Working For a Jerk May Make You a Better Boss
“The question is not how to survive, but how to thrive with passion, compassion, humor, and style” — Maya Angelou
Some are born with a natural talent to lead. Others work and train hard to learn the skills to be the leader of an organization. Athletes practice to improve their skills. The same is true of being a boss. Skill in managing people improves with training, practice, and experience.
All of us want to have a mentor boss, someone to show us the way, pat us on the back when we do well and gently guide us when we get off track. Most of us won’t have that mentor; I never did.
What I had was a work-jerk boss, a person intoxicated with power who expects and demands ridiculous performances from their team. This person was already a jerk in their personal life. Power makes them more of what they are: they become bigger jerks.
The silver lining is that when you work for one of these incompetents and you have a team, you become a better leader. You become a better leader because you learn to protect yourself and your team from your boss. When you are feeling the stress that a bad boss causes it makes you take better care of your team. You plan more. You work harder. Your workarounds become more creative.
Many people believe being the boss is easy. It is not. Many tough conversations are hidden from the everyday employee that would shock them. Bad bosses use these discussions to torture their subordinates.
I was working for a toxic boss on a large, important project. I was the Director of Supply Chain, which meant I oversaw buying everything for the plant from toilet paper to metal parts.
Our company accepted an expedited contract for a large electronics manufacturer. The project involved castings, which are made by pouring liquid metal into a mold made from sand to create the part. Manufacturing parts with precision dimensions using this process is a magic trick.
Normally, from start to finish, a casting takes about thirty weeks. We had to make the part samples ourselves, check them, send them to a supplier for machining, check them again, and then send them to a supplier for painting. Engineering fell behind and used up an extra five weeks completing the design. Our thirty weeks reduced to twenty-five.
We developed a plan for the parts to travel from one supplier to the next, cutting us out as the middleman and bringing the lead time down from thirty weeks to twenty-five. On this project, those five weeks would make a huge difference to the production team, which wanted to get the sample parts back in-house as fast as they could to build up, first, the production prototype and then the units themselves. Our confidence in the late Engineering designs was minimal.
Both the production team and the parts procurement team reported directly to me. Despite enormous effort on my part and theirs, the parts did not come in at twenty-five weeks. They came in at twenty-six weeks.
The castings were one week late.
On the day the parts arrived, my boss stormed into my office. His face was red, he was breathing hard, and his hands clenched into tight fists. He walked straight toward me, and for a moment, I thought he might punch me.
He climbed up on my desk and started kicking. He kicked my phone off the desk, then my paper clips, then my calendar.
I didn’t get out of my seat. I just rolled my chair back against the wall while my boss was up on my desk kicking things around, hoping I didn’t get hit by anything. I was stunned into silence. He was not a skinny man. How upset was he to climb on my desk?
When he had finally kicked everything off, he stared at me. “What was the timeline for this project?”
I told him, “The schedule was thirty weeks.”
He didn’t like that answer. “What did you tell me you and your team could do?”
“I told you we could get it down to twenty-five weeks.”
“Did you get it down to twenty-five weeks?”
“No,” I told him, “I did not. I got it down to twenty-six weeks. I apologize for missing the plan by a week and only being four weeks ahead of the original schedule.”
The apology appeared to calm him down a bit. He climbed off my desk.
“Engineering is now behind twelve weeks, and you have only made up nine. I want you to see what you can do to make up the last three weeks in Production; we need to be on schedule for this project.”
I stood up and pretended that my desk items were not scattered about on the floor.
“Sure. I’ll make that happen.”
My response to my boss’s unhealthy reaction was to walk over to my production managers office. I told him we needed to save three weeks off the production plan.
He called in his two direct reports and our manufacturing engineers. Together we worked through the rest of the day and into the evening to determine what we could do to save the needed time. We met a few times the next two days working long hours to determine what we could do. We thought hard and called in others to get ideas. I signed off on taking a few risks, and we found the needed three weeks. My superior made me, and my team execute better. We figured out how to make it happen.
“Change your thoughts and you change your world” — Norman Vincent Peale
My ability to “make that happen” was one reason I did so well in my career. My second ability to stay calm and take the heat was the second. If you work in manufacturing, operations, or supply chains, there are multiple problems you must solve every day. When you are responsible for all of the parts needed to produce revenue products, 99.9% is not good enough. If the plant needs one million parts and you and your team provide 999,999, you have failed.
Working for an unreasonable person made me reach deep into my calm center and find solutions. He made me push my team without resorting to his tactics. He made me a better boss.
If you are stuck with one of these bad leaders demanding extreme results, think about how you can grow your talents and maintain your poise.
Perhaps like me, if you hold it together, you will end up promoted with your once brutal boss working directly for you. I would not have developed the expertise to perform the next level job if I had not observed my boss. He showed me how not to do the job. I would not have the negotiation dexterities needed if I had not worked for him trying to meet his ridiculous demands. I would not have been able to stay cool in any situation if I had not dealt with his outlandish behavior.
Working for him prepared me for the next promotion.
I never thanked him.
Another read: Lessons In Leadership Courage
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