How your terrible boss can make you a great manager

July 28, 2014, 4:06 PM UTC
bad boss
Large businessman about to push button on trap door below small businessman
Photo: Jon Berkeley—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Many of us can point to former bosses and corporate heads who inspired us to become more well-read, better at communication, or more engaged because of their shining examples. But what about those leaders who shaped our behavior and management style because of the negative example they have set?

“We learn from everyone we work with, whether they’re good or bad experiences. They can be examples of things not to do,” says Gay Gaddis, chief executive and founder of T3, an Austin-based digital agency. “All of us have had people who were obstacles, who were bad examples. Sharing that is just as important as going, ‘Rah, rah!’ ”

So, what have Gaddis and other executives learned from misguided, wrongheaded, or simply evil bosses?

The cost of a closed mind

When Gaddis was a marketing executive, her chief executive was overbearing, assumed he was always right, and failed to listen to others. During an economic downturn, Gaddis developed an idea on how to change the company’s direction to recover from the slump. She wrote a business plan and, full of excitement, presented it to her boss and mentor.

“He said, ‘I don’t support your plan and I’m not going to be a part of it.’ I was so shot down by that,” she recalls, that she quit to pursue her idea. “I learned that is a very important quality: you’ve got to listen to the people around you.”

Gaddis never would’ve thought to go out on her own if the door hadn’t been slammed so firmly in her face by the CEO. Indeed, his refusal to listen was part of her motivation to hit the ground running.

The importance of delegation

Cynthia Gonzales, an educator based in San Marcos, Texas, used to work for a boss who made up and changed rules arbitrarily, depending on the situation. Employees never knew which rules would apply at any given moment, and they had to depend on the boss’s say-so for everything.

One time, Gonzales arrived to check out a pre-reserved company vehicle to take a student to an off-site venue, only to find that her boss had countermanded the reservation and given the car to someone else. “The expectation is that I would use my private vehicle. Concerned with personal liability, I refused,” she explains. “Our private vehicles, if we were in any kind of accident, were not covered under the insurance, and I have someone else’s precious child with me.”

The leader ended up driving the student herself, a less efficient solution that effectively had her doing Gonzales’ job. Because of her experience, Gonzales says she empowers her staff to make their own decisions and expects them to follow pre-established guidelines and rules, rather than look to her for answers.

“I define a task and assign it to someone, give them a deadline and say, ‘If I can be a resource to you, let me know,’ ” she says. “My philosophy on management is my job is to make the people who answer to me as successful as possible. My job is to facilitate their success.”

How fear can bury problems

Gail, a marketing executive based in Seattle, used to work for a company whose founder publicly criticized members of the team. He would say things like, “I can do your job better than you and I can do it with just PowerPoint” to the lead designer.

Not only was the behavior humiliating and demoralizing, it discouraged the staff from bringing problems to his attention. “It creates a climate of fear, and a climate of fear is never a great way to run a business,” she says. “Real problems in your business will not be exposed when they’re still solvable and instead they’re going to fester and turn into big problems.”

Now that she’s a manager, she encourages her team to bring any concerns or mistakes to her attention. Whenever they do point out a mistake, she goes out of her way to thank them. “As a result, my work is better,” she says. “If you’re going to make a mistake and your team catches it, that’s way better than if you send out an important marketing memo with a typo in it or create a landing page with a mistake.”

The value of honest feedback

Courtney Johnston, a consultant based in Bethesda, Md., went to work for a long-time mentor but almost immediately ran into trouble. The mentor asked Johnston, to staff up a New Jersey office in addition to shouldering her full-time responsibilities. Her mentor kept rejecting the candidates that Johnston brought to her, who were difficult to find in the first place.

“I went through six months of interviewing 30 to 40 people a week because I’m trying to find the diamond in the rough I could afford,” recalls Johnston, who eventually had to hire a consulting team because it was impossible to find full-time candidates who met all the requirements.

Johnston returned to the office after finishing a large project, only to find that her boss had cancelled a meeting to plan the next project. She pulled Johnston aside. “She said, ‘You either quit or I’ll find a reason to fire you.’ ”

Johnston felt doubly blindsided because she’d been given no warning and the woman had been her close mentor. “I will never do that to an employee,” she says. “I will never form that kind of friendship and not give them honest feedback.”