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Confessions of An Ex-Boss: What I Learned from My Staff

My name is Richard, and I’m a recovering university administrator. I’ve been administration-free for six years, but I continue to have flashbacks to a career that led to this battle with PASD: Post-Administrative Stress Disorder. Sharing with you what I learned from my staff during my 30-year career will allow me to confront the ghosts of decisions past—ghosts that haunt me for the mistakes I made sitting behind a big desk in a large office, out of earshot of the buzz arising from the tiny desks in Cubicle Land.

In my past life I worked at three different universities, all mid-size public institutions. I was responsible, at various times, for supervising staffs that recruited and admitted students, evaluated their transfer credit, awarded them financial aid, registered them, checked them out for graduation, and organized their commencement ceremonies. My preparation for this career consisted of a couple of liberal arts degrees and five years of high school teaching and coaching.

Western Washington University enrolled 9,000 students when I was appointed director of admissions. I was 29 years old, with three whole years as an admissions counselor under my belt. I had never supervised anyone over the age of eighteen. I suddenly found myself responsible for a staff of eight women, all older, wiser, and more experienced than I, and a male associate director ten years my senior who had been the other finalist for the job I had just landed. I remember well the day my new boss, an old-school kind of guy, summoned me to his office to tell me I had the job. I was no longer to be “Dick Riehl, everybody’s buddy,” he explained; rather, I was “Richard Riehl, Director of University Admissions.” I understood him to mean that my new responsibilities would force me to make enemies because of the difficult decisions I’d have to make. In hindsight, I think he also meant I had to grow up.

Upon returning to my new, more spacious office, my first two thoughts were, “Now what do I do?” followed by the solemn vow, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” I was lucky to have on my staff a competent, experienced, and well-respected office manager who already ran the office. She told me what to do and how and when to do it, all while allowing me to think that I was the one in charge. That represented the beginning of my education by those who called me “boss.”

I was especially fortunate to have two talented associate directors, including the one who had competed against me for the director’s job but who was extraordinarily gracious in defeat, invariably loyal, and possessed a great sense of humor. I learned that he also had never met a rule or a policy that shouldn’t or couldn’t be bent or broken. My other associate was likewise a respected professional with a wonderful sense of humor. But unlike the other, he believed that rules were rules and rarely—if ever—should they be bent or broken. The three of us had some spirited conversations during the years we worked together.

What I learned was that both of them could make persuasive arguments. I found myself searching for decisions that, like the porridge of the three bears, were neither too hot nor too cold, but just right for the circumstances.

What I didn’t learn early enough in my career was that sometimes, in the interest of avoiding conflict, I was not as open and honest as I should have been in my decision making. I wanted to be loved by all. I learned, however, that in the long run, avoiding uncomfortable confrontations often led to more trouble for both my staff and me.

After sixteen years of figuring out how to be a good director of admissions at Western, I headed to the Midwest, where “Assistant Vice President” was added to my job title at Indiana State University. I inherited an easy-going boss whose feathers never seemed to get ruffled. Whenever he was warned that morale was low, he’d just smile and say, “Yes, morale always seems to be bad and getting worse, doesn’t it?” He accepted the grumbling of faculty and staff as part of the territory for administrators.

Experience taught me that some unhappy staff members are happiest when those around them are unhappy and can be persuaded that the boss is the source of all their unhappiness. Happy staff members, on the other hand, tend to take responsibility for—and create—their own happiness.

Except for news shows, I don’t watch much TV. But I’m addicted to “The Office,” with Steve Carell as Michael Scott, the boss at a branch office of Dunder-Mifflin Office Paper. In a recent episode, Michael cheerfully declared, “An office is a place where dreams come true.” He was blithely unaware that his overblown ego and self-pity made him the office’s chief dream-crusher. In one of his lower moments, Michael reflected that he had become a boss because the word had once meant something good, like, “Wow, that’s a boss sweater you’re wearing today!” It was sad for him to learn that the word had come to mean “the jerk in charge.”

I must admit that I recognize a little of Michael Scott in myself. Bosses love to be loved, and sometimes they do the stupidest things to try to gain that love from their staff. If the worker bees are unhappy, it becomes time for a party or a Wear-Your-Pajamas-to-Work Day. Some people love office parties and silly games; others find them annoying. Some believe it’s important for everyone to feel he is part of one big, happy family; others prefer to be left alone to do their work.

Now that I am entering my “golden years,” I understand that big, happy families that get along without occasional falling outs engendered by too much togetherness and too few compatible personalities are mostly the creation of fiction writers. Expecting a collection of individuals hired for their technical expertise to perform a variety of different jobs and working together in a confined space to love one another unconditionally is a fantasy. No amount of partying and game playing can make it reality.

Team building, however, is a different matter. I wish I had been more honest in explaining to each staff member what unique qualities she brought to the team. For example, some people flourish in groups; others are hermits. Some can’t see the forest for the trees; some can’t see the trees for the forest. Some are confrontationally honest; others are fragile flowers whose self-esteem needs constant tending. Some are well-organized; others are scatterbrained creative geniuses. It is the boss’s job to help each staff member understand how her unique qualities can enhance the team. That can be a challenge when so many egos are involved.

It was as a high school basketball coach that I learned the meaning of “role players.” One team member spent more time on the bench than on the court because he was somewhat athletically challenged. But Dennis could do one thing better than anybody else on the team: He could keep our opponents guessing. Because Dennis was slightly cross-eyed, it was impossible for the defense to know where he might pass the ball next. So whenever our team was challenged by a full court press, I sent Denny into the game to save us. On those occasions, our bench warmer became our star player. Unfortunately, I didn’t always apply as an administrator what I had learned as a coach about role players.

In my later days as a boss, I began to realize the power staff members have to make their boss a success or a failure. A boss can make his staff better by telling them the truth rather than what he thinks they want to hear. As a rookie boss, I had the advantage of having a staff who knew more than I did; who knew that they knew; and who took pity on me. They prevented me from making serious blunders by telling me when they thought I was wrong.

In my second administrative position, I was the oldest and most experienced in the office. My staff tried hard to find out what I wanted them to say so they could show me how smart they were. It felt good to be so highly respected, but it didn’t feel so good when things went wrong and I realized nobody had been brave enough to tell me what I didn’t want to hear.

Shortly after my arrival at Indiana State, my new, young staff told me that recruitment information nights were held at motels throughout the state. When I learned how expensive it was to rent conference rooms, I suggested that we could save money and promote community spirit by holding the events in public libraries. I did so with such enthusiasm that nobody warned me about the drawbacks. I didn’t know it would be so hard for families to find their local public libraries. I didn’t know that some libraries closed their doors as early as 8 pm, which meant that our guests sometimes had to leave before we could answer all their questions. Despite the poor turnouts and inconveniences, we marched on until one evening, when our dean of housing, five academic advisors, and two admissions counselors accompanied me to an information night event where we were greeted only by a lone prospective student, his parents, and his little sister. Our next recruitment event was held at a Holiday Inn.

Another lesson I learned from my staff is that a boss can make erroneous assumptions based on one unhappy staff member, subjecting the rest to desperate attempts to make that one person happy. I should have learned better from an experience I had had as a high school English teacher: A student teacher I was supervising was quite bright and articulate and had the attention of all but one of her students. Unfortunately, he was the brightest and most arrogant student in the class. His sarcastic wit made her feel like a failure. I saw 29 attentive students who liked her; she saw the one who didn’t and thought the rest hated her. As a boss, I sometimes found myself spending more time worrying about one disgruntled staff member than about the productivity of the rest of the staff.

One of my favorite authors is Malcolm Gladwell, an economist and staff writer for the New Yorker. In his latest bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell researched the cause of airplane crashes and discovered that many of them were caused not by catastrophic technical failures, violent weather, or incompetent pilots; rather, they were caused by “mitigated speech” in the cockpit—that is, speech used by a lower-level co-pilot who doesn’t want to appear to be questioning the pilot’s judgment. Rather than warning “This is an emergency. We have to land now,” the first officer might observe, “Captain, we seem to be running out of fuel.” It made me wonder how many times my own “co-pilots” told this “pilot” what I wanted to hear rather than what I needed to hear in order to avoid crashing and burning.

You can improve your boss’s performance as a supervisor and make your own office life happier if, when evaluation time comes around, you tell your boss what you consider to be your own special talents and how they can contribute to the office’s success. Ask if your boss agrees with your self-assessment. There is no need to confess your shortcomings! Ask, instead, how you can leverage your skills to improve your own job performance. This is also your opportunity to tell your boss what he can do to help bring out the best in you.

I wish I had given my superiors more honest feedback about their job performance. Had my staff done that for me, their work lives might have been happier, and these confessions of an ex-boss might have been unnecessary. Indeed, the ghosts of decisions past might not be haunting me today.

About the Author
Richard J. Riehl is a freelance op-ed columnist for San Diego’s North County Times. Throughout his 33-year career in higher education administration he was an active AACRAO member, including service on the College and University Editorial Board.