A Thank-You Note To My Previous Bosses

Good or Bad, I Learned Something From Each of You

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Derek Walker
Derek Walker
To all my past bosses,

Thank you for the opportunity to work for and learn from you. Thank you.

Let me be honest: I wasn't the greatest employee to have, I know this. I needed to quit. It was time to lay me off. I deserved to be fired.

I wanted to take a moment to let you know that I've learned so much from you. You may not realize this but I was watching and learning from everything you did. I was paying attention.

Great, good, bad or horrible, each one of you has taught me something about this thing we do -- and myself. Let's talk about what I learned. (FYI: These are in no particular order. I simply wrote as they crossed my mind.)

Boss No. 1: I learned what it takes to lead an agency to greatness -- that you don't have to rule with an iron glove but when needed you have to be willing to wear it.

You may think your wisdom and experience was wasted on a young creative who seemed to not pay attention, but it wasn't. I learned that what we do is more than take orders -- we advise, we consult and we create solutions. I saw you stand up for what the agency represented to not only internal pressures but to clients. I learned that being the boss means being involved. What a wonderful boss you were for any young professional in advertising. I wish I had taken more notes.

Your practice of actually talking to new employees, and asking what their goals were, and then giving us the opportunity to fulfill those goals helped to create stronger, well-rounded professionals. You taught me that being the boss meant being involved, you not only attended the new-business pitch but you participated in building the presentation. You were willing to lend a hand wherever needed, even going on food runs for late night sessions.

You taught me to lead by example, not by words.

Boss No. 2: From you, I learned that there is more to life than advertising.

I worked hard for you, harder than I ever did anywhere else. I had something to prove and you gave me the freedom to do that. I watched you deal with personal tragedy, and I couldn't help but be amazed. Yes, you stumbled, but you didn't stay down or try to hide your fall. You were the first boss I ever had who apologized to his people for making a mistake.

You encouraged the staff to have fun and come up for air, and I thank you. If you hadn't, I might have lost my way. Your ability to read your employees and recognize when they needed help or to be left alone was amazing.

You knew how to manage. But you were always reading or studying the management styles of other agencies and companies, trying to get better. Thank you for all the subscriptions to the trade pubs. It showed that you were interested in our growth as much as yours.

Let me tell you something: We worked long hours for you because you made it easy to work for you. Especially knowing the struggles you were having.

You taught me to keep everything in perspective, that the work is important but if you are miserable creating the work, it is a waste. You showed that there is more to what we are doing than a paycheck.

Boss No. 3: I learned from you that bigger is not always better.

Thank you for running me off. I didn't belong there. I was blinded by the so-called prestige of the agency, the accounts and the money. I quickly learned that was a mistake. You made me tougher. You let your personal feelings for individuals affect what work was presented to the client. Until I worked for you, I never thought that anyone would intentionally harm a client's business to serve his own agenda. I was wrong.

I learned that not all of us are meant to lead. I watched and listen to you, and I realized what type of boss I never want to be. You taught me that leaders set the tone and tenor for a workplace, that no matter how talented the team, everything depends on the boss.

Thank you for teaching me that being a boss doesn't come natural, that you have to work at it every day.

Boss No. 4: You taught me to sweat the details, to keep my eyes on all aspects of an agency's operations.

You showed me how bad it can go when you don't "walk the halls."

I'm not sure what you were doing but how can you be plugged in and let your agency fail? You should've been aware of what was going on with the numbers. I learned how actions or inactivity impacts more than yourself. Good people lost everything when the agency closed, and it was on your watch. I realized how serious it is to lead a group of people. I learned how devastating it could be when leadership is not willing to lead. I discovered that a good person doesn't always make a great boss. You showed me that being the boss carries some huge responsibilities, that the decisions he makes can have a real and devastating impact on people's lives.

I learned from you that running an agency takes more than a dream -- I've got to have a plan.

Boss No. 5: Thank you for making me check my ego. Of all my bosses, you were the most educated, on paper the smartest. And you let everyone know it.

Your vision for the agency was beautiful and inspiring. You had assembled a team quite capable of realizing your vision, and you let it all slip away -- you were too smart to listen. You pretended to listen but nothing ever changed. At first, I thought it was cool that you and the majority of your team had never worked at an agency, but then reality set in -- as smart as you are, you had no clue about cultivating an atmosphere where creative solutions can flourish. Not only did you lack experience, you held advertising in disdain because you were smarter than advertising people. You actually told your people this, not caring that most of them were in fact advertising people.

I learned that having a dream and making that dream a reality more times than not means getting out of the way of your people and letting them breathe life into it. Your smarts would not let you listen to your people because they were not as smart as you. You taught me that I have got to keep my ego in check, and that great ideas can come from anyone. It is the job of a boss to be willing to listen to those other voices, and be open to using their suggestions.

Boss No. 6: Thank you for pushing me, for not shielding me from the politics.

You gave me the freedom to speak my voice, and that showed me that nothing trumps politics like talent and hard work.

I hated the way you forced me to step out of my comfort zone and take on more responsibility. You made me lead, when I was content to follow. You showed me that I have an obligation to share what I have learned with others. I needed that kick in the butt you gave me. I was becoming complacent with being a creative, but you understood that there was a passion in me that would never be happy until I had my own.

You trusted me. Years later, I would learn how important our "talks" were.

I learned that a true leader evaluates his people individually, and decides what is best for them and how that will best benefit the team he is assembling.

Finally to my past bosses collectively: I thank God for the lessons I learned from you, all of you. I don't hate anyone or wish anyone harm. I wish this idea had come to me when I was walking out the door. I would have sat down with you and told you what I learned from you. I went back and forth about whether or not to tell stories about each of you. I have a funny or enlightening story for each one of you, but I worried that it might reveal identities. That would not be a good thing for everyone. Maybe I'll write them in another blog.

To those reading this: These were smart, talented and creative people, even the ones who were bad bosses. But the main lesson I learned from all of my past bosses is that being a boss requires more than awards or talent, it demands hard work and understanding. We are wrong to promote individuals as a reward for doing great work -- not everyone is cut out to be a boss. Bosses are not always the smartest ones in the room or the most talented, they are the ones who can build a team, grow and foster a culture and inspire people to become more than what they are -- this requires training and experience.

As an industry, we have got to bring our training programs back. It is simply bad business to promote the wrong person to a leadership role. If this person is a great creative and that is all they want to be, then pay them what they are worth but don't force them into a leadership role if they don't want it. And to those up and coming professionals, be careful what you ask for -- being the boss is not all it is cracked up to be.

Once again, I want to thank my past bosses. I learned so much from you about who I am, where I want to go and who I desire to become as a creative and a boss. There is no college course that I could take that taught me as much as all of you did. Thanks.

Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.
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