A Tale of Two Bosses

I’ll call the first boss “Joe.” He was a gruff, no-nonsense, all business type of person who saw himself as important, powerful, significant, and highly effective. He had worked his way up the organization from an entry level clerk to the president’s office and was obviously proud to have the authority of being the top executive in a large company.

During the 18 months that I worked for Joe, I had, essentially, three conversations with him. Excluding the minor grunts and head nods that I received while sitting near him at lunch, I really only had three serious conversations with Joe. The first conversation occurred on my first day working for him when he said, “Well, you know what you are supposed to do, so get at it.” I had been transferred to his subsidiary in a large retail company and on the first day reported to him. He uttered his first statement and then I tried to figure out my responsibilities by myself for the following 18 months.

The second conversation happened about half way into my 18 months of service with Joe. He had summoned me to his office one morning and proceeded to chew me out for having spent $200.00 more on a project than he thought I should have spent. During the 45-minute chew-out, I said very little, because his demeanor clearly indicated that it was a time for me to be quiet and take the punishment and not explain or defend myself. Working for a publicly owned company, I knew Joe’s annual compensation, and of course I knew mine. Adding the two numbers together in my head while listening to him and dividing by 2080, I realized that the stockholders were paying significantly more than $200.00 for my 45-minute corrective action with Joe. But being a good trooper, I maintained my silence.

My third conversation with Joe was at the 18-month mark when once again I was summoned to his office. Fearing another chew-out, because that was my frame of reference with him, I was surprised to hear him say, “You’ve been transferred. Tomorrow you report to…” And then he gave me my new assignment. That’s right; those were my three conversations with Joe. Amazing, but true.

After Joe, I worked for the second boss whom I will call “Richard.” Similar to Joe, I worked for Richard for about 18 months, but the experience was markedly different. In fact, the contrast between the leadership styles of Joe and Richard were such that these two experiences became the substance of many lectures for decades as I conducted workshops and classes on leadership style. The contrast between the two leaders was so striking that it has been a learning point for thousands of my students.

The first thing I noticed about Richard was that he was truly interested in me. He paid attention to my responsibilities, my successes, my failures, and my problems. He took the time to coach me, help me, push me, motivate me, understand me, and mentor me. Although it was clearly understood that he was my direct superior, he was also a confidant, a friend, and a person whom I could trust and respect. At least once every few weeks he would drop by my office, not summon me to his office, and say, “Hey, it’s about time for us to compare notes. Do you have time for a chat?”

We would then go to the company cafeteria and he would ask a series of questions that he most likely used on his other employees as well. But from my point of view the questions appeared personalized to my unique situation. He would always begin by asking, “How are you doing?” And I could tell from the expression in his voice that he truly cared how I was doing. He asked, “How’s your family.” He knew the names of my children and would ask, “What are your kids up to these days?” Then near the end of the conversation he would ask, “What can I do to make you more successful?”

He took an interest in my family, my job, my career, and me. If he needed to correct my behavior, it was done in such a way that I wasn’t overly challenged, upset or concerned. I knew what I needed to change and was more than willing to make the correction. If he wanted to give me praise it was done in a way that made me feel like a super star. Our discussions were pleasant, informative and highly interactive. Richard was slow to lecture and long on asking good open-end questions. He never criticized anyone, but frequently praised everyone. He was positive, friendly and had a warm smile that he used often.

A sad time for me after about 18 months when I was once again transferred to yet another boss, because I can honestly say that I loved working for Richard. For literally decades afterward I have looked back on my time working for Richard and tried to emulate and teach the leadership concepts that he so easily demonstrated on a daily basis. I’m not sure where Richard developed his leadership style, or how he learned it, but regardless, it was clearly the best I’ve encountered in my 40 years of business. Richard to this day reins king among the leaders I’ve personally watched.

The contrast between Joe and Richard is amazing. Joe was preoccupied with his own responsibilities, while Richard realized that he could accomplish far more by developing effective relationships with his direct reports. Joe was a non-communicator, while Richard was a true believer in daily contact with his employees. After his retirement Joe confessed to me that he believed in leaving his “good employees” alone to “do their thing.” Richard believed in supporting his good employees with positive feedback and frequent coaching.

Why did I choose to describe “A Tale of Two Bosses” for this article? While I choose to keep Joe’s identity confidential for obvious reasons, I also now choose to reveal the identity of the person I’ve called “Richard.” Actually, his name is Rich Jennings, and he was the former President of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance. Rich recently retired and I wanted to pay tribute to a wonderful leader, an amazing coach, a great person, and a close personal friend. To you Rich, I pay tribute for all you’ve taught me. I stand taller because of your extraordinary example. Farewell good friend and have a happy retirement!

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About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.