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When a Boss is More Than a Boss

Recently I joined colleagues in celebrating the retirement of a beloved boss, after more than thirty years of dedicated public service. Even though I only worked with her for a short time, she made a significant impact on me and on the way I approach my work. She guided our team in navigating an old and complex organization culture, and always had our backs. She understood that everyone brings their own unique skills and talents to the table, and devoted her career to helping people develop themselves. She was more than a boss, she was a coach and a mentor.

As I listened to colleagues reflect on their experiences with her, I couldn’t help but take my own trip down memory lane and look back at all of the bosses I’ve had over the years. Some were good, some were challenging, some had a lot of experience, and others were just starting out. No matter how different they were, each taught me something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career.

The Brand Builder - Right after college, I worked as an assistant at a small marketing firm in my hometown. My boss was a much older, seasoned executive, who expected his coffee and his mail to be waiting for him when he walked in the door. My job was to sit across his desk every morning while he opened the mail, and jot down all the ideas that came to his mind and the various tasks he needed me to do. He would read every letter, postcard, flyer, catalog, and piece of junk mail out loud, commenting on the message, the logo, the design, and even the paper stock it was printed on, while I struggled to keep my eyes open. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he wasn’t being eccentric, he was trying to get me to understand the elements that make a memorable brand, and how effective marketing and communications could be in building and maintaining it.

The Perfectionist - In my early 20s I moved to New York City and started working in PR. The boss at my first agency was a young, energetic, and extremely smart woman. She was the first one in the office every morning and the last one there at night. Everything we produced, whether it was a press release, a presentation, or a media pitch, had to go through her, and we were expected to anticipate her questions before she asked them. It was often challenging and stressful to work with her, but I learned the importance of being committed to whatever you’re doing, staying on your toes, and not settling for mediocre work.

The Visionary - Then there was the agency head who could turn any project, meeting, or event into a memorable experience. He had big ideas and an even bigger personality, winning clients over and keeping his teams energized. Most of all, he never took “no” for an answer. If a client was unhappy with an idea, or a campaign was losing steam, he pushed us to look for a new and better way of doing it. He taught me to be creative and to not be scared of thinking big. That job was one of the toughest of my life, but also the most rewarding.

The Diplomat - The person I worked with the longest was a brilliant and dedicated boss who never shied away from a challenge. He took on the projects that others avoided because the words “that’s not my job” were not even in his vocabulary. He built his reputation on his credibility, humility, and the results he achieved. What I came to appreciate most about him is that he invested in fostering relationships with everyone he worked with, rather than making unilateral decisions and assigning work. While it required more time and energy, this type of networking and respect for others is what ultimately earns trust.

Looking back on all of these relationships and experiences, one thing is clear. Whether you call them a boss, a partner, a mentor, a colleague, or anything else, a boss is always more than just a boss.

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