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February 05, 2005

Notes on What It's Like Being a Boss

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

Since I retired as a full-time contributor to this weblog, I’ve blogged a few times about all the history I’ve been reading. That’s been a nice and even a necessary diversion, to be sure. But what has really absorbed my time over the past 8 months was a crisis in my business, which ultimately led me to move my offices, refocus my business plan, lay off over half of my staff, master the jobs of several people I no longer employ, and keep my fingers crossed that it would all come out in the wash. At least so far, it has. I haven’t written anything about this episode yet because I haven’t yet been able to formulate any big life lessons from all of this…I’m still far too close to it. But at the behest of Michael Blowhard, I have tried to jot down a few notes on what it’s like to be a boss:

I wasn’t raised to be a boss. In my birth family my role was the diligent second banana. I strongly suspect that I am a much better diligent second banana than I am a boss, but after the age of 30 I could no longer hack the second banana role anymore.

A major downside of working for yourself is that you don’t have a moronic boss to bitch about. (Well, maybe you do, but it's just not the same, somehow.)

People love to demonize greedy bosses who don’t care for their workers. However, after going through this bout of downsizing my company, I know that my surviving employees are not unhappy about the change, because it was accompanied by a renewed sense of discipline and focus. Employees—or, at least, my employees—have understood and responded positively to their boss’ determination to succeed financially. A boss who tolerates low financial returns will not deliver the wherewithal to provide raises and job security. In retrospect, my biggest sin was not in laying people off during my bout of downsizing—despite the pain involved—but not in demanding enough of them or myself previously. In short, I should have been more greedy...I would have been more socially useful.

“Leadership” is really not something that comes naturally to me. I run my own business mostly so as to not get bossed around, not in order to boss others. (See discussion of ‘second banana’ above.) But employees hunger so visibly for leadership that it somehow you have to at least try to fake it. I’ve been working harder at faking it since my crisis.

I’ve been around people from tech industry start-ups who are amazingly articulate about their business plans. It’s very impressive to hear such a level of verbal clarity, but it always makes me suspect. My business plans amount to: “Let’s start by making sure we actually accomplish the things we know (or at least strongly suspect) will make us money, and try to be alert to opportunities from there.” I’ve never been of the “go big or go home” school, which may well be a function of the narrowness of my vision. I’ve never bought out a competitor, even when this was entirely rational. On the other hand, I’ve been in business for 20 years now, and I haven’t had to ‘go home’ yet.

This is not to say that I’m not invested emotionally in my ability to spot opportunities and predict where the frog is likely to jump. On a certain level testing my ability to mentally model reality is the whole point of the exercise—for me, anyway. As an actor might say, that’s where my ‘pride’ comes from, that’s why I endure the crappy parts of the job. However, my business started out very much on the undercapitalized side, so a lot of my focus has always been on shortcuts, workarounds and having lots of Plan B’s to fall back on when my 'brilliant' Plan A tanks. Or, quite possibly, that’s just the zig-zaggy way my mind works. Go figure.

Being a boss is very much a matter of being servant-in-chief. I spend most of my time running around providing the infrastructure so that my employees can do their job. Un-glamorous jobs like lining up office space, buying computers, contracting for services, picking up ergonomic chairs at the office supply store, interviewing vendors, organizing ‘corporate’ systems, etc., take up a surprisingly large amount of my time.

Being a boss is also about being janitor-in-chief. If a problem is big enough and nasty enough and scary enough, guess who gets to tackle it? (A ‘boss line’ from the movies: In “Dirty Harry” a rookie cop asks Clint Eastwood why people call him ‘Dirty Harry.’ Eastwood replies: “[Because I get] every dirty job…”)

Dealing with employees can be one of those dirty jobs. When I was just starting out, I spoke to my uncle who had owned a series of small businesses over a period of some 40 years, and asked him how he liked being in business for himself. (I knew by first hand observation that he was a salesman of genius and an immensely hard worker.) He replied that he loved being in business—but if he were to start over again, he’d try to find a business that didn’t require him to have employees. There’s no question that bad employees do inspire feelings quite similar to those of my uncle.

What makes an employee ‘bad?’ One distinguishing trait of badness—from my point of view, anyway—is an employee who doesn’t seem to understand that I am paying them to contribute to my goals. In other words, it doesn’t bother them (or, possibly, even register with them) that their efforts aren’t visibly moving things in the direction I’m trying to go.

Another distinguishing trait of ‘badness’ is, ahem, a childish attitude on the job. A lot of employees seem to have a hard time not seeing the boss as their (apparently resented) parent. I have three kids of my own, and they’re entitled to make all sorts of demands on me—but my employees do not number among them. When I see someone reacting to me as if I am their parent, it’s a clear signal that things probably aren’t going to work out.

However, ultimately, I would have to disagree with my uncle. My best employees have made huge contributions to my business, not only practically but also emotionally. Business is a constant state of somewhat draining suspense (“I’ve placed my bets, now how will it all turn out?”) As a boss, it is incredibly nice not to have to supply 100% of the irrational faith and aggressive attitude necessary to push through all the obstacles in your path. I’m sure I’m not the first general to be inspired by the courage of my troops.

In fact, if I had to share three lessons from twenty years in the small business trenches, they would be:

#1- Cherish your best employees and do what it takes to keep them around (even if you don’t think you can afford it—now.)

#2 – Be sure you’re structured so that you can remain profitable while shrinking, as well as growing your business. I strongly suspect that efficiency (with its often high fixed costs) is a lesser virtue, in the world of small business strategy, than flexibility. Your existing markets decline as well as rise, and it helps to be able to pay your mortgage while you’re trying to enter new ones—a task that is do-able, but usually takes far longer than you’d like or would predict.

#3 - Most people learn best by emulation. I certainly do. My biggest regret as a businessman is that prior to starting my own business I was never exposed to a really capable, well-organized company—big or small. It would have been a huge help to me every day as a boss. So if you aspire to being your own boss, first try to get as much exposure to high quality organizations as you possibly can.


Friedrich von Blowhard

posted by Friedrich at February 5, 2005


When asked the tiresome old question on job interviews, "Are you a team player?" I always wink and reply, "Sure, if I can be the captain of the team."

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 5, 2005 04:42 PM

That's fascinating. I don't even like being a small, within-the-org, team leader myself, and I certainly enjoy being part of an organization, and having all those infrastructure-y things in place. I'm a born employee, I guess. Actually, I'm a born trust-fund baby, only somehow the money never showed up. So I can't imagine having to be the guy who's actually making the bets. Seems 'way too existential to me. My own pref is to take whatever chances I'm going to take with the fates in other realms of life, and shoot for ease, entertainingness and security where the job-and-money thing is concerned.

Looking forward to more notes on being a boss. I've always been curious about what it's like. But most bosses -- surprise surprise -- seem either too busy or too aggressively unreflective to be able to muse much about their experience. They're funnily underrepresented in the literature, if you will.

Does it ever weigh on you that, as a boss, you're ... I dunno, misunderstood? No one spares much sympathy for the bossman, that's for sure. And it's a kind of daily diversion to bitch about lousy bosses. (And god knows we've all run across some.) On the other hand, how and when do bosses get the chance to talk about what their trials and headaches are like?

You're reminding me of something a theater director once told me: that the most natural thing in the world is for an actor/actress to look to the director for parenting. And that the first thing he does is make it clear he ain't going to play parent.

I wonder how much of life consists of trying to get other people to parent us...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 5, 2005 05:01 PM

Interesting thread, Michael.

But first, thanks Friedrich for sharing your trials as Boss. I hope things continue to improve, and many good years are ahead. I have been both employee and employer; each with their own special joys and headaches. I now believe a career life as an empowered employee is the best of both worlds.

When you think about it, we go from parents to teachers to professors to a spouse (mothering my ex was a job I was glad to quit), so I suppose a Boss fits as a final "parental" figure - the "establishment". Sounds a little Freudian...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on February 6, 2005 12:06 AM

Excellent work here, Friedrich. I'd love to read more about the small business. You should start a blog exclusively focused on it -- or have you done that already???

I especially love #3 -- I've come to the conclusion that the "really capable, well-organized company" is an extreme rarity. I've been fortunate enough to be in two, and they've both been start-ups run exactly the way you describe yours: “Let’s start by making sure we actually accomplish the things we know (or at least strongly suspect) will make us money, and try to be alert to opportunities from there.” Frankly, I can't think of a better path to success.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 6, 2005 09:59 AM

Maybe the boss hasn't been written about that much - or when written about, written about with sympathy - because bosses are - whether or not they want to be - fathers, and writers - with rare exceptions - are resentful sons.

An altogether fascinating post. What I take away from it is that the prime assets of a good boss are quick-response adaptability and sheer doggedness.

Posted by: ricpic on February 6, 2005 11:46 AM

Enlightening post.
On par with some personal examples of the last week, confirms my thought of difference in outlook of a person actively owning something, property or business, and the one owning a check only.
Like tenant and landlord: until a tenant becomes a landlord, he has very idealised image of the landlord life.

With all due respect to boss's hard life and perpetual balancing act with numerous obstacles on a way of success, I have to say I see a bit of miscommunication issue here.
In employer/employee situation I think it's useful to ask an old "who profits?" question. Axiomaticaly, the Boss. True, he risks more but he also gains more, in case of success. So his goal is clear - to minimize risks and maximize profit.
Employee's goal is to reach maximum job security. His transaction is simple - I'm giving you X amount of working hours, you pay me Y (but stable, no risk) amount of money.
Employee is not interested materially to move your business forward, Freidrich - he's supposed to get paid with no connection to your profit. Bonus would be nice, but he'll manage without it all the same, thank you.

That's why I think the best possible small business model is some sort of profit sharing, to motivate employees in the success of the business.

One last note: God created division of labour, so the bosses won't have to plan system furniture layouts and select ergonomic chairs: commercial interior designers and furniture dealers do it for you for a nominal fee...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 6, 2005 01:19 PM

Your post flooded me with childhood memories. I remember my father coming home early, sitting by the pool, drinking one, two, then three martinis, and explaining "work was difficult." I sat close to him as he told me how government contracts came and went, creating times of plenty and times of want. He told me that he was responsible for many "good men with real families."

It was the tail end of the 1960s. I was in grade school.

The next day he pulled me out of school saying I had "out-of-school learning" to do. We drove silently in the woody wagon to the parking lot where thousands of cars formed perfect rows, as engineers would naturally do. I held his hand as we walked the short distance to the large entrance doors. The guards waved me through. It seemed like people were avoiding my father -- I thought it was because I was with him. Though we walked directly to a large auditorium, before my father went inside, he seated me in a little room full of cameras and audio visual equipment. Alone. Through a long, thin window I could see and hear all that happened in the auditorium.

I saw my father walk down the aisle toward the front. As he passed, the men -- they were mostly engineers and physicists, and mostly men -- became silent. When he stood on the stage with no podium, hands limply by his sides, the room became still. My father spoke. His voice briefly quivered, then grew clear.

"If you are in this room, the news is not good. We did not get the contract. There is no work for you."

Or something like that. Then he said he would do anything in his power to help them find new jobs. He said that they had tried their best to secure contracts but, as they knew, government contracts were scarce.

And he said he was sorry.

He walked off the stage. Still silence.

He opened the door to the little room where I was hiding, motioned for me to come with him. We walked to the parking lot. When we got in the car, his face was streaming with tears. He cried all the way home.

Obviously, this memory has lodged in my soul for I saw the pain of management as well as the pain of the employees. I saw the responsibility and genuine care that my father had towards the hundred of engineers and scientists who were fired that day. For weeks, people dropped by our house for comfort, advice and help. He gave all he had.

Its just too easy to pretend that large corporate managers treat their employees with disdain. I've seen differently.

With my own eyes.

In my own family.

Posted by: Kris on February 6, 2005 03:45 PM

Employee's goal is to reach maximum job security [...] Employee is not interested materially to move your business forward,.

I read something similar to this somewhere else this last week, and it made my blood run cold. I can't envision working at a job where my security is not maximized by materially moving the business forward. Nor can I envision ever employing somebody who didn't view their daily work the same way.

Am I crazily naive, and is Tatyana's viewpoint the majority philosophy of work?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 6, 2005 05:56 PM

PS to Tatyana: I'm not implying that's the way you approach your work. I meant that it was your observation.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 6, 2005 05:59 PM

Scott, no need to apologise.
And I'm sorry to cause you this strange blood condition (mine would've boil if someone upset me, but hey - may be I'm weird).

I was just trying to sweep emotions away and to look at material (read - monetary) motivation for people in positions of employee vs. boss.
May be I should try again.

Let's say, Scott, you're a diligent employee, doing your specified work every day, 9 to 5 according to your job description. Market fluctuations, blizzards, competitor's new tricks don't disrupt your sleep - all of this probably makes your boss's heart bleed, but not yours - you've done your part and expect to be paid for it no matter what. And you're right - according to your contract, your compensation is not tied to the outcome, or business' balance sheet. To expect a paid employee to be enthusiastic for the outcome of the business in the same manner as it's owner is unrealistic.

Now if your compensation is connected directly to the company's profit, you'll not sleep until the last shipping is completed before the blizzard, you'll call your client to get his feedback, etc - in other words, you'll go that extra mile to please your client and make him do a business with your company again. Example - sales people on comission.
At my work I have to deal with various customer service people and manufacturer's reps; for example - to order samples of finish materials to present to my clients.
And I can tell you - I'd rather call a rep than the customer service at the headquarters. Because the rep works on comission. His sales and so his bread and butter depend on providing me, the designer, with best possible service - if he's good, I'll deliver clients to him. Whereas people on the other side of across-the-country phone call are doing just that - taking phone calls. If they're xtra nice or barely civil, their salary will not go up or down even if I'd never order samples from them again.
As far as my limited knowledge in business administration goes, this model - motivating employees by providing some form of profit-sharing- is used by many big and very successful companies - Microsoft, I think? Or am I mistaken?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 6, 2005 06:53 PM

Here's the immortal Robert Townsend on leadership:

A leader often plays two parts. First the open-door, always-available decision-maker and advice-giver; in this part he is ready to run the Xerox or answer the telephone. His other role may be that of chief business-getter, and in this capacity he needs service - he should be treated like an emperor - all his people should run to supply his needs. I believe the CEO and his people should understand that these two roles exist, and also everyone should know when the CEO is playing which. When the CEO starts only playing emperor, he needs to be fired.

I've always sort of assumed that being a boss is - or could be - just as much invigorating fun as Townsend makes it seem in that wholly remarkable book of his. Maybe that's why I've been coasting along on these real jobs, waiting for the fantasy top gig to fall in my lap. Hasn't happened yet though.

Kris - That's one hell of a story.

Posted by: Brian on February 6, 2005 07:16 PM

Interesting perspective, Friedrich. Quite different from my own. Though to be fair, in my case I had a partner, my wife, who brought a lot of practical money sense to the table; also our business -- landscape gardening -- is about the lowest of low-tech; except for the design, of course, which requires a combination of a painterly imagination and horticultural knowledge. But here again my wife supplied the rare stuff.

My job was to actually get the plants in the ground. Another name for that is common laborer. I couldn't do it all myself -- for one thing, I don't work well alone -- so I hired laborers.

And here is where I came up against at least one truth the Marx got right (though he may not have been original on this point), namely, that you may have an agreement with your employees as to how much they are going to get paid in an hour, you don't have an agreement about how much work they are going to do in that time.

Most employers in this situation tend towards the overseer approach: stand over your employees and watch them carefully, and complain anytime you see them slacking off. In every respect that went against my nature: I don't like to stand over anybody, I don't like to watch, and I don't like to complain.

So what I hit on was the idea of getting them to approach the job in exactly the same frame of mind I did: to get as much done as efficiently and quickly as possible, and with the least amount of waste.

The way I solved it, after a year or so doing it in the conventional way, was to look at my records and see what wages were running as a percentage of the net, on a job by job basis. The net just meant revenues from the customer minus the cost of materials. This turned out to be 28% -- don't ask me why, that was just my historical experience. So I told my workers that, if they didn't mind, I was just going to pay them 28% of the net on all future job. They would be responsible for supervising themselves when I was not digging beside them; and if they wasted materials it would show up when we figured the job. My major responsibility was to make sure they didn't cut corners on quality -- that they used enough peat, didn't skimp on mulch, etc.

How did it work? Great! My guys started working a lot harder than before; and they didn't brook excessive goofing off among their fellow workers (since it would come out of their pocket: each workers split of the pot was based on the number of hours he put in, so slackers would cost you. They ended up making a lot more money than the guys they knew doing similar work with other companies: it averaged 40% more, but on particularly "fat" jobs they might find themselves making 25 or 30 dollars an hour, versus $6 or $8 which was standard (we're talking 20 years ago). As soon as they saw I wasn't kidding about the deal -- and we always worked out the cost sheets together -- they became ideal employees.

As for our little company, we were also making 40% more than our competitors on the average. Plus I didn't even to worry about how hard or efficiently my guys were hoofing it; I did keep an eye on quality, but as I got older I found I didn't have to spend every minute on job.

I just thought I'd pass this along.

Posted by: Luke Lea on February 6, 2005 07:25 PM

Market fluctuations, blizzards, competitor's new tricks don't disrupt your sleep

I guess I'm weird, then...they always have and they always will. Even when I was flipping burgers at McDonalds in high school for minimum wage, I hated snowy or rainy days since it kept business down. Sure, I got the same paycheck but I never really felt like I was earning it on those days.

I guess this comes from being raised in a family of small businessmen. I'm probably the most corporate of my family's breadwinners, and over time, I've gravitated to smaller and smaller companies where my efforts can have a larger impact and where my voice can be heard in company planning. Point being, I could no more pull off a 9-5/M-F worklife than I could, say, start using men's skin-care products.

Of course, I also have my own crappy tiny bidness where I get to be the King. I staff that with indentured servants. Pretty happy indentured servants, though.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 6, 2005 07:44 PM

Why is nobody (except Luke) mentioning what industries they work in?

Posted by: onetwothree on February 7, 2005 12:07 AM


Yea. I, too, noticed that few commenters revealed their occupations. But I don’t wonder why. It’s the internet/blogging anonymity thing. We say far more in blogs than in face-to-face conversations because there are no consequences. Hiding behind our nics, we tell each other personal ideas and experiences, but not enough to blow our cover.

Revealing occupations must be too chancy, particularly for those who live in NYCity, the home of these blogwriters. For we distrust. Trust has a face-to-face component, doesn’t it? Since we’ll never trust each other until we can look each other in the eye, we'll never get that intuitive clincher that makes it feel safe to talk. Anonymity assures this. Because we are anonymous we'll never know or see each other. So, we reveal, but not too much.

Ahhh, the mystery of blogging. We are free to reveal our deepest thoughts, but not the shallow aspects of our lives that may betray our identity.

Posted by: Kris on February 7, 2005 05:09 AM


Your papa was the genuine article: a leader. And what he shared with you that day was a precious gift. Hope things swung back upwards for him afterwards.

Posted by: Robert Bruce on February 7, 2005 05:22 AM

I'm an interior designer, work in NYC and use my real name.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 7, 2005 09:09 AM

I'm in high-tech sales for small company in a network market niche. And I own and run a campground. And I've got at least two other irons in the fire at all times. And that's my real name.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 7, 2005 09:51 AM

I have had a limited for more than twelve years now, and still live above the offices that once were filled with employees every day. Seven there were, at the most.

But, I couldn't cope with it. I never could find a good commercial partner, which meant my main task was to create or find work for all those people. That was never my strongest point.

Apart from that, work is too expensive in the Netherlands. And the bureaucracy involved in hiring people is ludicrous. I had one person on my staff permanently busy trying to keep the government happy.

In the eind I helped three of my employees to start up their own limited, and take over the business of organisation of meetings and conferences; stuff I never liked to do, but that had become a main part of my work.

The best moment of my life was when I decided I didn't want to have a boss, but didn't want to be one either.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 7, 2005 11:34 AM

This is a wonderful piece of reflection on the nature of leadership in a small business.
What most connected with me is the notion that there are people whose natural inclination is to be a second banana, but who tire of being such, and so much become the top banana.

This is certainly my experience. Not so much that I don't want to lead, but that I want to lead the stars of the show, not be the stage of the show.

In reality, we have to do what provides us the best way to utilize our gifts and talents, and fulfill our vision and passion in life. And that often means we must lead.

Frederich, thanks for sharing a bit of what it would be like to work with you.

Posted by: Ed on February 7, 2005 09:12 PM

"I can't envision working at a job where my security is not maximized by materially moving the business forward. Nor can I envision ever employing somebody who didn't view their daily work the same way."

You are crazily naive. I have grown up a lot over the years about bosses, and the best way to co-exist safely with them as an employee. But I think LOTS of bosses are crazily threatened by employees who want to move the business forward, particularly if the boss senses the employee has any expectation of personal reward from doing that. Corporate bosses want NON_THREATENING before they want anything---even competence or maturity. See...I have had several bosses who seemed to want me to parent them, and of course never say out loud that that is what's going on. I don't parent them, I don't threaten them, and I always do my job, but never push too hard, even if it would push the business forward. "Pushing" is not-a-good-thing in corporate America.

Posted by: annette on February 8, 2005 09:33 AM

What industry are you in, Annette?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 8, 2005 10:04 AM

Thanks to everyone for their comments and stories. Let me just say, re-reading this piece, that I apologize if it seems too sure of itself. I am rather painfully aware of my many deficiencies as a boss, as a businessman, heck, as a human being...all of which my employees have to put up with. Being in business is very much an activity I make up as I go along, not a "mastered" subject at all.

On the other hand, we had a pretty good month in January so I'm handing out some bonuses. Hope I can say that all year!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 8, 2005 11:00 AM

Banking. Big-bank banking. And...I just got my bonus today, which is why I stick around! :)

Posted by: annette on February 8, 2005 01:53 PM

annette - I had a friend who outperformed all his coworkers, aced his training and exams, got the best monthly figures, etc. etc. etc. In the end he was fired for being - get this - "too creative"! Those were the exact words.

"Too creative."

We still laugh about it.

Oh, and another thing - he worked in banking.

Posted by: Brian on February 8, 2005 03:04 PM

HAW! Now I understand your outlook. I would have guessed banking or insurance. Banks are some of my most, ahem, challenging customers, since I typically sell leading- or bleeding-edge stuff. On the other hand, they're great customers once you prove yourself.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on February 8, 2005 03:55 PM

Instead of "Bring your own booze," the proverbial BYOB should mean "Be your own boss"!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 8, 2005 11:06 PM

Regarding trust, I'd be more inclined to trust many of the bloggers here than I do many of my colleagues.

The next phase of the internet will provide ways to transform the reputational currency established by bloggers into monetary currency.

Posted by: thibaud on February 10, 2005 02:42 PM

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