Company Culture #6 

Daniel should’ve been a terrible boss. He had all the warning signs of bad management: He’d been brought in from outside, with no experience pertinent to what we did. He’d never even worked in the insurance industry before being hired at AA. His only management experience was that he’d been a military officer, and pardon my prejudice here, but ‘military officer’ doesn’t make me expect anything but orders issued and orders followed. And he was less than half my age.

And he was Daniel, not Dan. When a visitor or newcomer called him “Dan,” he would politely correct them. So you tell me — doesn’t the guy sound like he’d be an insufferable prick? Well, guess what? Daniel was neither insufferable nor a prick. He was the best boss I’ve ever had.

I learned later that he’d been hired just a few weeks before I started as a temp, so he was as much a newbie as I was. He came in, though, with a strategy I’d never seen — he acknowledged that he knew nothing, and busied himself toward the task of learning to be the boss.

He started his first morning on the job by sending an email to the dozen employees who’d be working for him, saying,

I’m delighted to be your new manager. By all accounts, this department is already running smoothly, so please continue doing everything you’re doing.

You won’t see much of me for a while — my plan is to work short shifts in every department in this company, asking a lot of questions to get a feel and basic understanding of how the business operates, and how all our different departments interact. I expect this will take 4-6 weeks, and then I’ll spend some time learning how to do the work that our department does.

Hopefully, by the time I move into the vacant office that says 'manager', I’ll be worth sitting there. Until then, if you need me, here’s my cell number. Call any time, 24/7.

That’s why, when I started, we rarely saw Daniel. We got group-emails from him every morning, and he’d describe what he'd learned the day before — how the Marketing team works, or his overview of Agent Contracting procedures. It was educational for everyone in the department, but especially for Daniel.

And it worked. A month and a half later when he moved into the manager’s office, he had a good grasp of the work and the workflow. 

He was bizarrely open about everything. In our weekly meetings, he’d tell us details about upcoming changes, and possible changes under consideration, and anything he'd heard in management meetings. He’d ask our opinions on things, and listen. I was too new to fully understand it, but I remember an early meeting when Daniel explained a new procedure that was supposed to streamline our work, but Zeke and Libby pushed back, and explained how the change would actually make our work more difficult. Daniel heard what they said, understood, and successfully argued with his bosses, so that stupid change never happened.

His motto was on the nameplate of his door. Instead of his name, the engraved plate said in large letters 'DO IT MY WAY' and in smaller letters underneath, 'UNLESS YOU HAVE A BETTER IDEA'.

He listened to everyone's ideas, and I had several over the next few years. I’ll skip the details because it’s boring, but in any job, once you’ve done it for long enough to know what you’re doing, you can see ways to do it more efficiently. In some workplaces, the boss doesn’t want to hear those ideas, but Daniel would listen, think it over, and either implement the idea or explain why it wouldn’t work. And when workers' suggestions were adopted, Daniel passed credit up the line, so his boss knew that it was your idea, not his.

Best of all, Daniel was fair. You never got the impression he was playing favorites. Even though he was ex-military and built like Wolverine and I was planet-size and flabby, he treated me with respect, asked often how my training was going, and heard me when I answered. Later on, when Charlie was hired — and she was movie-star gorgeous — he treated her exactly the same as everyone else.

If you screwed up, though, and let a mistake squeak through our auditing process, he’d let you know, but never in a mean or accusatory way. Instead of "You fucked up," it felt like, "What can we do different, to make sure this doesn't happen again?" He called it ‘coaching’, and that’s what it felt like. Some of us even started calling him ‘Coach’. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Here’s the weirdest time Daniel coached me. It’s a silly but complicated story, so it needs a few paragraphs of set-up, sorry:

The company had lots more employees than parking spaces under the building, so it took years of seniority to get a space there. Rookies like me could park at an open-air lot two blocks away, or in an underground parking garage run by the swanky hotel next door. Parking underground at the hotel cost extra, but I opted for it because I’m lazy — we have genuine winters in Wisconsin, and parking underground meant no scraping snow and ice at the end of the work day.

AA employees were supposed to have access to half the spaces in that parking garage, but on days when the hotel was busy, the hotel’s guests might take more than half the spaces. You’d drive to work, roll your car up and down the parking garage, and despite paying for a monthly parking permit, you’d have no place to park.

That happened once or twice a month, and of course it was annoying as hell, and made people late to work, until finally someone did the smart thing: Signs were added above half the spaces in the shared parking garage, saying, “Reserved for AA employees, Monday-Friday 8-5.” Problem solved, right?

Yeah, but not yet. Monday morning, I pulled into the parking garage and saw those newly-installed signs, but again, rolling up and down the ramps, all the spaces ‘reserved for AA employees’ were taken. There were ample empty, unmarked spaces, though, so I parked in an unmarked space, locked my car, and went to work.

When my day was done, I found a note on my windshield, photocopied on red paper, announcing in very large text that if I ever parked outside of the newly-marked AA-only parking spaces again, my car would be towed. There was no please, no thank you, and it was very much a demand, not a request. And it was signed by the hotel manager.

Well, you know me, and I’m a big ol’ butt-head, so I wrote an angry email to the hotel manager. Told him what I thought. Told him there’d been no parking spaces that morning, so his hotel’s guests were parked as wrongly as I was. Told him, yeah, I wouldn’t do it again, but he didn’t need to be so obnoxious about it. And I told him, screw you.

It felt good writing that email, especially the last line, but the hotel’s manager didn’t respond by hitting ‘reply’. Instead he forwarded my email to the AA Human Resources department, and complained to them. This was obviously an attempt to get me in trouble, and it worked. HR forwarded my email to my boss Daniel, and he called me into his office.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Close the door, please,” said the boss, and you never want to hear that, but I closed the door. “It’s about your email to the hotel.”

Daniel was holding a printout in his hand, and I was immediately ready to rumble. “That email has nothing to do with AA,” I said, or I may have yelled. “I pay to park in the hotel’s underground garage, so I’m a customer of the hotel. The email was from my personal account, not from my company email. It’s between me and the hotel.”

He shrugged. “Yeah, you’re right. That’s what I told HR when they forwarded it to me, and they agreed. It has nothing to do with your job. Nothing’s going into your employee file, and you are absolutely not in trouble here.”

That deflated my righteous indignation, and then came the coaching. “I want to give you some pointers on writing business letters, though.”

“OK,” said I, skeptical and still on edge.

Daniel handed me a printout of my email, with a few red-pencil marks he’d added, like a school teacher returning an essay. “Here in the second paragraph,” he said, “you say that the windshield-flyer is ‘dumb and rude’. Well, the manager took that as an insult, and I think most people would. Your email might’ve been more effective if you’d edited that out.”

I said nothing.

He continued, “And here, where you’re talking about the homeless people who shit in the parking garage’s stairwell, and how you sometimes see the same shit in the evening that you saw in the morning — that’s a valid complaint, too. The hotel should clean and hose the stairwells more often. It's not pertinent to your complaint about the flyer on your windshield, though, and it makes your email lose some of its focus. Suddenly you’re complaining about the hotel in general, instead of about the flyer.”

I said nothing, but what I was thinking was, Damn.

“And lastly, your closing line was, ‘screw you,’ which might have been deserved, but let me ask: What was your goal in sending your email?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “My goal was to tell him ‘screw you’.”

“If you just wanted to piss him off, it was successful. He got angry, and complained to the company, which complained to me, and here we are in my office. I’m guessing, though, that your real goal was to make him see that his windshield-flyer was rude. I would submit to you, Doug, that he didn’t get that message. He only got the message about ‘screw you’."

Again, I didn’t say anything, and Daniel continued his critique.

“Whenever I’m writing a business letter or memo, I decide what point I want to make, and that’s the only point I make. My advice to you — not as your boss, but just as a friend — is that when you’re writing a business email or memo like this, stay focused. Skip the insults. It’ll be more productive.”

I looked at the paper he’d handed me — my email to the hotel, with his red-lined corrections, editing out my insults, and crossing out the paragraph about shit in the stairwell. And damn it, his version was better. My email was angrier and more fun, but his changes might’ve gotten an apology, instead of getting me almost in trouble.

“And it's an upscale hotel,” Daniel added. “If you’d left out the insults and ‘screw you’, I think the manager might’ve seen your point, maybe even comped you an overnight stay as an apology. That’s what I would’ve done, if I was the manager." He chuckled. "Maybe during the week, when they have fewer paying guests."

I looked at the paper again, and looked at Daniel, and still couldn’t think of a damned thing to say.

“Again,” he added, “none of this goes on your record, not with me, and not with HR.”

I said, “Thanks, Coach, and I guess you’re right.” That line was partially me kissing ass, but after leaving the boss’s office, the more I thought about it, the more I knew… yeah, he’d been right.

For a few years in the 1990s, I’d worked for a magazine. For a few years in the 2000s, I’d written for a scientific journal. In both those jobs, my boss was the editor. But Daniel, my boss at the insurance company, was the only boss I ever had who taught me to be a better writer.


Company Culture

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  1. Doug, that is just very fine writing. I can rarely execute it, but I think I know it when I see it. Thanks.


    1. It's been a stinky day and an especially stinky past few hours, so your kind words are *especially* appreciated!


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