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The Most Important Work Lesson I’ve Learned

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I’m not quite sure when I went from being the working world’s wide-eyed newbie to the grizzled veteran I see in the rearview mirror when I start the car for my evening commute home, yet here we are.

I’ll be 48 years old in a few weeks, and I’ve been doing this marketing/communications thing since I was 16. If nothing else, that means I’ve seen some stuff.

I was thinking the other day on one of those commutes home about the things I would do differently, the things I would tell Younger Me to do and not do. I completely understand the Butterfly Effect and that I find myself in the good place I’m in because I went through some not-so-good things, yet I reject the notion that I couldn’t have ended up in a similar good place — maybe even a better place — had I skipped one or two of them.

What is the most important piece of advice I would give Younger Me? What’s the absolute biggest thing I’d smack Younger Me in the face with until he understood it clearly? Well, to put it simply …

Life is Too Short to Work for Jerks

“It’s hard to be in charge.”

If ever there were an incomplete sentence, that would be it. The truth is, it’s incredibly easy to be in charge. You don’t even have to be that good to be in charge. Curry favor with the right people or do the task you’re assigned to do really well and suddenly you, too, can find yourself in a position of authority over other adults while doing something far, far different from the work that helped you land the managerial position.

Through the years, I’ve had plenty of people who thought of themselves as “in charge” of me. The truth is, the workplace — and especially the American workplace — is astoundingly and annoyingly paternalistic. There are parents (bosses) and there are children (workers), and obviously the parents need to exert authority over their children because we all recognize children who see their parents as equals are the ones running roughshod over Wal-Mart or Applebee’s.

The reality is, though, no boss has ever been in charge of me, and if you’re a boss, you’ve never truly been in charge of anyone else either. They might have thought they were in charge of me and I might have allowed them to be, but that was my failing and not a sign of their authority.

The truth is that every good person who occupied the next higher place on the org chart understood the best way to accomplish meaningful business goals was to work with me and understand one important life truth: No two people are the same and trying to get Person B to operate exactly like Person A is an exercise in frustration and futility.

I know this. I’ve been this.

In my career, I’ve supervised anywhere from 1 to 35 people. The biggest struggles I had were early on when I attempted to mold others to work like I worked. Thankfully, I had a few good mentors who helped me see that it’s much better to have some people who weren’t like me on the team and that it’s much wiser to loosen up on the reins on the stuff that doesn’t matter — and, most importantly, that there is so much stuff that doesn’t matter!

As my career progressed, I sought out the people who were different from me when I had an open position. I nurtured the behaviors and routines and work habits of the quirky who regularly arrived at the same destination through alternative paths — and who often arrived their ahead of me. I stopped trying to be my team’s dad and started being their fullback.

You know fullbacks, right? I’m talking football. American football. These are the often really strong dudes who run in front of the featured running back and whose sole job it is to crush the person who would tackle the guy with the ball behind them.

My job with any team I’ve been “in charge” of is to clear the path so they can do their job to the fullest of the ability I saw when I hired them or kept them on the team.

It’s that simple. And it’s that difficult.

Jerk Analysis 101

The advice I’d give to Younger Me is, yes, life is too short to work for jerks. Of course, what constitutes a jerk is highly subjective. Those bosses I consider to be jerks could very well be someone else’s favorite flavor. Regardless of your personal definition of what a jerk might look like, your response can and should be the same: Leave.

The biggest regrets I have in my career involve staying somewhere too long. I might have had what I thought to be great reasons to stay at the time, but in hindsight, none of those reasons should have trumped the fact that I was working for a jerk who wasn’t going anywhere.

Worse, in each case, I put the reason or reasons I chose to stay over my own physical and mental well being and, consequently, the well being of my wife and children. The older I get, the more aware I am of how dumb that is.

So let’s look at some of these jerks, why I stayed and what I would do differently. I do this not to wield some sort of vengeful ax (all names and references to companies have been charged to protect the jerk and the enabler), but rather so you might see yourself in these situations, either as the worker who needs to leave or as the jerk who needs to be a better leader.

The Jerk: Carol
Jerkhood on Display: Carol was brutal in her disregard for her fellow managers in meetings with her team and allies. She viscously undermined her colleagues to her team and with her supervisors. To put it bluntly, she talked shit about anyone who raised her ire and did so in front of those above, below and at the same level as she was. She was an unrepentant name-dropper about famous people she’d worked with in the past. She waited until after the final round of interviews to disclose one of the candidates was a relative. The list goes on and on.
Why I Stayed: The place in which I unfortunately encountered Carol had a pension … and if I could just get through five years, I would be vested and assured of some post-retirement income. Carol came onto the scene less than one year into my tenure there.
The Result: I started out with a heavy-hitter here, because the results were horrific. By the time I left, the things I’d experienced necessitated a settlement, which is pretty much all I can say about that. I had allowed myself to become run down physically and mentally, thought of myself as without creativity … and still wasn’t there five years to grab the pension.
What I Should Have Done: It took all of a week to see Carol for who she was and start hearing how nasty she could be and how brazenly open she was in talking crap about fellow managers. No pension is worth the type of stuff I encountered because of my decision to stay more than a year under her “leadership” and the “leadership” of those who similarly saw what she was about and allowed it to continue unchecked. She remains there to this day. I should have left a lot sooner.

The Jerk: Christina
Jerkhood on Display: As I alluded to above, I’m not much for one who considers the path more important than the destination. I hated it in elementary school math, when I would lose points despite ending up with the correct answer because the method I used to get there wasn’t the one being taught, and I don’t appreciate it in my career. Christina was the Evil HR Director’s dream. Putting out an award-winning product wasn’t as important to her as the demographics of the person we hired to do the work, the process we used to hire them, how we handled their performance reviews and whose butt was or wasn’t kissed throughout all of it. This isn’t to suggest hiring processes, reviews and placating power brokers are irrelevant. They’re not. What I’m talking about is that working for someone who puts that much emphasis on process and who downgrades those who find ethical alternative means to the end we all want is extremely challenging for someone like me who values efficiency and hates workplace politics.
The Result: Again, this is not Christina’s fault or responsibility, but the result was that I lost my love for journalism. It became so difficult to get anything done that, eventually, I stopped caring about doing it. Oh, I still did it. But it was the very definition of half-assed for a while. The path to doing anything good was so thorny and overgrown that it made more sense to just stay home and not go down the path at all. Belatedly, I found a new job, one that necessitated a move for my family.
What I Should Have Done: Again, the answer is “leave sooner.” Newspapers were dying, and the early result of that was that most true visionary leaders bounced from the industry pretty quickly. Those who remained were, well, like Christina. They weren’t horrible enough to get fired, they kissed the right butts or they were the next warm body available. That’s not their fault or their problem. They were just being who they were. The fault was mine in not seeing that those like me didn’t have much of a place in the industry anymore. I waited another two years before ending my newspaper career and moving to marketing. I should have made that jump sooner.

The Jerk: Pete
Jerkhood on Display: So much of Pete’s jerkiness comes from the Peter Principle. What’s the Peter Principle? It’s the tendency in organizations for a company to move a high-performing employee up through the ranks until he or she reaches a place of incompetence. Pete was great at one thing: Sales. He could sell beef to vegans by the trainload. What he couldn’t do was lead people. He found himself in a position in which he was responsible for guiding a team. That takes a completely different skillset from those needed by a stellar salesman, which is largely an individual pursuit. Pete was averse to conflict, incredibly indecisive, couldn’t cast a vision at an eye doctor’s convention and was the prototype of the “Squirrel!” dog from Up. He outsourced most of what should have been his leadership decisions to a highly paid “coach” who had no connection to the local market, and as a consequence, smart people eventually saw this and started leaving in droves.
Why I Stayed: Did I mention Pete was a great salesman? Pete sold me on joining the team with promises of big money just over the horizon in the form of team-achieved bonuses. Everything was in place to make this happen, and all he needed was a great marketing guy. I was the final piece in the puzzle. He even shared his financials and forecasts with me. My analysis was that even if he was 50% off — and no respectable businessman could be 50% off on financial forecasts — I’d still be golden. Never in my wildest imagination did I think someone could be 100%+ off on his own financial projections. I was wrong.
What I Should Have Done: By the time Pete and I intersected, I’d learned my lesson from Carol. I stayed longer than I should have, but only by a few months. Kinda proud of myself on this one. By the time first-quarter results came in more than 100% off from the expected growth rate, I had already polished up my resume and turned my LinkedIn profile to “open for recruiters to contact.” At that point, it was just a matter of time until I was gone.

Your Next Steps

Having read this, what should you do now? Let’s go through the steps.

  1. The first thing is to write down in great detail your definition of a jerk. When I ask you, “Who’s the worst boss you’ve ever worked for or seen?” you likely can easily write down the traits that made them horrible. Do that. If nothing else, it’s therapeutic.
  2. Armed with this information, compare your definition of the jerk to your current boss or the bosses at the top of the business. If they are reasonable facsimiles of each other, it’s time for the next step.
  3. Ask yourself this question: Is it going to change in the next six months? If the answer is no, don’t wait around for something that isn’t going to happen soon enough for you to live your best life! Proceed.
  4. Polish up your resume. Need a great marketing company to help you do that? I know of one. Then, get yourself out there. Activate your network. Don’t jump at the first offer without a deep dive into Jerk Analysis on your would-be boss.

Whatever you do, don’t just stay. Life is too short to work for jerks, and Younger You will thank you someday.

John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at johnagliata@gmail.com or (352) 226-5852.

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