June 2010 Archives

The best boss ever

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The best person I ever worked for was a woman named Yolanda Venegas. I've worked with some very nice people over the years, and she is certainly one of them. Every time the phone would ring and her name would pop up on the caller ID, I would smile, just out of reflex.

In my experience, that's a pretty rare reaction to any boss. Tonight I got to puzzling about what it is that made working for Yolanda so different.

1. She had gotten to be the boss honestly. I thought of her today in contrast to another person's name that came up. (Yes, I was gossiping!) My friend and I can't decide whether the person we were talking about (the gossippee! ), let's call her Joanne, had actually gotten her new promotion by sleeping with the boss or just by kissing up so much. Yolanda was competent, very knowledgable about her work. It was clear to everyone that she deserved her position and so we all respected her. Because she was very competent, her staff didn't have to waste time explaining things she didn't know. Because she was confident in her knowledge, it didn't bother her to admit that she didn't know something, and, of course, we had no problem filling her in on whatever it was.

2. She encouraged honesty in other people. Going back to my incident of gossipping today (which I know Erich says is a bad thing but I guess he hasn't been a good enough influence on me yet), my friend and I were saying that we did not envy Joanne her promotion because how much must that suck to be following around pretending to worship some old man. Joanne knows what her skills are compared to the people around her, and it's obvious she's a deeply insecure person. As for the man that promoted her, we had a lot of contempt for him. What does it say about you as a manager if you are so insecure you need to promote people just to feed your ego? No matter how generally honest you are, it's nearly impossible to be completely unaffected by flatterers, but Dr. Venegas seemed to be immune. She must have had a pill she took or something. It was kind of uncanny. Because Yolanda rewarded hard work and skill and ignored sycophants she always had really good people working for her. 

3. She had the courage to fire people. I know this was one of my biggest flaws early in my career. I always wanted to give people a second or third or fourth chance. As one of my employees told me, "You have to learn to draw the line between being generous and being a sucker." There were a few times over the years I knew Yolanda when someone just had to go, they were not doing the job. Yolanda wasn't mean about it, but she made the hard choices and that was at. To quote another co-worker of mine.

"Have a nice life. Don't have it here."

4. She had the courage to stand up for her employees. I've known too many managers who had the courage to discipline employees but not the courage to stand up for them. That makes you look like a bully and loses their respect. Years ago, I was looking for another job and some of the university "powers that be" really wanted me to stay. I liked my job fine but I had four kids and one was starting college so I really wanted a lot more money than a university job normally pays. Well, right after I got that job, one of those "powers" charged up to Yolanda and demanded, "Did you give AnnMaria a reference?" and she replied calmly, "Yes, yes I did,"

This is interesting, too, because it is an example of what I have seen so often - people are held back from doing the right thing by fear, and yet, when they overcome those fears and DO the right thing, generally, nothing much happens as a result and you have to wonder what they were afraid of in the first place. Not being invited to the Annual People Who Don't Rock the Boat Party?

5. Generosity.  I have had the great fortune to work for really good people most of my career, but here is where Yolanda really stands out. When I met her, she wasn't my boss. In fact, I was a graduate student with three very young children. I was walking down the hallway carrying one baby with two little ones toddling behind me and this professor passing in the other direction stops and says, 

"Hey, you, mija! Come here a minute. I want to talk to you."

(At the time there were a whole TWO doctoral students in programs on the University of California campus in the school where I was enrolled, so I did stand out.)

She wanted to know where I was in my program, and when I told her I was working on my dissertation she said,

"Next time I see you, I want to hear what you have done."

For the next two years, every time I saw her, she would ask me about my dissertation, what articles I was working on, job applications. She knew how easy it would be to just let things slide with three babies. There were some Sunday nights when I would tell my husband, 

"I need to do SOMETHING on my dissertation. I know if I run into Dr. Venegas on campus tomorrow, she is going to ask me what I've gotten done and I don't have the nerve to tell her I didn't do anything this week!"

Of course, years later, I ended up running into her when I was visiting on campus and becoming the evaluator for two of her grants. 

Yolanda was a mentor for EVERYBODY who ever worked for her. Her first assistant, Alicia, went back to school, got her teaching credential and has been teaching for years. Her next assistant, Patricia, is now part of the TRIO programs in Corona. Over the years she has had her employees attend graduate school at Harvard, the University of California, twice had students who were Rockefeller scholars. When other bosses try to keep their good employees, Yolanda has the generosity to kick them out on to bigger and better things.

Recently, I was at a conference having lunch with Yolanda and several successful professionals she had mentored, and one of her former students stopped by. Immediately, Yolanda started asking her about her career and told her she should be in graduate school. The young woman started to give excuses about time, money and Patricia interrupted her, 

"Girlfriend, give it up. You are going to graduate school!"

Several of us at the table laughed because we KNEW that was so true.

My point is, by the end of this story now haven't you forgotten about the two sad people we were gossiping about in the beginning?

Those are two kinds of bosses. You can choose which kind you want to be.

I've heard people argue that it's wrong to say ethics is good business because:

A. It isn't always. Sometimes whistle blowers get fired. We've all seen it happen. Companies like Wal-Mart that pay their employees minimum wage and don't offer health care can sell at lower prices and take business away from companies that do, and

B. You should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Something ISN'T the right thing because it's good business. What if slavery was good business? Maybe it was for the slave owner but not such a good deal for the slave. Jonathan Swift, in an article entitled "A modest proposal" suggested that the best solution from an economist's point of view for the great poverty in Ireland was for the Irish to sell their babies to the British to eat. In one simple plan you help Irish families who can't support all of their children and help the trade deficit as the British would be shelling out a lot of money.

I can't argue with either of those points, and I'm certainly not in favor of babies as "the other white meat". Still, I think ethics IS good business.

Tom Peters, one of the best business writers around, points out that the world is no longer about factories, it's really You,Inc. The greatest assets workers have now is not a set of tools or a shop. For most people, their greatest asset is themselves. Most of us work for a wage and you are only going to get that wage if people who are hiring want to hire you.

Obvious, right? Think about this. Saturday I mentioned that I had a proposal worth over a million dollars that needed to be delivered by Monday morning and I could only think of five people I know who, with absolute certainty, I could give it to them and it would get delivered. Now, how many of those five people do you think I would hire if I had the chance? All five? Damn right. Not coincidentally, I have worked with all of them on projects in the past and hope to again.

It's not just being honest, although that is a heck of a good start. There is being competent, Every one one of those people I mentioned has SKILLS. One is a journalist, one is an MD, one has a doctorate, the other two are both outstanding at their professions as well. How did they get that way? I think they put that same responsibility that makes me trust them so much into their work. They are always reading books, on the Internet - and no not on youtube or Facebook, but learning about their profession. Every one of those people did work that genuinely interested them. Probably all of them could be making more money doing something else - does that mean that ethics is bad business?


Each person I mentioned has ALWAYS found a job as soon as leaving the old one. People who are good people - honest, ethical, hard-working, passionate about their profession - are always in short supply. Try outsourcing THAT to China!

Do You Trust Me?

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How do you want people to know you? As someone who can't get to work on time, sleeps until noon, can't be relied upon to show up because he doesn't have money for gas? Or, as a hard worker, a person who keeps his word, someone who is able to help others?

Erich asks this question in his ethics course and his point is that it's not about "fighting the system" or being a victim of racism, it's about deciding what kind of person you want to be. 

Virtue is its own reward. That's not just because you get a good feeling by being virtuous, but also because you get benefits inside and out.

One of those outside benefits is trust. I have a proposal I have been working on until the wee hours of the morning for the past six weeks. It needs to be delivered in Washington by noon on Monday. If it isn't finished before Friday evening I may need to have someone fly to D.C. and deliver it. Here is where the trust comes in.

If you had a proposal worth a couple of million dollars, how many people are there who you would trust would not let you down? I could think of five.

I called one, who unfortunately happens to be out of town on a business trip. Otherwise, she said, sure, she would have done it.

The other four people I did not ask for various reasons. Two I know are extremely busy, one it would just be physically difficult for him to travel and the fifth person I just thought would rather not do it, and I don't mind going if necessary.

What makes you trust one person and not another? Why do people trust Federal Express with proposals worth millions of dollars, when it "absolutely, positively has to be there overnight?" Isn't it funny how many people trust some Fed Ex delivery guy they have never met over their own friends and relatives.

It's because of their reputation, isn't it?

I thought of several other people I know, some of whom would not mind at all traveling across country, staying in a hotel - but I could imagine each one of them making excuses, 

"Oh, gee, I tried to get there but the subway system was so confusing!'

Another person I know would call sobbing, genuinely sad to have let me down, 

"I tried, I really did, but traffic was just so bad!"

A third would be angry,

"I got there at 1 o'clock and they wouldn't take it. I mean, it was only an hour late and you put so much time into it and they didn't care at all. It's our government. I really told them off for you!"

To be trusted you need two things, competence and integrity. In this case, you need to be able to figure out plane schedules, subway systems, how to print a document at your local Kinko's or Staples AND get up early enough to get to where you need to be. You have to have a fall back plan in case you can't make it by subway, to take a cab.

You also need the integrity that if you have given your word to someone to do something, you make it happen.

Absolutely, positively.

This weekend, I asked my husband did he ever think about how fortunate he was in life and he answered,

"Yes, all the time, because you always remind me because you mention it every day."

Receiving the Emmy for best picture a while back, the producer of It's a Beautiful Life, an Italian film, thanked his parents for the advantage of raising him in poverty. A few of the Hollywood commentators, well commented on that, wondering how anyone can appreciate growing up in poverty.

I can. I didn't see a dentist until I was 19 years old, when my mother got dental insurance as part of her job. Since I was still in college, I was covered under her insurance and went to the dentist many times because, after 19 years of no dental care, you can imagine that I had a lot that needed to be done.

I was flossing my teeth this morning and a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. First, when I was younger we didn't have dental floss because it wasn't needed and we only had money for what was absolutely necessary. Second, throughout most of history, and today in most of the parts of the world, a great many women my age don't have all of their teeth because they haven't had the dental care I've had in the last thirty years.

Like everyone, I have bills to pay. I have to buy my daughter school clothes, pay for the older daughter's college education and all of those other necessities of life. When I see charities that deserve help, I always tell myself I will send them a check when I get more money. I don't have a very extravagant lifestyle, or so I tell myself. The picture above is from our vacation last year in Palm Springs. It's close and I had never been, so we drove there and did things like showing my youngest daughter how you can skip a flat rock across the water.

And that is when it hit me, not for the first time -  I am an idiot.

I've read many articles that say no matter how much money people have, when you ask them how much they would need to be happy and satisfied, the average person always names a figure more than they have now. People who make $10,000 a year would be happy with $25,000, people who make $100,000 would be happy if they made $200,000 and so on.

I am always going to give more later. Later, when I have this proposal finished I will spend time with my daughter. Later, when all of the bills are paid I will send a check to that charity.

And I realized that  I could not afford dental floss, much less a dentist to tell me to use it, when I was young and now I take my whole family on vacation to a resort in Palm Springs. I got on line, found that charity website and gave them a donation on the spot.

Thirty-five years ago, I was working as a waitress in an all-night restaurant for under $2 an hour while working my way through school. Now, I have had so many proposals funded over the years, I can't keep track. Maybe this one will get funded. I really hope so. If not, there will be another one. When my daughter asked me to take her to Universal Studios, I did not say "Later". I told her to invite her friends and off we went to Whoville.

Because I did not start out life with much, I have the advantage of appreciating what I have now, of realizing that I can afford to be generous now, both with my money and with my time.

That, I think, is a true advantage of growing up in poverty, of realizing later in life of how fortunate we truly are and that we CAN afford to be generous, now.