Oops, I’m the boss
About seven years ago I came into the office on a Thursday to discover that I was the boss. My appointment would be announced the next day, and I would start on the Monday.
I would be heading an organisation which had 245 staff. Many of them were among my best friends. A couple of them I didn’t much care for. Some of them I had never met.
I’m writing this today because my Punch colleagues have designated this Friday as Boss Day, and they wanted a piece about what it’s actually like to be the head honcho. And anyway, someone has to stick up for the bastards.
Nothing really prepares you for being put in charge of an organisation. You can be a senior executive or a deputy, you can do internal leadership courses, an MBA. But when you are told that you’re it, and you’re starting in three days time, you experience a spectrum of emotions running from pride and elation to panic, physical sickness and self-doubt. Bosses are seen by their employees as alpha-type go-getters who are assured and in control, but those of us who have done these jobs sometimes joke that at any stage the sirens will sound and the fraud police will come and take us away. By the time I arrived on Monday for my first official day as the boss, having come in for a few hours on Sunday to set up my desk, not a single solid had passed my lips for 72 hours.
The first thing which became apparent was that, as the boss, your interactions with all your colleagues, be they great friends or total strangers, immediately change. It is as if you have had an invisible megaphone strapped to your mouth. Suddenly your every observation is magnified and is often misinterpreted as an instruction, a criticism, a demand.
In my first few weeks I remember walking past the sub-editors bench one evening and spotting a headline over a colleague’s shoulder. I sidled up to him and said that he could probably have more fun with the headline and to pump up the volume, and then continued to the roof for a cigarette. An hour later the poor bloke was in my office, shattered and apologising, telling me that he hadn’t been himself lately and knew he had to do better. I had intended no criticism at all of his general work but it took me half an hour to assure him that he was doing fine. Equally, another casual observation about a particularly excellent headline by another sub-editor, offered again while walking past the bench, was quoted back to me eight months’ later in their application for a payrise. In neither case had I been saying the person responsible was a dud or a genius who deserved another 20 grand, but as the boss everything is amplified.
While still working as a political reporter, I did an interview with Bob Carr after his re-election as NSW Premier in 2003 on the day that he had dumped John Aquilina from his ministry. Aquilina was a journeyman MP and a decent man who had represented the western suburbs around Blacktown for almost 20 years. He had struggled the previous term and had an ambitious young backbench nipping at his heels. Carr was sitting alone in his big office in Governor Macquarie Tower looking crest-fallen. “There is no good way to do it,” he said of the brief and brutal conversation he had just had with his long-standing friend and factional ally. “You can just see thirty years of friendship vanish in an instant.”
If the best part of being a boss is rewarding and recognising talented staff and up-and-coming staff, the worst part is dealing with people who have made serious mistakes or slacked off. It is often almost unbearable when they are your friends.
Another unpleasant feature of boss status is when you are going through a non-work drama which is affecting your ability to concentrate and perform. Bosses do not get an off switch. When my closest confidante on the newspaper was gravely ill, and had to take several months off work, I found myself wanting to snap at other staff who would come to see me with a gripe they had with a colleague, or a concern about their career path. My natural inclination was to regard their concerns as trifling, or even annoying, because my mind was elsewhere. But as the boss, you have to slap yourself around and remember that to the staff member you are with, it’s their life and career they are talking about and deserves proper and respectful attention.
The weirdest thing about being the boss is that, with a few exceptions of those great mates you manage to retain, you never really know 100 per cent if people are agreeing with you because you’ve had a good idea, or just because you’re the boss. There were a couple of people I worked with who would have commended me for my genius if I’d suggested we photocopy my arse and publish it on the front page. From memory that didn’t happen, although the people at Media Watch might say it would have eclipsed some of my other output for quality, terrible snobs that they are.
More unnerving is the existential sense that some people in the office don’t really like you or find you entertaining or good company, but are just yukking it up with you because you’re the boss. Sometimes when I would rabbit on with some tangential anecdote in a meeting, or at a work bash where we might all end up carrying on with some rousing renditions of easy listening hits, I’d have a subsequent gnawing pang that maybe I’d actually turned into Ricky Gervais, who memorably defined himself as “a friend first, a boss second, and an entertainer third.”
Aside from dealing with the staff, as the boss you must also devote large amounts of time to dealing with external people. The greatest mistake you can make as the boss is to think that these people want to talk to you as a person. In reality they are just talking to the chair that you happen to occupy, and the day you vacate that chair, most of them will never ring you again. Some of them will – and it’s a terrific part of the job, in that you get to meet amazing people from other industries and businesses, people who have taken risks, people with great stories to tell who are passionate about what they do. But most of them can be placed in the category of glad-handers, favour-seekers, big-noters who think they have a “hotline” to you, people with an overt commercial or political agenda who are using you to further their own interests.
If you think that these people are genuine friends you are setting yourself up for real psychological strife down the track, as the one guarantee you have when you’re the boss is that you won’t be the boss forever. And that can only be a healthy thing.
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