Ideas & Debate

Good or bad, bosses shape your work ethics

Workers must be involved in the decision-making process rather than the manager giving orders. Photo/FILE
Workers must be involved in the decision-making process rather than the manager giving orders. Photo/FILE 

This is my 100th published opinion piece as well as the second anniversary of publishing opinion pieces in the Business Daily.

It is time for me to uncork the pink champagne and celebrate coming this far by convincing my editors that my opinion pieces are worth publishing.

I think they are still trying to uncover my street credentials that were buried in 20 pages of CV material, by which time I should be on article number 200, as I’ve covered my tracks infinitely well.

As a second anniversary present, I was officially baptised the Nit Picker (which I suspect has something to do with my arguments about the editor’s chopping — sorry, editing—my material rather than my actual observing and writing skills, if any.)

Anniversaries make even the hardest of us quite maudlin, and I have to say that this writing journey was borne out of my working experience over the past 12 years.

Human beings are a product of their upbringing first and gene pool second.

Consequently, the employed worker is a product of his or her past and present bosses first and work experience second.

As a former employee, both my good and bad bosses distinctly moulded my attitude and work ethic respectively.

My good bosses brought out the best in me, challenging me to take on tasks that I never thought I could accomplish and to scale career heights that I would normally have shied away from.

They also taught me how to be a good leader, to listen to my team members and to lead with velvet gloved fists.

My bad bosses brought out the survivor in me: they taught me how to fight for my rights and those of my team members — with nothing to show at the end but a bloodied nose, a bruised ego and a tortured soul.

They taught me how to shadow box: ducking and weaving as I dodged unseen enemies that were there but not quite there, how to smile from the front as I drove a knife in the back of my subordinates and most importantly, how to kiss the backsides of those above me while balancing precariously on the heads of those beneath me.

These were inimitable lessons, and ones that taught me both how to lead and how never to lead.

A key How-To-Lead lesson came from one of my really good bosses who was handing over the reins of a highly successful team to me.

As we went through the outstanding issues, he gave me what became an extremely valuable piece of advice on how to lead a team of former colleagues.

“If you want to gain acceptance from your team, you have to take a more collegiate leadership approach as your direct reports are your former peers. They have to feel part of the decision-making process rather than you giving orders. I could afford to lead from a top down approach as my relationship with the team was always as the boss, while your style will have to be different,” he said as he gave his desk a final sweeping glance.

It was a simple statement, but one that was borne of instinct and wisdom that was much appreciated as I took on my first team leadership role.

He continued to mentor me and provided valuable pearls of prophetic wisdom in the years that followed.

This boss’s management style was very different from my How-Not-To-Lead boss experiences.

One such boss had perfected the art of divide and rule amongst his direct reports such that a lot of time was spent trying to curry favour with the boss than in trying to actually undertake a professional performance.

The result was a bunch of senior individuals trampling on one another with mouths wide open in anticipation of receiving morsels of the master’s left over dinner and cursory pats on the back as he would his favourite dog.

This management style invariably trickled down to the teams led by the direct reports, as this was the only leadership style they knew and understood resulting in an overall corporate culture of pork barrelling.

As a rookie banker however, one of my bosses who left a lasting impression on me was John Ngumi, currently the Director of Investment Banking Coverage for Standard Bank Africa.

John taught me my first professional maxim “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” after we had worked enormously hard at a particular corporate finance transaction that had survived many torpedo attempts by seniors at the bank in which we worked.

At the successful conclusion of the landmark raising of several billion shillings for a telecoms firm—the first of its kind in the market at the time—all the naysayers crawled out of their holes and (very loudly) congratulated themselves for providing a variety of alleged intellectual inputs in the transaction, with celebratory emails flying across borders to the regional offices in London.

Dog fight

Observing with much amusement my shocked naivety at the unabashed gumption of the naysayers, John the ultimate realist, taught me my first bitter lesson in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate finance: it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters but the amount of fight in the dog.

It may not have been a long time, but my years in employment taught me that at the end of the rat race, you are still a rat.

For as long as I was working for someone, employment became a life long war consisting of many battles through which I would emerge scarred for life, whether positively or negatively.

Subsequently, my actions would impact the people around me, particularly those below me.

The million-dollar question is: were the scars I was inflicting positive or negative? It should get you thinking: What kind of scars are you leaving behind?