What I learned about being a leader from the best bosses in my life

As Standard Beagle has grown, I suddenly find myself looking and acting a lot more like a manager than ever before. I’ve managed a lot of stuff — projects, client relations, myself. But managing employees — people — is pretty new for me.

Now I’m the boss, and I feel like I’m moving into new territory here. I shared a really great article last week about what makes bosses unforgettable. Fortunately, I have also had a number of really great bosses to learn from. I try to channel parts of each of them as I work into my new role.

Here are the things I learned from the best bosses in my life:

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Display optimism and positivity, even when you’re stressed

One of the best bosses I ever had was Steve. He ran the skate shop I worked at after I quit my job as a morning TV news producer. The skate shop was in its early days, and Steve once or twice confided in me that he would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning and worry about the shop and how to pay the bills. But those moments were rare. He was the most energetic person I knew, brimming with confidence and positivism. I loved working at the shop, because even though Steve may have been stressed, his attitude kept it solidly at bay, so his worries didn’t affect me.

This is something I struggle with, but I’m trying really hard. My employees all know that I have no poker face, but they don’t really know how anxious and stressed out I feel deep down most of the time. I don’t want my worries to bother them. I only want them to see my energy and excitement that we’re really doing good work.

Image Source: Thinkstock

Back up your people

There’s a manifesto in agile project management that talks about how important it is for the managers to serve the team so they can do their jobs. I had a boss that excelled at this. Rocky was my manager when I got my first corporate job as a web designer. She provided support, did the paperwork, and went to bat for me when I needed it. And man, sometimes I needed it. I knew I could count on Rocky to support me.

Now it’s my turn to be Rocky. I need to serve my team. It’s my job to take care of the grunt work, to handle the crap, and to back them up when they need it. If I’m doing that — they can do their best work.

Image Source: Thinkstock

Treat people with respect and always say thank you

My father was one of the best managers, because he truly respected each of the people he worked with. In the 30+ years he worked in management for the CDC before he retired, he worked hard to make sure his staff knew how much he  appreciated them. One thing he used to do was have my mom make homemade treats, and he would bring them in for various celebrations throughout the year. That was just one way he would thank them, earnestly, for their work.

It’s so important that my team know how much I appreciate them. They all work so hard. I haven’t quite found a better way than by saying “Thank you for your hard work today” at the end of the day. But you can’t just say the words. You have to feel it, and that comes down to trust. I trust that they will all do their best work and that I don’t need to micromanage them. Through trust, I hope I’m showing them how much I respect them as individuals.

Image Source: Thinkstock

Talk honestly and openly

Before I moved into web design, I worked as a web content producer for a local TV station. To this day, the station’s general manager is one of the people I respect and look up to the most. One thing I really appreciated when I worked for her was that she was honest with all of us. She was known for holding quarterly town hall meetings to talk about station business, even when the going got tough. She didn’t sugarcoat it either. She didn’t yell or anything like that, but she didn’t gloss over it and tell us everything was fine. She was also a straight-talker. There was no BS with my GM. I knew that she would never hide anything from me that I really needed to know. I stayed at that station long after I should have left partly because her management style was just that amazing.

There is a fine line in being open and honest with employees, and I’m still learning to navigate it. On the one hand, I want to be honest about the goings on of my company, but on the other, I don’t want to cause worry and fear in my team. There’s also no BS. I hate office politics, and I work hard to speak directly and honestly.

Hopefully I can figure out the right balance and eventually display the same grace and strength of character as my former GM.

Image Source: Thinkstock

Hire for character

Years after I left that station and I was just beginning to build my company, I went to a networking event intended to match entrepreneurial women with women already established in the business community. My former GM happened to be one of the mentors. When I finally reached her I was greeted with a beaming smile. “I can mentor you!” I knew exactly what I wanted to ask her. I wanted my company to grow, and I didn’t know how to do it.

“How do I find the right people? I’m nervous — when do I know if it will be a good fit?”

She said — Cindy, hire for character. Make sure they are a good person and have the right ethics and strength of character. You can teach them to do the work. You can’t teach character.

I will never forget that advice. It has served me well. Standard Beagle has grown as a result.

It’s less important to me that a person have ALL of the skills needed to do the job I need them to do. If they have a foundation, I can teach them the rest. I can’t teach them to be good people.