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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What I Learned From My First (and Worst) Boss

My first boss—a nationally recognized leader in her field who had written high-profile books and appeared on television—was a bit of a diva.

I’ll call her Dr. Bloom. My first day on the job, Dr. Bloom arrived a half hour later than scheduled and stayed only 15 minutes, coming and going like the Tazmanian Devil. In our first meeting, she rattled off the catalog of things she wanted done—as soon as possible, naturally—and offered me a map of it all via unreadable Post-it notes she stuck to my desk.

Left in her dust, I studied the hieroglyphics in a panic.

If her frenetic pace wasn’t enough, her attitude could vary just as quickly. One day, I would be belittled, bossed around, and dismissed with a, “Did you really think this was good enough?” The next day, I would be showered with compliments: “I’m so impressed with your work!” And the following day? She’d threaten to fire me.

Needless to say, I chose not to devote my life to serving Dr. Bloom. I left the position after 10 months and found a similar job on the West Coast—yes, I was willing to cross the continent to escape her!

As awful as it was, working for a boss like this was a critical and formative career experience for me. The tough lessons I learned as Dr. Bloom’s charge helped me grow professionally and build my confidence. Here are three key takeaways I learned from the experience.

1. You Control Your Outlook

Difficult people are everywhere. They’re not going away. So it stands to reason that managing relationships with difficult people is one of the most important skills an adult can learn. (You read that right: manage relationships—not avoid them.)

People come off as “difficult” for reasons both apparent and hidden. Dr. Bloom was stressed, juggling a high-profile career and, as it happens, single motherhood. She taught me to look at difficult people empathetically: Who knows what else might have been on her mind? Research stagnation, a death in the family, a medical condition? When I’m struggling to feel empathetic, I remind myself that I only know part of the story.

I also learned that I was in control of how I react to different communication styles. Dr. Bloom’s style was direct, no-nonsense, and commanding. What felt like a personal attack was really just someone communicating in a style different from mine (and one I wasn’t used to). Of course, belittling and threatening to fire someone are extreme examples, and they’re not going to earn you any supervisory gold stars, but if you’re the employee forced to stick it out for a few months with a mean boss, remind yourself that different people communicate in different ways. Try not to take criticism personally—no matter how it’s delivered—and focus on responding rationally.

Even though Dr. Bloom’s abrasive style clashed with mine, I always kept my cool. As a result, when it came time for me to leave, I knew I could count on her for a recommendation.

2. Subprime Work Environments Lead to Unexpected Growth

When I worked for Dr. Bloom, I was asked to do things that I wasn’t qualified for and that didn’t seem relevant to my career goals—all under an incredible amount of negative pressure. For example, I was asked to manage a fancy event attended by Nobel Laureates and retool an out-of-date website. As an introvert with little interest in tech—operating under the assumption that if I screwed up even a tiny bit, I would be sacked—I often wondered whether I could even do the job.

But the very suggestion that maybe I wasn’t good enough is what inspired me to do my best. The strongest motivator was demonstrating that I could do everything Dr. Bloom asked. I poured my heart into each project, becoming enough of an expert as to prove that I was not the idiot she often made me feel like.

The event went well, but not without a hitch. The website improved, but there were still glitches. I may not have satisfied Dr. Bloom completely, but my level of confidence soared as I developed the breadth of my capabilities. I discovered new abilities that had previously seemed out of reach.

Sure enough, these skills helped me land a better job when I was ready.

3. Managing Others Is a Challenge

Sometimes people in supervisory roles earn their high position due to talents that have nothing to do with managing others. Dr. Bloom was a star researcher and writer, and presumably a great lecturer in the classroom. However, none of these complex, impressive skills necessarily translated to management. Too often, our society assumes that smart people will “figure it out” on the job—that leadership is a trait anyone can exhibit once the situation demands it.

Take it from me: That’s not always the case.

Years down the road, I landed a job in a supervisory capacity. Without any leadership training, I made a lot of missteps. In fact, I repeated a lot of Dr. Bloom’s mistakes. Not knowing anything but a tough-love management style, I alienated some of my employees.

I quickly realized that recreating my own experience for my employees was unfair—and ineffective. So, on my own time, I researched leadership skills like mentorship, team-building, and leading difficult conversations.

While I found it challenging to learn how to be a good manager, I also found it to be incredibly rewarding. I cultivated mentoring relationships with my staff members and watched as their confidence, range of abilities, and success stories grew—all without the negative reinforcement I had experienced with Dr. Bloom.

Putting the lessons I learned from Dr. Bloom into practice isn’t always easy. I still clash with certain personalities. I still struggle through certain projects. I still make leadership mistakes. But I strive to reflect on my mistakes and take steps to correct them, keeping in mind how much I’ve grown as a result of that first job.

In the end, I’m thankful to Dr. Bloom. My toughest boss taught me the power of hard work, compassion, and true leadership.

Photo of boss courtesy of Shutterstock.