Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bosses

When I was a young junior editor just starting out in the publishing world, I worked with a girl named Margaret Mary Maloney, or M3 as I called her. She and I shared an office in an old building down on Dearborn Street right across from the fire station on Illinois Street. It looked like something out of an old detective movie. We had big wood desks that faced each other and had a hat rack. Every morning we would eat breakfast together, type and, work. At lunch we would do the puzzles in the Chicago Tribune and see who got done first.  Our boss and the VP above us all did not like that Margaret and I actually had fun at work.  They put a fabric walls between us, separating us into cubicles.  We placed a sign on the outside that said, “Berlin Wall,” and we decorated it with other political and humorous cartoons.  Our bosses were stymied by us. They didn’t know what to say, so all they would say when they came into our room was “Please don’t leave your boots and duck shoes on the floor.” Margaret and I would then put them in our desk drawers. When the bosses complained about that, we hung them on the hat rack.

One day in a morning staff meeting it was announced that Margaret was being promoted.  She calmly said, “You have not talked to me about this yet. I refuse the position until you do.” Our boss, flustered, said, “Why are you doing this? I even gave you muffins?”  Margaret politely said, “Muffins are not a discussion.” Despite her insolence, Margaret got her promotion.

A week or so later, the young, nice girl that helped me as an assistant, her name was Tammy, and was the best, came to me after lunch and told me that I had received a call from a man named John Black asking me to dinner. I knew who John Black was. He was a big man in publishing.  I said, “You are kidding.” She shook her head started dancing around. I went to dinner with John and another of his associates at a very fancy restaurant. They asked me to work with them. I said “That’s fine, on one condition. Tammy comes with me with a bump up.”  They laughed. I said, “It’s nothing sketchy. She is a good friend of mine and my wife. I just like to take care of the people who take care of me.” They said, “We will need to meet her but if she is as good as you say she is we can probably arrange that.” That’s how Tammy got her first promotion and started her career as an associate in publishing and eventually went on to NYU to study film. I am proud of that.  Somewhere around our house there is still a stuffed animal, Super Grover, which Tammy gave my son, Ben, when he was born.  Ironically, Ben at nearly 22 is studying film production now too.

When I was 29, I had been promoted twice, and was in junior management, but I was feeling highly marginalized. I tried to do things every day, but whenever I had a good idea, someone above me took it over. I sharpened a lot of pencils and threw them up into the ceiling tiles to see if they would stick. The things most of my peers talked to me about were the quality of my suits and my car, as if that was how I was to be measured. One day one of the seniors, a kind guy, came into my office and said, “I think it is time for you to go and I think I have an opportunity for you.”  He connected me with a very large, nationally known organization. I met with them and left the publishing world to go into marketing as a director.

The place I went to work was wonderful in terms of the opportunities it gave me. I worked on very interesting projects and got to travel the world.  It was also a very intimidating experience. The people I worked with all had lots of letters beside their names, such as JD, MD, PhD. They all came out places like Northwestern, Georgetown, Harvard, and as executives from companies like Xerox, GE, and Sears. Initially I initially felt very comfortable there, liked the two men I reported to, but I soon learned I was working in a snake pit. Those were two were some of the most immoral and bat-crazy men I ever met. One of them used to hit me when he felt his hand on the power was threatened. The other one ignored all of the rules of our organization when he thought it might benefit him.

During this time I started working on my MBA and got accepted to law school because I wanted to show the people around me that I was not any different or less than them. One of the guys I worked with on a lot of projects was a guy named Ed. He was the Associate General Counsel, who was so influential, he would testify before congress. I watched him once, and it was mesmerizing. He liked me and like he did with a lot of people, cared and befriended me. He was a serious guy but had a certain side to him. A bunch of us used to go out after work to Shaw’s or Ricardo’s and Ed would join us. One night he spontaneously recited an entire poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  

During that year, a very bad deal went down that threatened the sustainability of the organization. I had raised my hand and said I did not think this arrangement was in the best interests of anyone, especially not the people we served. No one listened to me. The response I got was, “People will come around when the money starts rolling in.” I went to see Ed. He talked to me and listened. He said, “T.S., I admire you for taking your law classes, but I don’t ever see you as being an attorney. I think what you need to do is get out of here. I’d talk to you more but I have a Cajun clogging class.” As he left his office he patted me on the arm. He said, “Integrity first, man.”

During that time I spent a lot of time with my dad. He would come into the city to visit. We would go listen to jazz and talk. He said a lot of things to me but what I remember most are these, “Tom, go with your passion and the rest will follow;” "Respect," and “Don’t be afraid to set the example. That is what it means to be a good boss.”

I left that organization just as the inevitable cataclysm occurred and people from the top and down started getting fired. I took a step back and went back into publishing.  That is how I met one of the best bosses I have ever had. I knew I wanted to work with her because when I asked when I could in to talk about the final offer, she said “I’m coming to your house. I want to meet your wife and family.”

Kris always trusted me. On the first day I went to work with her, she said “Just sit in here and do what you do best. I’m next door. I’ll yell when I need you.” Kris and I went through a lot of hard times together, such as when we had to cut a business line and fire pretty much everyone but us. We handled it as gently as possible.  It is never fun to tell someone they no longer have a job.
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We also had a lot of good times. We had a very lean budget so we often would do road trips when we had to go to meetings and conferences.   I mostly kept my eyes closed during those trips because Kris had this idea that she could drive faster than the speed of sound.  Kris’s idea of a staff meeting was us sitting in her office, eating Cheese-Nips, and friendly arguing over a catalog layout. Some days we would go to lunch, work, and then play with puppies in a pet store. My annual evaluations were done in a pancake place.  She bought my boys pajamas for Christmas, and was there when my daughter was born.

She was there for me when my father had a heart crisis, when Ed died from a bee sting, and I was there for her when she dealt with her stepsons and when her step-father died. She was my boss, but most of all she was, and still is, my friend.

When the time came for me to go back into the corporate world, I gave Kris two week’s notice. The day I left her, she cried and said, “I need to have you stay here longer. There is too much to do.” I cried and said, “Sorry, I have to go. I made promises.” She hugged me and said, “Go and be a good boss.” I have tried my best ever since then to be just that. I learned well from some very bad and some very good people.