You say on my first day. You keep it brief. It only took us a few hours of conversation to develop a shorthand. A cheeky abbreviation of everything said so far. We will, of course, have many more chances to speak thoroughly, and honestly, since we’re working so closely together. But in this nautical metaphor, you’re the Skipper, and I’m happy to be a part of the crew.
“What do you need?” You ask benignly. I almost don’t know how to react, having been so mistreated by years adrift in the choppy seas of freelancing. I’m a simple man, I don’t need much. Just a hardy workstation, a bit of elbow room, and support for my sometimes-crazy ideas.
“I fought for you.”
You admit over lunch, six months later.
“The CEO wanted to go with someone from a big firm. Our project manager is scared to death of former freelancers, and HR actually wanted to hire two rookies in your place! As if they could do half of what you do … combined.”
That shouldn’t be a fight, but it often is. I know I’m unconventional, but isn’t everyone? Would you rather have such bland vanilla people that no one has a single opinion on his hire? We’re here to make an impact — not just to avoid scandal.
You didn’t say this to earn points or to make me guilty. In this case, the fight was worth it, and now everyone knows it. They say they trust your instincts. When they doubt you, I’ll support you.
“You’re the most organized designer I’ve ever met.”
You observe, plainly, after quickly spotting a pattern in how I start projects and work along the way.
“When can we roll this out across the entire design team?” you ask. Trust me, I’m happy to crack into project management and workflow. This stuff is so important to creative output; I’m glad you’re the kind of boss who understands this.
In some studios this would be a back-handed compliment, actually scolding me for deviating — in any way — from your own behaviour and nature. But you genuinely appreciate of my quest for order. You admit that the team could use better project management, accurate record-keeping and time-tracking, and an overall sense of structure. In this simple remark you also admit that you, my boss, aren’t superhuman. There’s at least one area where you’re not “the most” anything. That humility means a lot. It shows you’re a leader, not just my supervisor.
In time I’ll likely admit that you’re “the most __ boss I’ve ever had.”
“How did we live without you?!”
You bark, half-joking. It wasn’t instantaneous, but we managed to rethink our entire workflow and studio culture. How we approach projects, workloads, education, community involvement, pitching & billing, and just about every other aspect has been challenged or rebooted.
As a new hire, I’m an outsider. This all felt natural, a chance to create the conditions to do our best work. But from your point of view it’s a sea-change!
It’s a bit hyperbolic to call me a saviour, but I’ll take this as a thank-you. If we can acknowledge the value we bring — to the immediate team, the company as a whole, and to our end clients — we’ll have an even better relationship in the future.
“I never would have thought of that.”
You say, smiling. After a few months together you’re comfortable breaking the “nod-and-grunt” approval method, especially in front of the other team members.
Yes, all ideas are great and beautiful and are worthy of recording on their own Post-It note. That’s the polite way. The real breakthrough comes when we can cast off pleasantries and share genuine appreciation for one another’s ideas, in front of everyone, without worry over egos or infighting. You’ve created a team culture where we can praise one another without admitting our own defeat. I’ll happily take that habit and run with it.
“They look up to you.”
You tell me, seriously, in one of our weekly one-on-one meetings. As an experienced manager working one layer up, you can see things I can’t when buried in a project.
I report, or perhaps admit to you how much I care about my own direct reports. I’ve managed people before, but never had an entire squad looking to me for daily guidance. I want them to do well and to produce great work! I’m still shaking off the years of working solo.
“You hold them to a high standard, I can see that. They might roll their eyes, but actually they’re glad to have you push them. I’ve been right where you are — you’re so nervous about being a good boss and kicking butt in the project. Trust me, you’re doing fine. Your team would be lost without you.”
“Want to try something new?”
You say, raising your eyebrows. By now you know that I’m not simply a designer, but that I enjoy challenges across different media and project scopes. You know I’m up for it, even if I don’t have the “track record” of doing precisely this thing. We don’t have to tell the suits.
“I think we can surprise the client a little. Let’s try some animation, maybe a video. Don’t we have a 3D printer in the back? Jump in and see what you can discover.”
That condfidence in me goes a long way; you can see that skills translate and that our team is capable of learning new lessons and applying them to new challenges.
“You remind me of me.”
You tell me after a year or so. Yes, I’ve seen your LinkedIn profile, but here you finally reveal the true struggle, how you too had a non-linear path to this point. You share your experience managing people and taking on bigger and bigger projects on the way up. It wasn’t all smooth sailing; you thought you were done on more than one occassion.
“We’re both survivors. We have the same grit, which tends to get us in trouble. Sometimes you’re as dumb and stubborn as me.”
Oh yea, that.
Everyone has a personality. The best workplaces are the ones where we don’thave to shake off our normal selves when we walk through the door, but instead bring our quirks and experiences to the mix.
Arguments happen, more out of passion than animus, but we’ve created a bond that means we’ll both be here tomorrow. Ready to work and fight and argue toward a shared purpose.
“I try to be the boss I never had.”
After several years working together you feel comfortable sharing this. Outside of the office, of course.
“I worked for such ridiculous assholes. Never had anyone train me, encourage me … even talk to me! Every day I walk through the door and try to do the opposite of them. To be the kind of boss I wish I had when I was 25, or even 35.”
You’ve done well. You’ve shown us compassion, but also held our feet to the fire when it matters. You’ve taught me more about leadership than I could have imagined.
Thank you. For everything.