Just over a week ago, I wrote a post based on a question in a book that I have, and the question was:
Who do you owe in life that you can never pay back?
Since I’m an analytical type, I immediately started thinking of “who” in terms of categories, and teachers was an obvious first choice that wasn’t too emotionally-charged and relatively easy to do. I had two elementary school teachers, both of whom have passed on; three high-school teachers and I think two might be still alive, but can’t find much of a digital footprint for them; two undergraduate professors who I reached out to in order to say “hi” and “thank you”, and I just heard back from one who is now retired but still going strong; a law professor who taught me almost 30 years ago at the start of her career who is now semi-retired and who confessed, not surprisingly, that she didn’t remember me but still said hello; a graduate coop advisor; and two professors at Carleton, one who passed away earlier this year and another who is still actively teaching, remembers me (it was only 15 years ago) and invited me to join one of her online forum discussions! One more is through a MOOC course, and she is young, attractive and teaches academic stuff related to programming and video games. Like many in that field, I suspect she hides her digital footprint post-GamerGate and it might seem stalker-ish for me to track her too hard just to say, “Hey, liked your course, thanks!”.
For part two of my little mini-series, I thought I would reach back to think about my supervisors and bosses. I wrote a huge series about the jobs I had previously, and I don’t want to repeat that of course (https://polywogg.ca/what-i-learned-from-my-previous-jobs-part-1/) . But it also gives me a starting point to think about my bosses or supervisors in that time.
A. Paperboy — No one, really. There were people at the paper but they seemed really distant. I could argue my bosses were my customers, but that’s a stretch.
B. Dishwasher — It was just one night, and I didn’t really know the boss. In a way, my brother was my supervisor and he gave me no useful perspective for the night…I had no idea that I hadn’t done a terrible job, but instead had done more work than most do. I felt like a failure, and in a way, that has inspired me to always be overly concerned about what feedback my teams get from me, or that they THINK they’re getting from me.
C. Telemarketing — No training, here’s your sheet, go. Pass.
D. Serials Assistant at the Bata Library — Well, this is a hard one, I had LOTS of bosses. My direct supervisor Barbara was warm and caring, but with a bit of a hard side (she was a union official) and I liked her a lot. She gave me room to do my thing and to get to know people around the Library. Helen was happy to have help, Marie was a bit difficult to work with at times, Anna I didn’t really get to know as the big boss. But Helena was not that much older than me, and a bit of a mentor to show me what I could do with my degree. A real job in a sea where I didn’t really know what university-educated people “did” with non-professional degrees. I think almost all of them have passed away now, but they were my first “work family”. I seriously considered trying to get a job in the Library when I graduated rather than going for an MPA or LLB or even work in government. I liked them a lot. My debt is three-fold. First, after growing up in a household where my father railed against the idiot bosses he had at the factory that never knew anything, I realized my bosses were real people, not faceless, nameless drones. Second, it was the first time I knew that bosses could be friends. And third, I learned that I was a bit different in how I worked and they both let me and helped me figure that out.
E. Assistant to the Treasurer — I helped the Treasurer of a nursing association, and she let me do as much as I wanted to do. Whatever I wanted to take on, she was willing to let me do that, to trust me. That’s a pretty good legacy.
F. Computer lab assistant — I never really knew who my boss was. Sure, I had people who did scheduling and gave me the ten-cent tour, but then I never heard from them again. Weird. One of the instructors who used the lab on a night when I was working taught me about gratitude with coworkers…I went above what she expected and above what others in the lab did, and she was grateful for it. Another notch that maybe I worked a bit differently than others. The legacy is that I try to show that appreciation to others I work with who go above and beyond.
G. IT Support (internal) — I can picture the faces of my three supervisors, and I don’t remember their names at all. They sent me out on calls around the university helping faculty and staff with IT issues. Another “job” that I wondered about doing long-term. It wasn’t that challenging but I loved being the one to go in and help people solve a problem, leaving them better off than when I met them. I don’t know that I feel a deep legacy, but I learned about what I liked.
H. IT Support (internal and external) — This is, in part, one of the same bosses. And the legacy is that they gave me room to figure out how best to run the office. As long as it was “running”, they didn’t care if it was chaos behind the scenes but it made it hard for all of us. So I took it on, changed some things, and rather than being upset with us, they were like, “Great ideas”. Another decent legacy in trusting the people who are doing the job to know how to do it better.
I. Law Co-op Student — I was a law student for a summer and fall at the Ministry of Education in B.C. It was my first “real office job”, in my career. My first GOVERNMENT job. And the legacy was immediate. I was relieved to see jobs in government that I wanted to do and COULD do. I worked for an Director, Peter, who was the big lawyer for our legislation and policy unit. Lots of briefs of Ministers, ADMs, etc. Then there was the Assistant Director, and he was the old hand. He knew how all the different parts worked. He was human, he was fun, he was a thoughtful boss. I’m distressed I can’t think of his name at the moment. I remember his last name had a double letter and that’s it. And then Diane, my direct supervisor and the lead policy person. I not only wanted her job some day, I wanted to BE her. I saw real world jobs that I wanted. I hadn’t been wasting my time thinking I wanted government but really not knowing what their day-to-day jobs looked like. Their legacy was both that I was good at government stuff (they hired me on and wanted to keep me, something they hadn’t done with previous students) and I had a path forward, a vision of my potential future.
J. MPA Co-op Student — My first 8 months at Foreign Affairs was as a co-op student, and I had basically four bosses. Ken, the Director was a very big, tall, lumbering man who laughed loud when he was happy and shouted loud when he wasn’t. Mostly he was happy. There was Ian, the senior policy guy, and other than having him approve stuff or going out in large groups for beers, I didn’t have much direct contact with him. My policy boss was Jim, and he was a great guy to have as a first boss. Not a micro manager, not a lot older than I was (although he HAD done his first posting already), and he trusted me to do things he assigned or come back if there was a problem. And Marilyn. I loved Marilyn. I didn’t see myself yet as a policy guy, more interested in admin, logistics and finance, and that was Marilyn’s job. She was the finance person for our big division, and so I was initially hired to help her and Jim get some program outreach done. I got sucked into policy work after three days, and logistics awhile after that, so Marilyn and I were often in/out of each other’s offices regularly. She too left me to do my own thing and trusted me to manage stuff. More importantly, she took a lot of time to answer my questions. She was my first real “mentor” and I learned so much from her about how government actually works…HR, finance, contracts. She passed away a number of years ago, and I still get the desire to chat with her about stuff. I’ll get an itch to discuss something with someone, and I think, “Marilyn would know the answer to that!”. That legacy runs pretty deep with me. I think, in part, it is why I make time for others when they ask me questions about HR, finance, etc. Because she did with me.
K. Contractor — I spent another 19 months at Foreign Affairs on varying forms of contracts. My Director stayed the same, and I got to see more of what he did with his day. Most of the Foreign Affairs managers acted like super desk officers all of their life, as far as I could tell, and I knew if I ever became a manager, that wouldn’t be me. I couldn’t articulate it, but it didn’t seem “right”. I learned more from Marilyn, I had a few other bosses go through (Phil, Michael, Cliff, Dan). But my best supervisor was Julia. I definitely reported to her, and she was definitely older than me, as they all were, but she didn’t treat me like a student or an inferior. She made me feel like an equal. We became friends too, and I babysat for her one night even, visited her in China. We’ve drifted apart and that saddens me. But one of the most endearing legacies I have from that time as a contractor was my friendship while working with her.
L. Temp — I worked for four months as a temp at CIC and my boss was Blake. He was great. He trained me with everything he had about contracts, and while the life of a temp is never glamourous, he treated me like a contractor he was going to have for years. I’ve tried to honour that legacy with my own teams. They may be passing through, but I’ll fill them up while I can.
M. Contractor — I went back to Foreign Affairs, and over the course of the summer, there had been a significant regime change. New deputy director, Jamie, and a new director, Ken. Ken was awesome. The type of thoughtful person you would always want as your boss. Good sense of humour, calm, reassuring. A great leader for the times we were in, at least for my side of the shop. Not sure how good on some of the other issues, as not everyone was happy, but I was. And their real legacy was giving me a term. 🙂
N. Term IS-03 — I became a term information officer at Foreign Affairs, with Ken as the Director and then DG, a new director Jim came in, my deputy director Jamie was still there, and I had Michael and Frances sharing me as a resource. Frances for comms, Michael for logistics. Overall, it was good. It is hard to point to something as a specific legacy, at least not in a positive light. Much of it was just good times during lots of late nights. I got to tour the country, got to sit in on important meetings, and generally I liked my jobs more than I liked any of theirs. I didn’t really want to be the big policy guy, I liked running things behind the scenes. I liked logistics. One legacy is more negative…I saw some behaviour from one manager that I never, ever want to emulate. Ambition can be a fickle mistress and blinds you to how you treat others at times. Years later I had the chance to return the behaviour in kind and I took the high-road instead. I didn’t want to be like them. Lots of people never see that lesson, I guess, so I’m somewhat grateful I could.
O. Desk Officer — I became permanent (yay!) working in the multilateral branch at CIDA. I worked for a bunch of people in the unit as the “junior” person in the team, including a fantastic boss, Roger, that I never heard anyone say a bad word about, just a lovely, lovely man. Everyone thinks of him and the word integrity just comes to mind. Margaret was a sea change in approach, and quite bright, but I saw how her personal style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way and made things more difficult as a result. People would die on a hill for Roger even if they thought he was wrong on something; nobody was dying on a hill for Margaret, unless it was friendly fire. It’s hard sometimes to remember that sometimes life at work is tough, it’s not all fun, and she had a difficult job to do that not a lot of us appreciated her approach or direction. I worked for Ginette, Claude, Ardith, all quite good in different ways. And I became friends with Daniele, a little fireball. But of all of them, I think my last legacy was working with Roger on stuff and seeing what DGs do, how they handle things. They all showed a lot of trust in me and gave me files well above my pay grade to try and manage. In their care, I formed the nucleus of the officer I became and remain, I travelled to other countries, I represented Canada at international meetings. It’s a hard legacy to repay.
P. Desk Officer — My next stop was in the Caribbean Division at CIDA for a short six months. My Director was Paul, but my main supervisor was Cam, plus some theoretical analyst duties for a senior policy analyst whose name I am blanking on tonight. It was a good experience, but the time there wasn’t a raging success for me, and the legacy is mostly that I confirmed what I had already suspected. I didn’t want to manage development projects on a bilateral program. I missed the policy and corporate work. I might have always wondered “what if…” without that experience, but with it, I realized where I wanted to be.
Q. Policy Analyst — I worked for two directors, Daniel and Christine, during my three years in the Policy Coordination division of CIDA. While the biggest legacy of the job is that I met my wife (!), my bosses gave me amazing opportunities including the chance to act as a manager. With their help, I supervised other staff, hired an ex-VP as a consultant, ran logistics for international meetings with Ministers, approved Comms materials for the branch, and generally became a Mr. Fix-it in the branch. I was in the policy coordination unit, but I frequently was given tasks by our DG or ADM around corporate planning and similar files. Between all of them, I learned to be a manager and I learned how to manage large corporate files in a complex environment.
R. Senior Policy Analyst — I mentioned earlier that working in the Caribbean Division showed me the “path not taken” and convinced me I didn’t want to be a project manager on a bilateral program. After Policy Branch, I moved for 8 months to the Deputy Minister’s Office. It should have been my dream job — high-level, you see everything, lots to do. But the lasting legacy was I saw how little time you got to spend on any one file. Most of the time you had to pick small battles to win while the war waged on around you. At times, it could feel like moving paper with no real impact. And I realized again, it wasn’t what I wanted. The DG, Susan, and an EA Director, again, blanking on her name, helped me a lot in the 8 months figure out what I wanted. I also got to spend time with a lot of senior executives, including the DM, and to see amongst all of them, which traits I liked and which ones I didn’t. I hadn’t realized as much until that time how much their individual strengths or weaknesses show up in a large room of their peers.
S. Manager — I became an official manager in International Relations at Social Development Canada, and my boss, Bob, was one of the nicest men I have ever met in my life. I liked his outlook on life, and while he was close to retirement and a Director, he put up with a lot of noise and chaos above him. The legacy I got, aside from wishing I was as calm as Bob, was that I didn’t want to be part of that upper chaos. I’d be remiss though not to mention that my lasting memory of his boss, Deborah, is that she used to bring cookies for people regularly that she made herself. Just a hugely warm person. One of the warmest “greens” (intuitive introverts) I have ever met.
T. Manager — After International Relations, I moved to Strategy and Integration to work for a previous boss, Christine. I worked my butt off for 19 months and at the end, I was burnt out. She was trying to help me, and it wasn’t the help I wanted, but it was all she could offer in the environment we were in. Her boss, Allen, was more timid than I thought he should be, partly as he worked for an ADM that scared the crap out of everyone. And we all suffered for it. Yet I wasn’t afraid of him. In the 19m that I worked on those files, the most engaging conversation I had the entire time was with him when the others felt he was eating our lunch. I thought it was awesome. I ended up with three lasting legacies … first, not to become emotionally invested in my files, although it would be hard not to on the type I was doing; second, not to scare people from telling you what they really think or to be afraid to tell someone senior they’re off track if you have to; and third, I pushed away from them towards corporate planning files that I’m really good at and enjoy doing.
U. Manager — After S&I, I did Corporate Planning for 9 years. Yep, nine years. The job changed around a lot in there, with multiple directors (Benoit, Gaby), multiple DGs (Lori, Alexis, Michel, Catherine), and multiple ADMs (Karen, Paul, Louis, Frank, Rachel). Of the eleven executives that were above me during that time, and I may have missed a couple in there, nine of them were really good experiences, and the other two, while not awesome, were not negative either. Ultimately, the lasting legacy is that I learned I was good at my job, I learned how to manage upward and brief them appropriately, and I learned how to manage a larger team, sometimes with direct supervision and a lot of time flying solo. I’m comfortable either way.
V. Manager — I gave up a great job to try something new in pensions, and it was good to stretch my wings, even if the outcome didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. The DG was good, but it was not the same open management environment I had enjoyed previously. I took the job not knowing who my Director would be, and while I used to think I would and could work with/for anyone, and have always had that from my past, I couldn’t find a way to work with my Director. I saw behaviour that was inexplicable, I saw behaviour that went way over the line for me on ethics. In the end, the lasting legacy for me was that I could not be happy in such an environment. I lasted 9 months and that was about 4 months longer than I should have stayed.
V. Manager — I moved back to Skills and Employment Branch and worked for two bosses, Gordon and Stephen. I knew both previously, and had no qualms in working for them. Like Roger way back above, they are both strong on integrity and working for them was a breath of fresh air. Gord shared with me some of his lessons learned from a lot of years in the public service, including in the DM’s office, and it is a lasting honour to have worked for him. Stephen and I have worked together from different parts of the organization for a long time, and as he had a short-term project to do that fit my skills set, I was happy to do it. I loved working for him, I learned from him as I always do, and he has forgotten more about corporate management than I will ever know. However, I think the lasting legacy from the project was that despite the best intentions from all those involved, sometimes higher powers decide your outcome for you and your anticipated result gets watered down considerably. Sigh. A painful legacy, and not one we could control.
W. Manager — CURRENT: I am in a new job in Apprenticeship since about 18 months ago, and it is still evolving. I am working with good people, and I like what we’re doing. Changes in the past two weeks make me think that I am likely to stay in the current job now until I retire, partly as about 30% of my job is about to change for the better. It’s way too soon to know what legacies I will derive from Chris, Mona and Jacinthe, or if there will be others in the mix before I retire.
A concluding thought
I confess this post didn’t hang together as easily as the previous one about teachers. It is hard to separate out what I gained from them vs. what I gained from the jobs themselves. But I guess I would see some common threads:
- The importance of integrity;
- That bosses are people, not faceless drones, and some can be friends;
- Behaviour that I want to emulate as a manager — trust, mentorship, staying calm, clear feedback, opportunities, gratitude,
- Behaviour that I want to avoid as a manager — micromanagement, over-reactions,
- To trust in my own abilities, both as a manager and as an officer;
- That I like large corporate files in government;
- That I like HR, finance, logistics, planning;
- That not all bosses are created equal; and,
- Not all plans survive engagement with the enemy, and we can’t control the outcome.
As with my teachers, all of the ones mentioned above have nudged me in different ways with their examples.