Friday, February 25, 2011

Project Social: You Can Still Be a Good Boss

A friend of mine recently recently told me she feels frustrated by the fact that although she works for a ‘performance management’ company the people on her team barely receive a living wage.

I was discussing this with my Project Social partner Dave Ryan the other day and we decided to tackle the topic of good management for less.  Be sure to check out Dave's post over at HR Official.

I worked my way through college and graduate school doing low-paid student jobs so I’m no stranger to not earning a living wage.  Happily for me, most of the managers I had in these minimum wage jobs were pretty decent people.

One person in particular stands out in my memory: Joan, who managed me during a two-summer stint at a bakery in high school. 

She wasn’t particularly friendly but she was fair.  She was a stickler for showing up on time and the work getting done but also scrupulous about making sure we got our breaks.  She would look the other way when we sampled the freshly-baked rugelach and mandelbrot and let us take home day old bread.  She didn’t mind us joking around or sitting down in the back when business was slow.  And she stood up for us in front of angry or difficult customers.

After I’d been working there for a couple of weeks Joan offered to teach me to write on cakes.  Cake writing was a choice assignment because it got you off the floor for a few minutes and elevated you to ‘skilled labor.’

She patiently showed me the tools and the techniques and sent me home with some practice equipment, where I wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Mazel Tov’ over and over until I ran out of buttercream frosting. The next day felt ready to write on a real cake.

A couple of successful ‘Happy Birthdays’ later I was feeling like a cake writing hi-po but I messed up my first Bar Mitzvah cake and the customer was furious.  Joan stepped in before the verbal abuse got out of hand and politely offered to fix the cake.  Then she gestured for me to bring the offending cake into the back room. 

‘Go on,’ she said, lighting a cigarette and sucking it greedily.  ‘Fix it.’

‘Er… shouldn’t you do it?’  I didn't want to get yelled at again.

‘I’m busy,’ she replied, blowing several neat smoke rings.  ‘It’s your customer.  Fix the cake.’

Taking a deep breath, I scraped off and re-applied the icing strip and re-wrote the congratulatory message. 

‘Should I add a flower?’ I asked, sensing that Joan wanted to finish her cigarette.

Another smoke ring headed my way.  ‘Go ahead.’

I did and it looked pretty good.  But was it good enough?

‘Will you take it to her?’ I asked.

‘Nope.  Still your customer.’ 
She stubbed out her cigarette regretfully.  ‘But I’ll be right behind you if you need me.’

“I’ll be right behind you if you need me.”  If we were going to boil good management down to one sentence, wouldn’t that be it?


  1. Good article. Brings me back to my Home Depot days, when after the management change the company cheer turned from "Kick a**!" to "Cover your a**!" Everybody knew the new bosses weren't interested in standing behind their employees, unless it was to deliver a swift kick out the door.

  2. Thank you Dave. CYA is about the worst thing that can happen to a company.

  3. For some life lessons, we see the "writing on the wall". You got the writing on the cake! Sweet!


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