Steve Jobs’ passing this week has gotten me to thinking about bosses. Way back in the hazy, lazy days before I started my own business I had them. Some were good. Some not so much. If you were my boss and you were Not Good, you probably know who you are, so I won’t waste time detailing the horrors of being your subordinate. What I’d like to talk about, instead, are my good bosses, and the key roles they played in my life then (and now).
Let’s talk about Kevin first. Kevin was my first “career” boss–the boss who first challenged me to expand my skills into an area where I was convinced I’d never make a living–design. He hadn’t hired me as a designer. He had hired me as an editor, mostly, I suspect, because I have a Master’s degree, and in our particular work environment advanced degrees carried more weight than they probably should have. At any rate, I got hired as an editor, but since at the time we had no designer Kevin encouraged me to refine my desktop publishing skills. More than that, though, he encouraged me–he encouraged all of us–to share everything we knew, and to learn from each other. The result was a remarkably productive team of happy, mutually supportive people. And when he left, Kevin left behind a letter which he urged me to submit in support of a request for a better, bigger color computer monitor. “Because with the right equipment, there’s nothing she can’t do,” he wrote.
I never turned that letter in. Instead, I saved it. Kevin’s confidence inspired me to switch career focuses. After he left I took a job with another company not as a writer but as a bottom-level designer. I used their educational benefits. I built my skills. And when the time came, I was able to move to a “real” design studio, where I did “real” design work–and where I was fortunate enough to find bosses whose confidence in my skills exceeded my own. Like Kevin, Peter and Michael believed in sharing knowledge and building skills. And so, when I started doing quick sketches for client design presentations they urged me to hone that skill, too. Among other things, they encouraged me to work on my own art on their equipment once my projects were up to date. “The better you get at this, the more valuable you are to us,” they said, and so it was that I started seriously working on children’s book illustrations. When I was ready they started taking on jobs that involved illustration as well as design.
Those me were good bosses, but in between them I had another good boss, Pete. Pete was the man who hired me as a bottom-level designer. He managed a large in-house staff of writers, designers, and production managers. The year after he hired me he remarried, and everyone in the department was happy for him, because Pete was one of those bosses that everyone loved–he knew his business. He knew how to deal with our in-house clients. He knew how to challenge, direct, and free his staff to achieve their best. So Pete got remarried, and everyone was happy. At about the same time my personal life fell horribly, horribly apart. As embarrassing as it is to admit this, it was such a terrible experience that I pretty much fell apart for a while. I had to take time off work. Pete arranged it so that money wasn’t one of my worries, on top of everything else. When I came back to work a month later I was weak, and wobbly. My hands shook. I did my best, and in fact found comfort in knowing that at work, at least, I had my life in some sort of order.
And then one day Pete happened to be getting coffee in the lunchroom when I was. As we stood side by side pouring our coffee he said, not looking at me, “I want you to know I understand what you’re going through. If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.” And then he hugged me, quickly, one-armed. And then he left. He never looked at me, and he left without waiting for an answer. I stood there in the lunch room, shaking and crying, staring at the coffee pot so no one would see. When I had myself back together I went back to my office and went back to work.
Pete never brought the subject up again. Neither did I. Everything that needed to be said had been said there beside the coffee pots. What I didn’t know at the time was that Pete was speaking no more than the unvarnished truth when he told me he knew how it felt to have your life fall apart around you. I didn’t know that he had fought depression for years, and on that day beside the coffee pots he he must have had at least an inkling that, even though his life looked like it was finally going his way, the depression was back. Just a few months later the depression won.
I’ve never talked about this with anyone. I never even told him “thank you” for the sheer kindness of his words–and for leaving my dignity intact. I wish I had known about the demons he fought. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but who knows? Sometimes even the department bottom-feeder can be a comfort.
So bosses, give your people room and incentive to grow. Remember we’re all on the same team. Don’t be afraid to offer a kind word beside the coffee pots. And Pete, wherever you are, I wish you the happiness, joy, and contentment your leadership, skills, and humanity fostered for those of us whose paychecks you signed. You mattered. You mattered a lot.