The Secret Sauce for Being a Great Boss

There’s a big difference between being a supervisor and a leader

The best boss ever

My first job out of high school was as a receptionist at a retirement home. After working there part-time as a teenager, they offered me full-time work when I graduated. I was lucky and grateful for the opportunity.

This is because as a young single mother, I went to college at night and worked during the day. I’d taken a typing class in high school, and that was the extent of my clerical know-how. Even though I’d only done kitchen work before, they took a chance on me and put me out front as the first face people saw when they came in.

Turns out, I loved it. I was good at interpersonal communication and was efficient in my clerical duties. It was a great way to enter the full-time workforce.

My boss back then was a tough, no-nonsense woman in her early sixties with no college education. She is also one of the most intuitive and generous people I’ve ever known.

She’d worked in bookkeeping for years and presided over her staff of three other women like a mother hen guarding a brood. She spoke plainly and always gave good advice, both solicited and unsolicited.

My boss ran a tight ship and liked stuff done her way, which actually was the right way as I came to realize later. However, we felt free to ask questions and make suggestions, which she did take into consideration when making decisions. Sometimes she even allowed us to act on our suggestions.

She was efficient, smart, and remains the best boss I’ve ever had. I’ve been working full-time for twenty-seven years, so that’s a pretty impressive title to hold. I miss her.

What I loved about her is how she helped me become a better employee. I was young and inexperienced, and she taught me well. She could have been frustrated by the effort it took to train an inexperienced nineteen-year-old to do office work, but she never showed it. She understood that investing time and effort in me would make her life easier and help our facility run better.

About eighteen months into my full-time employment, she came to me with a classified ad from our local newspaper. It was the early 1990s, so the internet wasn’t widespread. We still combed newspaper want-ads for jobs. She had circled an employment listing and told me to apply for it.

Yes — my boss told me to apply for a new job.

Her reason was simple. She could see I had potential and knew that working in a small nonprofit office wasn’t going to help me get ahead in life. She saw in me what I didn’t yet see in myself. I’d reached the apex of what I could do there. Without room to move up, my pay wouldn’t move much either.

Because she’d taken the time to talk to me and work with me, she understood what I was capable of and encouraged me to work to those strengths. I’m grateful for this because I got the job and it became another stepping stone along my journey.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Downhill from there

Since then, I’ve had five more bosses. I’ve done administrative work for a manufacturing company, an insurance broker, and the Bursar’s office of a large university. I’m now a high school teacher. Only one of those five bosses besides my first took the time to encourage me and push me to become better by tapping into my strengths. I won’t say which one.

Sadly, my other supervisors were married to their egos, believing their own ideas to be the best with no room for employee insights. Even if there were better ways of doing things or wiser ways to spend time and resources, they didn’t want to hear it. They also didn’t seem to know or value the strengths of the people who worked for them.

Instead, they micromanaged me and other employees, probably to the detriment of the organization. This was to my frustration also. They should have been spending time finding out our strengths and helping us develop. Instead, I felt like a frustrated, untapped resource under supervisors who either didn’t care at all or cared too much about their own agendas.

The two bosses who took an interest in me and engaged in meaningful dialogue are the ones I would have done anything for. Their investment in me fostered my own investment in the organizations I worked for. Knowing they understood me and valued me made me more likely to go above and beyond in my work. And I did.

The secret sauce

Make an employee feel like a valuable member of your team and you can’t go wrong. I don’t mean empty platitudes and buddy-buddy fluff. I mean taking the time to get to know employees and understand the experience and skills they bring to the table. Not to do so is to waste a valuable resource.

Sometimes employees have unique skills their supervisors don’t. This can be a huge asset to any supervisor if they know how to tap into it. Giving employees a voice in areas of their expertise helps galvanize a team and build an organization.

I’ve been writing seriously for over four years. In that time, I’ve asked repeatedly to teach the Creative Writing class at school. Or any other such elective. Other teachers who’ve openly said they’d rather not teach it end up with it in their schedules. Worse yet, sometimes the writing classes go to devil-may-care teachers who don’t do much of anything.

Not for nothing — none of those who get the class are writers. Sure, they can teach writing, but wouldn’t learning from an actual writer be even better? I go to writers’ conferences and wouldn’t dream of attending if nonwriters were the faculty. It makes me feel undervalued and unappreciated to be passed over.

Anybody can create an agenda and conduct a meeting. A great boss imparts important information and then asks employees for input on what’s needed to help them do their jobs better.

Anyone can email legions of information to staff without clear directions. In time, employees learn to pay little attention to endless emails. Good leaders take time to sift through and highlight the most important things and even carve out time to discuss them.

Good bosses are willing to hear hard truths and demonstrate flexibility when approached with reasonable requests and important information. They aren’t so devoted to their own ideas that there’s no room to entertain the ideas and feedback of others.

Since I’ve chosen teaching as my profession, I’ll never be in charge of anyone but my students. However, I try to apply these principles when teaching them. While some things are rigid and can’t be changed, I’m open to their feedback and hearing how I can help them grow as learners. I try to balance the bottom line I’ve been given with investing time in their ideas.

It requires effort, but I’ve found it pays off in my classroom. It also paid off for the two bosses I worked for who took an interest and understood the difference between supervisor and leader. They had a significant impact on my life as an employee and a person because of their approach.

Thank you for reading! I’m Tracy Gerhardt-Cooper, and I invite you to follow me if you’d like to read more real talk about real life. Please follow my publications Middle Ground and Loose Ends also. Let’s do life on purpose.

Believer, Writer, Teacher, Dreamer.

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