Your “How-Not-To” for today
I have mentioned in earlier ramblings that I really do not wish to be a mentor. Not right now. But there are so many people acting as if they are next to some god when it comes to “knowing” and “being right” that it makes one a tad ill. This tirade is about management. Mismanagement, to be precise. It’s everywhere. We all experience it and the people doing it. Daily.
As a clue on my age (for reference purposes only, thank you very little), I remember clearly watching new episodes of Ultra Man, Speed Racer, Captain Scarlet, and The Thunderbirds. Oh, yes, and Captain Kangaroo. Creepy, I know. Do the math. It’s only to qualify how long I have been in the workforce.
Having established some decades under belt, I have to point an angrily-shaking finger at the world. Well, the American business world. I certainly don’t know much, but what I have come to learn is how manipulative, controlling, and deceitful people can be. Especially in the workplace. There are so many psychological forces at work here that I dare not start down that path. Let’s just say people bring their baggage with them wherever they go, including work. And not just the workers.
I have experienced every kind of boss the world has to offer (or so I say). Stern but kind, dumb and happy, hang-on-your-shoulder constantly, the angry yeller, the suit, the smoker, the leave-you-in-the-dark type, the threatener, the user, the non-confrontationist. And I have only had one true nurturing boss my entire life. To this day.
This stuff is important. To everyone. Well, except those Back Bay and Wellesley socialites who work at all because it’s “something to do.” And those types can, well, stop taking jobs real people need and may actually want.
Because of the changing college cost and its overpopulation (if you’re going to be anything you have to go to college), people are moved through school like little photos on a roll at Walgreens Pharmacy. You go through the process, rinse, and then you’re “cut” loose on the world. Ready to be cataloged and filed away into your first shoe box, er, um, that is, into your first job. Today, kids coming out of business school especially seem to know more than anyone about marketing, business structure, and product development. And they all speak as if they were doing this stuff for eons. Bullshit. It all looks good on paper. But you have to see it in practice, in action. The entire idea of moving masses according to an elaborate plan based on individual’s collected likes and dislikes is distressing. And it’s not some new idea. It’s simply that I do not want to be tracked, measured, and categorized. Do you? Do you like having to go to specific sections of a music store which are based on what all of the things you love musically have been jumbled together into just to find something new? Neither do I. I want it loose and open. Sections labelled with a question mark. Let me decide what something is. And this is just a tiny part of the marketing machine. Everything has to be categorized and everyone must fall in certain ranges of these categories. “Certainly, if you liked this, then you’ll simply love that.”
Stay with me, this all adds up at some point. (Marketing term: incentivize dynamic users)
I started here because my more recent endeavors have had me coping with media startup companies and ad agencies. Here, the worlds are different on the surfaces, but it’s still chintzy under the hood. Mishmashes of ideas and directions. Tons of people running things who don’t know anything about product but truly believe they do. People who act like creative directors and yet they have never picked up an oil paint brush, cut rubyliths, used an Xacto knife, laid out galleys for a publication, or made an actual dummy product completely out of foam core. They use brilliant sweeping descriptions of product style and use of color, yet they don’t even know what the word “tertiary” means. And these people are in charge of others. Giving creative direction and approval, not just simple input. Their concepts and directions are law. And they have a magic bag full of verbal diarrhea that CEOs just love. It makes leaders say things like: “He’s so professional, isn’t he?” or “He knows exactly how to steer the ship!” Oish. Give me a fucking break. Do I really have to drink the Kool Aid like everyone else? Can’t I enjoy my job knowing the product’s shortcomings for real? Isn’t that smarter?
Well, this prior description is one type of boss. Smart, friendly, never confrontational, always has their “door open” to you. But they just can’t relinquish that stranglehold on your creative juices. They must use you to their ends. Your creative ideas only fit once they’ve been hammered into shape by the pro. You are just a cog in their machine.
Many years ago I worked in Harvard Square, in Cambridge, where I was a darkroom technician. My boss, let’s just call him Hardly, was an asshole. And this point of view was shared amongst the entire crew working for him. Hardly was smart. He actually had a background in photography. But as a boss, he was a manipulative control freak. He was always perched on your shoulder like a norwegian blue. Stapled there. Always talking at you. Always telling you how to do what you were doing. Making certain his money was well spent on your salary. And I punched a time clock! At this time of my life, I decided to be something real. Something that could crawl out from underneath all of these controllers. Hardly had bought a brand new Apple Quadra 950 (yes, I know, dating myself again) and allowed one of his favorite workers, Rob, to be his designer. I, being of zero, was not allowed to even look upon this new marvel of the future. Well, that did it. And it was actually a defining moment in my life. I spent the next year saving my cash and absorbing every single article, book, and review on everything Mac. I was religious in my information gathering. It got to the point where I knew how to do things that Rob could never figure out. And I didn’t tell anyone either. When my money was saved, I went out and bought my first Mac: a Power Macintosh 6100 with a screaming 66 MHz! I loaded it with PhotoShop 2.0 (of course), Quark, and Illustrator. The next day I went into work and quit. My life has never been the same since. All I can say is: thank you, Hardly, for being such a rude, manipulative, little man.
But that’s just another one of the myriad faces you will work for in your lifetime. Trust me, you will.
My most positive experience was working for a woman who we will call Phyllis. This was a creative agency on the upward climb toward being bought by an ad agency monster, Publicis. Phyllis had to claw her way into her role and understood what people were going through in the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. She had true empathy and never forgot her own path. Phyllis ran the studio. She was a very patient person, sometimes to a fault. She was polite to everyone that crossed her threshold. And she listened. Phyllis promotes her employees up and out of her studio where they can be intensely needed. She puts no barriers up. She is realistic about people’s need to grow. Of course, not everyone moves upward. Many get comfortable and just slowly become one with their office chair over the years. But Phyllis had designs on that scenario as well. She would have quarterly contests where people were forced to learn new software and show off their skills in company art shows. It was a great chance to show all of the art directors your secret talents. Who knows, maybe they would see your previously unknown skills and bring you up to be a designer under their team.
Now, this might sound like a faery tale, but it’s not. in fact, this is one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had. Still, it was an ad agency, so I lost interest after five or so years. My creative yearnings were begging to be cut loose. But the point remains that if you ever come across a boss who shows this kind of attention to your life, thank them and tell everyone else about them. People need to experience this stuff in order to learn from it. I don’t aspire to management. I want to create. But for those that do, I implore you to do these things: first, hire the best team your budget will allow you to assemble. People who are creative in thought as well as technique. Yes, the mavericks and loose cannons! get over it, they are different for a reason. Second, give them the playpen of their choice; allowing people to work from home a few days a month is great for the soul. And, lastly, let this team of people you brought together do their thing! Leave them the hell alone. Let them make decisions, big decisions, on how things should look, feel, act, and respond! Let them use the expertise you hired them for, damn it! Otherwise, you’ve just ruined the most incredible experience you never had.