And how to apply them in a pandemic
I’m a good boss. I can’t deny it.
I‘m terrible at fixing cars. I’m a horrible cook. I am the worst athlete you would ever want to know, but I’m a good boss. Maybe I’m not the best boss but I often seem to be able to inspire my team to do their work and be proud of a job well down. I’m often told by my employees I am the best boss they’ve ever had. And why would someone whose paycheck depends on me ever lie about that?
I’ve been my own boss, the boss of large TV crews and now I am boss in a huge corporation. There are a couple tips I’ve learned in the few decades I’ve been doing this, but nothing could have prepared me for these last few months when a pandemic sent us all working from home.
I’ve quickly realized that even though it’s a very different world right now, the rules still apply more than ever.
You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room
I don’t remember who told me this. It was very likely the smartest person in the room.
I do recall it was told to me when I was brand new at running the story department for a TV production company. I had been working from home as a freelance writer for several years but had hit a dry spell so I had to put on pants that didn’t have an elastic waist and get a job in an office.
On my very first day, a Production Manager walked purposefully into my office holding a huge calendar.
“When do you think we will be able online the locked cuts?” She asked.
I had no idea what that sentence meant.
I didn’t even know what a Production Manager even did but I was pretty sure she worked for me.
She stood there looking at me waiting for an answer.
“Two days?” I said tentatively.
She seemed slightly puzzled.
“Tues…day?” I guessed again.
I could tell she now realized I had no idea what I was talking about.
“I need help.” I finally confessed.
And instead of storming out and calling me a fraud, she smiled kindly. For the next two hours we sat on my office floor poring over her huge calendar as she taught me all about making a production schedule. We are still friends twenty years later. Whenever we look at each other and say Twos…day? that means we have no idea what we are talking about.
Even when I’m in charge I have to remain teachable. Not being the smartest in the room is a lot less pressure and allows those who work for me to have better ideas and gain confidence in the process.
I’m certainly not the smartest person in dealing with this pandemic. I have had to say “I don’t know” and “I need help” a lot lately. And I would only be half as efficient working remotely if I didn’t have the help and ideas of my staff to help me muddle through.
Hire good people and let them do their jobs
I know this is not always possible. I once inherited someone else’s hire who informed me I was the worst boss she ever had. I think she changed her mind once we figured out how to work together, but I’m afraid to ask and ruin my Best Boss record.
Hiring is the most important thing I can do and I always have to go with my gut. It’s way more important to me than a resume. I feel you can always tell by talking to someone if they are going to be the right person for the job. And if we share the same sense of humor they get major bonus points. I spend most of my waking hours with the people I work with so why wouldn’t I hire the ones I really want to spend my time with?
Job interviews are all about chemistry. I learned this when I was on the other side of the process. Since I freelanced for many years, I went on a ton of them. I had great ones and ones where I just bombed. There was the time an executive offered me a cherry and I nervously ate the whole bowl in the next ten minutes. Or the time I lost my glasses even though I had not moved from my chair during the entire interview. I got both those jobs because we were able to laugh about it. And then there was the one where I brought my new backpack and went searching through it for my resume only to realize I had picked up and rifled through my interviewer’s similar-looking bag by mistake. She was not amused. I would have been and probably would have hired me.
I put a lot of care and thought into the people I’ve hired for my current job. They are so good they barely need me. I’m glad of it. It would be very hard to have to be micromanaging by Zoom.
It helps to be human
One of the best lessons I learned when I ran TV crews is that being a boss doesn’t have to be a rigid role. My job took me and my team into remote areas of the world where we knew no one and worked hard until late into the evening when we’d gather together and wind down. Of course, there were boundaries to be kept. Once a new production assistant got super drunk and started yelling in my face, “DO YOU KNOW MY NAME? DO YOU KNOW MY NAME??” I wanted to explain to him that was not the best way to get noticed, and it would have been in fact better if I did not know his name.
The head of the large corporate company where I now work has always seemed extremely unapproachable. He is in charge of thousands of people around the world and is quite intimidating. Even though his office is in the same NYC building I work from, I’m sure he doesn’t know my name (although, to be fair, I’ve never drunkenly asked him at a party). Whenever I saw him I’d usually tried to avoid him.
Not long before the pandemic, he was standing in front of the entrance of our office deep into a very intense conversation on his phone. As I approached the door, I realized there was no way to get inside the building without interrupting him. I couldn’t wedge myself past him to swipe my own badge, and wasn’t about to gently tap him on the shoulder. So, I stood there feeling like a fool for over ten minutes until he finally swiped his own badge and walked in with zero awareness I had been standing behind him.
But since quarantine, this guy has been leading a weekly Zoom meeting for those same thousands of employees on Wednesday mornings from his home with his son operating the camera. Every week I see him in his living room occasionally giving his kid instructions while talking to us about the state of company and the state of each of us. He shows what seems like genuine concern over employees who have experienced loss or are feeling overwhelmed and lonely, and offers resources to those who need it. He is not being some old-fashioned macho idea of a “strong” leader. He is being human and ironically in a time of social distancing: less remote and more approachable. In my eyes he has shown what a true leader can be.
Zoom presents a less “posed” version of our world than Facebook or Instagram. We can’t always control our children or pets or spouses from interfering from the perfect picture we often strive to present to our coworkers. We are all seeing in a much more intimate way that all our office mates are just humans doing the best we can.
And no matter how “corporate” we become again when this is all over. It’s a good lesson to never forget. Being a good leader is being a good human.
ABOUT THE AUTHOUR: Keith Hoffman is proud he got through the article without making a “smartest person in the Zoom” joke.