bring this up because it’s graduation season and I’ve attended a few commencements and it occurs to me that all these young people worrying, planning and jockeying for their spot in the work world may not realize the role a boss is about to play in their lives.
But they will.
The right boss makes the worst job tolerable — or somewhat tolerable. (If you are shoveling manure, it probably doesn’t matter if the foreman is a great guy.)
On the other hand, the wrong boss can make even the ideal job a holy terror. The wrong boss can make you wake up in a cold sweat, make you dread the alarm clock, make you question your self-worth and even contemplate some things you never thought you’d do. (Relax, I’m not evoking a “Horrible Bosses” script. I’m just saying, the frustration level can get pretty tense.)
But here’s a few things I now know about bosses that I didn’t know when I got out of school. Maybe, young graduates, this will be of help.
First of all, bosses don’t stay forever. Unless you’re in a family-run pizza parlor, chances are you’ll have many bosses in life. And you’ll work for numerous places. So, remember, the boss you have now is not your eternal fate. Don’t let him or her get to you too much.
No. 2, most bosses, deep down, are as scared as you are. Because they have to answer to somebody, too. Always check to see whether a boss’ swagger or harsh attitude is masking a fear of his or her own job security. And find a way to relate.
No. 3, don’t let a boss define you. If you act differently around each new boss, you quickly forget who you are. The best approach is to be yourself — or the best work version of yourself — and see where it lands you.
Oh, and sucking up to bosses is a waste of time. It alienates fellow workers, results in disappointment and, quite often, makes you ashamed of yourself.
No boss is worth that.
How to be the boss
On the other hand, some of you young people will start your own businesses. And pretty soon, you may be a boss. As I’ve had a little experience in this area, allow me to offer the following.
Even if you’re the boss, you’ll have bosses. They’ll be called “customers,” or “the board of directors,” or “public opinion.” But you’ll have bosses. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody. You’re never out of the “boss” woods.
Meanwhile, try to keep this in mind. As a boss, little things get noticed. The tone of your voice. Whether you say hello. How often you say “good job” (or if you ever say “good job”). How delicately you speak about money.
Every new person you hire will affect the people already there. Every person you fire will affect the people who remain. The more you try to “act the boss” the more your employees may resist you. And if you’re not willing to work harder than your employees, don’t expect them to work harder than you.
Mostly, I’d say, if I’ve learned anything about boss-employee relationships it’s that they’re weird and unnatural, and it takes a lot of effort to get it right. It can be done. But it rests on accepting one basic principle: You’re a human being first, a worker second, and so is the other person.
Even at Kentucky Fried Chicken.