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.