What lessons did your first boss teach you?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

As a follow-up to my Devil Wears Prada post, I’ve been thinking about my first editor(s) when I started out in journalism and my first full-time-job boss and the lessons they taught me — some of which might resonate for you.

I began freelancing as a writer for national publications when I was 19, having grown up in Toronto, the center of Canadian publishing.

Eager to join the world of journalism, I immediately signed up as a reporter for the weekly campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, and started writing as much as they would let me. Within a year, I had a good pile of articles, (aka clips), to show to professional magazine and newspaper editors I hoped would pay me for them.

I first started writing for a national Canadian magazine, then called Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

My editor was ferocious!

Her own mother was a legendary writer and so is her younger sister. I had never formally studied journalism or writing, beyond a BA in English literature from the equally-ferocious University of Toronto.

No one in my new worlds, either college or journalism, suffered fools gladly!

My editor would circle every misplaced or misused or lazy word with a red pen — this was in the day of typewriters and paper copies.

My first few stories were an embarrassing sea of red circles.

The New York Times newsroom...since 1990, I've written more than 100 stories for them
The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

She taught me a lesson I never forgot: to use specific verbs in the active tense.

When we spoke on the telephone, (no Internet!), and she told me what was wrong with my work, I would occasionally end up in tears.

Was it always fun? Clearly not.

Was I learning (and getting paid to do so?) Clearly so.

I could give up and walk away — or continue to learn my craft.

She and I are Facebook friends today.

My first book, published in 2004...all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today
My first book, published in 2004…all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first newspaper boss was a man so shy most people thought he was cold and unfriendly but he was really someone who valued guts and intelligence.

He took the crazy risk of hiring me — although I had zero prior staff newspaper experience — to work for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s daily national newspaper.

My first day, staring up at the large overhead clock that still rules every newsroom, I thought: “Wow, they want this story….tonight.

He kept throwing me into huge, terrifying, front-page stories, from covering an election campaign in French in Quebec, (I had never covered politics, anywhere, for anyone, let alone en francais), to a two-week national tour trailing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from New Brunswick all the way to Manitoba.

The lizard part of my brain sent me to cry in the bathtub, scared to death I would fail every time and get fired. That was his agenda!

The rational part of my brain told me to shut up and get on with it. I was being offered tremendous opportunities to shine. The rest was up to me.

I did fine.

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid
Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid in March 2014

I remain forever grateful to both editors for giving me amazing (scary!) chances, knowing I was still young and fairly green, knowing I might have proven a terrible disappointment. They had more confidence and faith in me than I often did.

That’s my definition of a great boss.

What did your first boss or job teach you that was most helpful?

It’s Labor Day: What does work mean to you?

By Caitlin Kelly

The radio plays Aaron Copland’s breathtaking “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Cover of Supply Chain Management Review
Cover of Supply Chain Management Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front page of The New York Times carries this incredibly depressing-but-important story about how clothing factories overseas — the ones that probably made the T-shirt I’m wearing as I write this post — are lying, cheating and faking their “safe” inspected factories:

As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.

An extensive examination by The New York Times reveals how the inspection system intended to protect workers and ensure manufacturing quality is riddled with flaws. The inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes. And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.

Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”

Still, major companies including Walmart, Apple, Gap and Nike turn to monitoring not just to check that production is on time and of adequate quality, but also to project a corporate image that aims to assure consumers that they do not use Dickensian sweatshops. Moreover, Western companies now depend on inspectors to uncover hazardous work conditions, like faulty electrical wiring or blocked stairways, that have exposed some corporations to charges of irresponsibility and exploitation after factory disasters that killed hundreds of workers.

I wrote about the horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the enormous Chinese company whose workers make Apple products (yup, writing on one right now) and who flung themselves out of windows in despair.

I talked about this in “Malled”, my book about retail labor. It was published last month in China, with a new cover and title.

I have several Chinese-speaking friends who have offered to compare the translation to my original — to see if that bit was censored.

It’s a crappy day here in New York — gray, cloudy, hot and humid. It’s an official holiday. Time to relax, recharge, reflect on our role as “human capital” the new euphemism for the old euphemism for human beings toiling for pay — “labor.”

But we are both working, albeit from home.

Jose, whose full-time job as a photo editor for the Times keeps him busy enough, spent all day yesterday on an income-producing side project.

I spent the day with a friend, deep in conversation. Turns out, even with a decade+ age difference between us, despite living on opposite coats, we both spend much of our time figuring out how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.

Time Selector
Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

Recent polls are shockingly sad — some 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs. A Gallup poll of 150,000 workers found many of us actively miserable in the place where we spend the bulk of our days and energy.

This is nuts!

I grew up in a freelance family. No one had a paycheck, pension or guaranteed income, working in print, film and television. No one taught on the side. It was balls-to-the-wall, full-on creative entrepreneurship, for years, decades.

I took my first staff job, the job (then and now) of my dreams, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, when I was 26. “This is the best job you’ll ever have,” a friend working there warned me. I laughed, assuming a lifetime of up-and-onward, in title, status and income.

She was right.

I hope to stop working full-time within the next decade.

Minute Maid Plant, 1950s
Minute Maid Plant, 1950s (Photo credit: StevenM_61)

I want to travel to the many places I still know very little of: Africa, Latin America, Asia. They require $1,500+, 12-16-hour flights. They are not places I want to cram into a week or ten days “vacation.”

I hope to keep writing books, teaching, keeping my hand in. But not tethered to the hamster wheel of non-stop production.

How do you feel about your job?

Ten ways to be a kick-ass boss

English: Big Boss Man
English: Big Boss Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having been an underling much of my life, I’ve seen the flip side of this deal.

My first boss, at The Globe and Mail, in my mid-20s, set the bar impossibly high for all future bosses. I still miss him!

What did I love about my Best Boss Ever?

— He scared the shit out of me by giving me assignments so huge and so unfamiliar I used to go home and sit in the bathtub and cry from terror. The rational part of my brain said, “No, you ninny. He thinks you’re talented and he’s giving you a fantastic chance to prove it. Go do it!”

— He was willing to listen to my ideas, and give me opportunities I had no right to, like sending me to the Winnipeg Jets’ training camp after I told him I knew nothing about hockey. Then asking me to profile the owner of the Maple Leafs.

The original Winnipeg Jets logo in the WHA
The original Winnipeg Jets logo in the WHA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— He told me when I needed to pick up my game.

— He told me I was too impatient and fussy and needed to stay put and be consistently excellent for a while doing one thing.

— He backed me to the hilt when one of my stories caused huge international furor. I was terrified I’d be fired. He loved the publicity for my work and our paper.

— When I decided to quit and go to another paper, he accepted my invitation to lunch — which cost me about $50 or so in 1986 — and told me I was welcome to return any time. His acceptance of my resignation letter was typically kind and elegant.

— I still have my hand-written attaboy note from him on one of my front-page stories: “Magnificent.” That one word was high praise in an industry that gives very little of it. I treasure it to this day.

Big Boss (Metal Gear)
Big Boss (Metal Gear) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some tips for those in the boss’ chair:

Be fair

This is a big one. Workers can be whiny but they will, for sure, compare notes on how they’re being managed. Does everyone else really expect their emails returned at 3 a.m.? (And is this really how you think people should live?) Yes, you’re under ridiculous pressure to get results and productivity but try to remember that your staff are not merely units of labor. They’re people.

Be clear

People often mis-hear or don’t listen well or forget or are overwhelmed.  Make sure your staff knows exactly what you want. Better than having them flail, fearfully, in the dark. I once worked for a major newspaper whose macho motto was “Sink or swim.”

Puhleeze.

Say thank-you

This is huge. I try to make a point of thanking my assistants with every email and phone call. Yes, you’re paying them. They’re not robots. When I worked retail for a no-commission $11/hour, my feet burning after every shift, it made a surprisingly big difference when our manager, every night at closing, said “Thank you.” Do it often.

Pay properly

This is an area of some debate, clearly. I’ve learned the hard way that paying my part-time assistants, all of whom are college grads, $10/hour is not enough. I now pay my current assistant $15/hour, more than I prefer, worth it. In an era of $4/gallon gasoline, any boss who keeps cheaping out will find the result is lazy, unmotivated staff, people who quit the minute they can and an unspoken power struggle that slows everyone down.

I’m in the middle of profiling a huge company who’s legendary for paying badly — when half your reviews on glassdoor say you’re cheaper than all your competitors, listen up!

Make clear how you prefer to handle communication

We all have preferences. I prefer written communication — that way I can always see what I said and what was answered. Don’t fume or yell because your staff aren’t doing what you want. Communicate clearly what you expect.

Don’t abuse people’s time

This is huge. Just because you have a title or office or more salary or experience or education doesn’t justify being abusive. There are always going to be times when everyone has to work later or longer — including you! But if this is a constant, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t demand face time just because you can.

Don’t bully

I’ve been on the receiving end of this far too many times. It’s toxic and a total waste of resources. I once worked in an office — no exaggeration — a trade publisher, whose editor in chief shouted curses across the room at everyone, snarled inches from my face and sniped constantly at everyone. One of my co-workers told me she had been on anti-depressants for years just to be able to stand working there; I quit after six weeks there to go freelance. This includes yelling, sneering, eye-rolling or the silent treatment. People can document, and some will sue for, a hostile work environment.

Back your people up!

This is essential. We all work for our managers as much as we choose to work for a company or organization and our primary loyalty is to our boss and his/her boss(es.) Treat your staff with as much loyalty, resources, training and moral support as you can muster. Protect them whenever possible from toxicity that can lower morale.

Praise as often as you can

We’re all human. We need to celebrated when we’re succeeding, not only spoken to when we disappoint or fail.

Correct or criticize only in private

Never dress someone down publicly. It’s rude, humiliating and unnecessary. Unless your entire corporate culture is equally brutal, managers who do this lose respect from everyone in earshot and are sure to lose talented staff as soon as they can find new employment.

Bonus:

Be human!

The managers I will walk through fire for — I did a month on crutches in a Quebec winter covering an election campaign en francais for my first boss — show us they’re actually human beings. They laugh, share a joke, ask how our sweetie or dog or Mom or marathon training is doing. They have the self-confidence to reveal some of their weaknesses or vulnerabilities so we don’t feel Totally Intimidated.

What have I left out?

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