The Worst Advice I Ever Received from a Boss (and the Best)

By Sue Brady

Donald Trump
Ali Goldstein/NBC

As a boss, you have a great deal of influence over the lives of your employees. You control the paycheck after all. We’ve all had good bosses and bad ones, some who gave great advice, and some, not so much. The good news is, you can learn a ton from both good and bad bosses and can use both to become a better and more effective leader and mentor yourself. Some of this advice comes in the form of watching how someone handles a situation and some comes in the form of direct feedback.

Here goes:

Good Advice. If you exude confidence, everyone will think you know what you are talking about (Tweet this). I’ve also heard this described as “own it.” And it is good advice. It doesn’t mean you should emphatically state things you know not to be true, but it does mean speaking with authority on topics where you know your stuff. I believe Sheryl Sandberg calls this ‘Leaning In.’ http://www.amazon.com/Lean-In-Women-Work-Will/dp/0385349947

Sheryl Sandberg
Time

Bad Advice. Only hire people who are married. Seriously, a boss actually said that to me. His reasoning was that married people were more stable. Oh boy.

Good Advice. When you are talking to an employee (or anyone), give them your undivided attention. That means, don’t look at or answer your phone, check your email or look over their shoulder. Being distracted sends one message: the person you are talking to isn’t as important as you are.

Bad Advice. Always have something to say in a meeting. I had a boss who would comment in a long-winded fashion in every meeting, regardless of whether or not what he was saying added to the discussion. Folks hated to be in a room with him because meetings would last twice as long as necessary. He would say to me, you can’t just sit in a meeting and not contribute. On the face of it I felt he was right. After all, why was I in a meeting if I didn’t have anything to contribute? But, if I didn’t have something new to add, I believed (and still do) that saying something just to say it, was not productive. Just because I’m not talking, doesn’t mean I’m not observing, absorbing and processing. Let’s face it, when you’re talking, you’re not listening. Someone came up to me after a management meeting once and said “Sue, you don’t say much, but when you do I pay attention, because I know what you’re saying will be important.” I took that as a compliment!

Good Advice. The difference in response rates between .051% and .057% is really small. Yes, it represents over a 10% difference, but unless you’re evaluating a ton of responses, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a big data problem. It’s hard sometimes to know what’s important.

Bad Advice. Say whatever you need to say to get what you want (from a client, boss, employee, customer). Basically, lie. This might help you in the moment, but is just not a good long-term strategy. And once you’re busted, it’s hard to gain that trust back. Here’s my list of most egregious whoppers that were said either directly to me or to someone else in the room with the express purpose of misleading:

  1. Google changed their algorithm because of us.
  2. She didn’t even apply for your position. She wants to work for someone like you.
  3. She slept with her boss.
  4. I’m getting you equity in the company.
  5. I had approval to overspend the budget.
  6. There won’t be any layoffs.
  7. You will be able to hire the support you need in this role.

Good Advice. An employee should never be surprised about what they hear in a performance review. Ongoing feedback is far more valuable than once a year feedback. It’s important to learn how to have these discussions.

Bad Advice. Every penny counts. On the surface, this might seem like good advice, but let me explain the context. I worked in Marketing for a company where we did a financial review every month.One Cent One month my balance sheet was off by one cent. I was grilled for two hours, in front of my co-workers, about that cent.  I’m not making this up. There are times when it makes sense <cents> to let the little things go.

Good Advice. If you make a mistake, learn from it so that you don’t repeat it, but don’t continue to beat yourself up (or let others beat you up).  I once made a $250,000 mistake. I had printed a piece (millions of pieces) with what I thought was approved language, only to be informed by the partner that it was in fact, not approved. With my tail between my legs, I went into my boss’ office and confessed my error. He said “Sue, you know you’re someone when you can make a $250,000 mistake.” That was all he said. I was prepared to be humiliated, beaten, fired, but instead, my boss made me feel like the world wasn’t coming to an end. He knew that I already felt badly enough and chose not to make me feel worse. As it turned out, I was able to work with the partner and they eventually let us use the piece, so money loss averted!

Bad Advice. Devaluing an employee gives you control over them. Okay, so I wasn’t directly given this advice. Here’s what happened. I was a new hire for a large, well-known company. My first day on the job was a business trip for a big and important client event. I flew across the country and showed up where I was supposed to, knowing no one but my new boss, and with no information regarding what was expected of me.  I assumed I’d be debriefed once I arrived. I wasn’t. At the first event, I recognized my boss greeting folks as they entered the room. I enthusiastically walked up and extended my hand. She gave me a (very) brief hello and was onto the next person in line. No introductions to others standing at the door, no ‘happy to have you here,’ no ‘welcome to our company.’ It was weird. And it got worse. I walked into the ballroom, not knowing a soul and not knowing what my role in the room even was. I moseyed over to the bar and tried to look like I belonged. Eventually, a young woman approached me and asked who I was. It turned out that my boss hadn’t actually told anyone that I’d be at the meeting, or in fact that I’d even been hired. She had even neglected to tell one of the direct reports who’d applied for my position, that he hadn’t gotten it.  It was a harbinger for things to come and I only stayed a year in that job.

Good Advice. Know enough about what’s going on in your employees’ lives to have compassion…but don’t overdo it. In other words, don’t try to be Mom or Dad, but know enough so that you understand why someone might be having a rough week at work, or why a hearty congratulations might be in order.

Bad Advice. If you are running a meeting, always sit at the head of the table. I’ve always believed that if you want to foster more of a team approach, you should sit with the team. Always sitting at the head of the table means you are isolating yourself by never having anyone seated next to you. Employees feel special when they can sit next to the boss. You can still keep control of the meeting from a seat at the table that’s not at the head.

What are some of your good advice/bad advice stories?

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4 thoughts on “The Worst Advice I Ever Received from a Boss (and the Best)

  1. So, I’m not in marketing, but I am in teaching, and there is a surprising amount of overlap when one gets down to it (both involve selling something to someone, after all).

    Bad Advice:

    What may be the single worst piece of advice I received regarding how to teach was given to me by one of my old professors. It was the phrase “don’t smile until Christmas”. This was not some hyperbole or euphemism; she really meant it quite literally. This was during a discussion of classroom discipline, and in this woman’s opinion, until the academic year had progressed roughly to Christmas, a teacher should present a completely stern, business-like demeanor to ensure that all students knew who was boss. Do this, and they will know not to mess around in YOUR classroom.

    There is not, however, a single worst way to begin fostering a classroom atmosphere where students will be comfortable with you, the content, and each other. If they know your classroom is not one where they will have fun, is not one where they feel comfortable going out on a limb and answering a question, they will not get anything out of your class. The same goes for most bosses, I would imagine. Make your employees feel welcomed and cared about, and they will reward with you performance far beyond expectations.

    Good Advice:

    The best advice I ever got was from another teacher. As a passing comment, he mentioned how I would have to realize that I would not always be the teacher in the room. Sometimes, I would have to acknowledge that a student (or students) knew more about a certain topic than I did. This could be something involving the content I was teaching, or how to use a new piece of technology the administration helpfully installed in my classroom overnight without telling me. Respecting your students enough to listen to them, and being humble enough to admit that you aren’t necessarily the smartest guy in the room are two ‘must haves’ for teachers. It seems to me they are also ‘must haves’ for anyone in the marketing workplace as well.

  2. I had to smile when I read your following bit of bad advice: ‘Only hire people who are married.’ In Australia it is not legal for employers to have a bias against married women or young women who are likely to stop work to have children.

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