Lessons On Leadership from My Bad Boss(es)

Katrina Kibben Corporate America, employee experience, Leadership, Talent Management, Uncategorized

Need a conversation prompt? Just say, “I hate my boss.” Add a swear for emphasis, some name-calling if that makes you feel better. That phrase usually starts an echo around a table or at a bar. A lot of “me too” and “oh, you should meet mine.” Then everyone starts to recite all of the oh-so-obvious ways that their managers have entirely failed at something that seems so obvious to most of us: treating people with common courtesy.

This isn’t some new Instagram trend. Bitching about work is America’s past time. I mean, look at an episode of I Love Lucy, then a sitcom today. There are books about the terror that bad bosses bring on their teams. I say that knowing there are even more books about how to get it right, yet somehow bad managers are more empowered than ever.

Why? I won’t go into politics, but I think about it this way. Work is a precursor to management, not people skills. Being a great people manager? Yeah, that has nothing to do with promotions in most cases. In fact, most managers are picked based solely on their ability to kiss ass, not take care of the asses behind them (besides their own ass, of course.)

So we live, learn, and get drinking problems. Wait, that’s not right. I mean… we become better managers?

Storytime: Lessons on Leadership From Three of My Worst Managers

Whether it’s tomorrow or in ten years, those bad managers are lessons in disguise. Lessons most of us don’t learn until we’re talking about it in therapy or explaining how work operates to our teenagers. Thankfully, I figured out a few of these lessons for you, thanks to my own bad bosses.

Satan Sara:

I heard rumblings that we were hiring a new CMO. She would be my boss. Her pedigree was folklore, having led some of the most well-known companies in the city. The first time we met, she was speaking on stage. I remember thinking, “I want to be like her.”

Just three weeks later, my team (myself included) began referring to her as “Satan.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a stretch, but I most definitely did not want to be her anymore.

She came in guns blazing. Without talking to a single person 1-on-1, she decided we would start to use agile product management and a new CRM. One element of this new action plan was a daily team meeting that looked a little more like an emotional Fight Club than anything productive. Each person would share what they were working on only to have her go into full meltdown mode about why that wasn’t worth their time, why they didn’t do it the “right” way, etc. People looking into our glass conference room would widen their eyes in horror, their faces asking if we needed to be saved. We all knew nothing could save us now.

As the team and her tenure grew, she started to get pressure from the CEO. When it did, she passed that along to us. She was frustrated, and so was the team. They were repeating projects due to poor direction, stalled on approvals, and making no progress. She never asked what they were working on, how could either of them know?

The Lesson: Leaders listen first, then make decisions

Seagull Steve:

Steve was a “thought leader” back in the day, or at least he tells everyone that. He accumulated most of his ego from other people who say “thought leader” without cringing, and that VP job title from a fancy consulting company.

He earned this nickname from his feedback style. I’d hear the ping of an email or a new chat, and I just knew. It was Seagull Steve swooping in. He was about to shit all over my plan.

It was usually hours or even minutes before the campaign would go live. Or worse, minutes after the email went out. Seagull Steve would start the conversation with something generic, condescending, and insanely frustrating like, “I just don’t like it” or, “Did you look at this?” Mind you, I asked for feedback several times in the previous weeks to avoid these moments, but here we were again.

The worst part? He could never explain what was wrong or how this change was actually improving the end product. He just wanted to do things his way, so projects got delayed and typically destroyed. Clients got mad at me for not following through on promises.

I talked to other leaders who told me it was probably my fault. “You’re just too emotional,” they said. As the only woman working for the company, that pressed all my buttons. From then on, I was anything but “emotional.” In fact, I stopped caring altogether. The only thing I cared about was getting a new job. By the time I quit, I was bankrupt of even one care. I was full of medication, though, just to avoid swearing on calls.

The Management Lesson: Being a great manager is about teaching, not just feedback. Timing matters, too.

Two-Faced Tommy:

Two-Faced Tommy worked his way up in the big company I was joining. From line recruiter to a senior VP, he did exactly what I always dreamed of; he worked his way up. His mentor was the CEO of our company. A career with the titles, bonuses, and global travel I admired so much.

He was smart, kind, and hard-working – a mentor, and someone I really admired. We were friends, or at least I thought. While I witnessed some intense yelling and snark toward other people, I believed he would never come after me.

I bet you know where this is going next.

On a global business trip, I was offered a job on the spot by the Asia-Pac leadership team. I was really proud and excited. At dinner later that night, I jokingly expressed interest. “Let’s pack it up, you won’t miss me too much, right, Tommy?”

You could feel the dynamic change at the table. Awkward pauses. Silence. Suddenly, I was really nervous to walk back to the hotel after dinner.

The second Two-Faced Tommy and I were alone he went from two-faced to a raging 10. In the middle of the street, he started to scream. “Who do you think you are? How dare you express interest in that job? You’re nowhere near ready for that.” This was all followed by a few more insults disguised as questions.

It was either the beers, the jet lag, or a lifetime of being treated like shit that inspired my confidence in what I shouted next: “You would never say that to me if I were a man.”

At the moment, I was proud. But looking back, I realize there’s a difference between dropping a mic and dropping a ton of bricks. I thought I dropped the mic. It was most definitely a ton of bricks. It was also just the beginning of what would become months of verbal abuse and hours of screaming calls. Feedback meetings that turned into hours of personal attacks and tears.

The day I gave my two weeks notice was the day I decided to start Three Ears Media (https://www.threeearsmedia.com/ ), and I’ve never looked back.

The Management Lesson: Don’t insult a career path, inspire it.

For all the tears I’ve cried, I know there was more than one lesson buried in all that bullshit. Bad managers serve a purpose, just like the good ones do. We live, we learn, we recover. Most importantly, we make promises to do better by the people we lead. We start making new promises to them. Signs that we will protect and care for them.

It’s that, or you can spend your time casually stalking your former manager on LinkedIn to see if you can take joy in some sort of karmic toll. That works too.