Bosses I Have Known

I’m halfway through The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, a great tome of a feminist novel, published back in 1977, which has by no means lost its punch in the present day. I’ll certainly be writing a proper review once I’ve finished it, so suffice to say now that it’s got me thinking a lot about power relations between men and women. My thoughts have been drawn inexorably towards the year I spent working in the printing industry, a monolithic industry that was far from enlightened by the early nineties, when I had the dubious pleasure of working for four different male bosses simultaneously. Now that enough time has passed since I was at their beck and call, I can see them as characters with some entertainment value, but working for them was enough to put me off traditional business hierarchies for life.

So there you have me, back in 1992, freshly out of Cambridge, smart, quick and ready to throw a lot of loyalty and energy into my new working life. I’m sure I had idealistic images of how it would be. I always really liked business, and back then going into academia was not on my list of priorities. I loved organizing things, enjoyed plans and strategies, and thought highly of the art of persuasion. I thought business was going to be exciting.

My first boss was an alcoholic who had recently left South Africa in something of a hurry. There were rumours that he had shot a man, but given that he was very good at a form of subtle self-dramatisation, I am not sure now I believe them. I knew nothing about his past at first, of course. He was a man of medium height in his fifties with a neat beard, terrific bags under his eyes and an air of louche attractiveness. The nicest thing about him was his voice, which was low and appealingly accented, although I later realized that he rarely spoke loudly before mid afternoon, when his hangover had worn off. The working day was a kind of inevitable but tedious prelude for him to six o’clock, when we could all go down the pub. I quickly learned that staying in work until that point won me an invitation for a drink, and the minimal amount of staying power in the pub would win me my evening meal on his expense account. When you are young and impecunious and just out of college, these things are important. Once in a more congenial setting my boss would become entertaining and expansive, telling us tales of his hair-raising exploits in South Africa, his tangles with fast cars, etc. In previous times he would have been called a wide boy, a chancer. When we went to an awards ceremony in London he kept linking my arm through his whenever we met a client and introducing me as his wife. So he was a bit of a womanizer, too; there was indeed a wife, somewhere, but she was shrouded in her own clouds of disapproval, and probably far too real and intransigent a topic for my boss to regale us with. What I cannot recall is doing any work with him. He spent his days cloistered in his office and rarely emerged in daylight.

Someone, somewhere decided I could take on more responsibility at this point and so I acquired another boss, this one in charge of European sales. The idea was to utilize my language skills. This new boss was by no means as much fun to be around. He was a large, blustering sort of man, with that sticky, disintegrating look that school boys have as they trudge home at the end of the day. He was an indeterminate age, with thinning blonde hair that was permanently startled. It may have been simply rebelling against its owner’s misguided desire to place a parting just above his right ear and comb everything up and over the top. It certainly seemed to be urgently pointing in an entirely different direction. My new boss was without subtlety or finesse. He had a loud voice, particularly on the telephone, which caused much mirth among the sales personnel and suggestions that he could connect to Europe simply by opening the window and shouting out of it. I may have liked him a lot more if I hadn’t had to spend so much time in cars with him. He was without doubt the most terrible driver whose passenger seat I have had the misfortune to occupy. I had never, ever, before witnessed an automatic car bucking like a kangaroo. He had pale blue exorbitant eyes that darted here and there constantly, but which never seemed to actually look at the road, a trait I rather suspected extended to his mind. The problem was he had no idea how to relate to a woman who wasn’t a secretary or a wife, but to be fair he was quite sweet on the occasion we entertained important German clients. There were two of them, and the one who got in the back of the car with me, perhaps also mistaking my role there, declared ‘Was für ein hübsches Mädchen!’ with the air of one on holiday in a foreign land with no witnesses, and put his hand on my knee. When we got to the restaurant, my boss took me to one side. ‘Is old Hans there bothering you?’ he asked. ‘I won’t stand for that.’ And he plonked his considerable girth in between me and the lecherous customer for the rest of the visit. I was grateful to him for that consideration, but could have lived without the way he hectored me every time there was something to be done. He only had to ask.

Having two bosses gave someone the bright idea that an ultimate boss, above my two bosses, to whom I would ultimately report would clarify things. And so I gained a third meddler in my day. In principle this boss had more going for him than the others. He had been with the company a long time and was experienced and respected; he seemed to be privy to what was actually going on and more involved with decision making. And he was a conventionally handsome man, with a benign air and no reputation for tantrums, unreasonable demands or distressing out-of-hours habits. I looked forward to working with him, and so naturally it didn’t happen. He turned out to be the kind of boss who is permanently on the brink of leaving the office to do something earth-shatteringly important. We had one meeting that contained for me all the delights of a cocktail party where the host is repeatedly talking over your shoulder, on the lookout for more thrilling guests. After that our second meeting was endlessly postponed. Every time the hour approached, my boss would tear down the corridor towards the general meeting room as if NATO were assembled there waiting to prevent world war three. Or else he would slam down the phone as if having received a tip off that the hounds of hell were on his scent and, grabbing his jacket, and scrabbling into it awkwardly because there was no time for the niceties of dress, he would pause to offer me some urbane and charming words of consolation.

And then I had a fourth boss, who was going to replace the first, who was being ignominiously kicked out (par for the course for his career, it transpired). But I’m losing patience with the retelling now. He was jolly and he wore braces. I recall little else. By that time I was hightailing it out of business and heading back to the enclaves of academia where you could have a decent relationship with the people you worked with. When it came down to it, equality proved to be all for me. I never liked being told what to do, or berated unfairly when my boss had forgotten some vital detail in the telling. I didn’t appreciate being patronized or thrust into the role of female escort. I was uncomfortable and eventually annoyed when I was aware the person before me had no interest in what I wanted to say and was waiting only for me to leave him in peace. When I returned to the university, I fell back into the kind of working procedures that not only made sense to me but brought the work alive. My PhD supervisor was probably the greatest influence I have had on my career. She was (still is) a generous, brilliant, completely engaged woman, who tuned in to what I was trying to achieve and helped me willingly, encouragingly, to do it. We both felt passionate about our work and fully supportive of each other. If I have been a good academic mother to my students or produced any research of worth, it is due in large part to her guidance. I wonder if there is anything more important in team work, than entering into it on an equal footing, which is to say with mutual respect, a clear, shared goal and the willingness to encourage, listen and support? I would  certainly offer no less to anyone who wanted or was obliged to work with me.

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20 thoughts on “Bosses I Have Known

  1. Great post. I have so far been extremely lucky with my bosses, apart from when I was a student working behind the bar of a nightclub (unsurprisingly). Perhaps predictably, I only lasted a week.

  2. That was fun to read though at the time you were living through those bosses, not so fun. But at least you can laugh about it now and have some good stories :) Most of my bosses have alwasy been women which has its own interesting play of issues. Glad you are enjoying Women’s Room. I read it in a women’s lit class in college and enjoyed it very much.

  3. Oh my God, this was so funny. The paragraph about your second boss is absolutely … beyond compare, from his schoolboy stickiness to his “startled” hair.

    I feel deprived at not having had any bosses nearly this entertaining, though I did once work with a man to whom I referred as “the greasy weasel” for reasons that were perfectly clear to everyone else who also worked with him. Of course, that was long before I had a weasel in my house, so I didn’t understand the possible appeal.

  4. This post made be laugh and laugh – thank you. But, since I’m a “boss” now, I wonder what my peeps will say about me? Maybe I’ll give them grist for as much humor as yours gave to you (even though I’m not an alcoholic nor do I have…what was it?…permanently startled hair – I loved that line!) I hope you also write professionally because you are a hoot.

  5. If you set these characters in Los Angeles in the advertising, commercial banking or film business worlds (around the same time, by the way), you could be talking about my bosses, too, and my experiences in the business world. They convinced me I wasn’t cut out for the business world, either. Thanks for reminding me, because now, through the haze of time, the stories I have from that time ARE funny. I love the description “a wide boy, a chancer” because I have absolutely no idea what those expressions mean, and yet somehow they fit!

  6. Care – thank you! And so true. They are one in a million and have to be appreciated and hung onto when you do find them!

    Kirsty – a good boss makes so much difference. So glad to hear you’ve had good experiences, and at least the nightclub bar experience was short-lived!

    Stefanie – if only I knew back then I’d have a blog in which to redeem the experience! I can forgive anyone or anything that turns into a good anecdote.:) I’ve never worked for a woman, unless you count my PhD supervisor (and I feel the relationship is a bit different). I can imagine there might be pitfalls. The Women’s Room is an amazing novel – hard-hitting and fierce. I’m looking forward to reviewing it.

    David – aww thank you! Reading your posts of late is making me feel very jealous, in a different way. When you are married, you not only know the contents of the medicine cabinet but end up purchasing them, taking great care to get the right brand. ‘The greasy weasel’ is a highly evocative term, and one that certainly conjures images in my mind. So glad different kinds of weasels have redeemed the species for you. :)

    Grad – oh I’ll bet your employees regard you as I did my Phd supervisor – with great affection and respect. Thank you for such a lovely compliment. My professional writing is all academic, and in that field I am not supposed to make people laugh, so I have to let it out somewhere. :)

    Gentle Reader – I can imagine so very well my bosses transposed into other industries, scary thought though that may be! Wide boys and chancers are opportunists who might well overstep slightly the boundaries of the law in order to get the best deal. They are a little arrogant and cocky but do their best to be charming whenever they feel it will be to their advantage. I’ll bet you worked with a few of them, too! :) I do love the way the passage of time softens the edges of even the most irritating characters. I didn’t laugh much at the time, but I do now!

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and I think there is definitely something to delve into here. I report to many, many people and in order to keep my job have to keep at least 10 people above me happy at all times and let me tell you, it is exhausting! Some are men and some are women and every single one has a different operating style, from the man who always tells me which women on tv he thinks are hot to the woman who told me to never have children because it would ruin my career.

  8. I loved those descriptions but I cringed when I reached the alcoholic ex-South African. SA males don’t have the greatest reputation, which might have a lot to do with apartheid perhaps (for starters)! And you’re so right about equality. That’s partly why I think I’m kicking myself for signing up for another year of the military. But that’s another story.

  9. Courtney – TEN bosses!!!! :( Oh my, that is not good news. I shouldn’t really laugh at what those bosses say because it’s awful, but I’ve got my eye in for the humour in it at the moment. I mean, honestly, what were they thinking?

    Pete – I did think about you and wished I could have turned him into a different nationality! ;) Alas, he did represent a certain section of the SA population that probably would make your heart sink. I’m looking forward to hearing that other story, by the way. (But also glad if you have reached a decision that suits at least on some levels.)

  10. This made me laugh and think about the many weird, wonderful and truly awful bosses I’ve had. I think there’s something about bosses behaving badly that makes me laugh for the same reason I laugh at Fawlty Towers, I can’t quite believe it’s true.

  11. I can definitely see how your business experience prepared you for academia! In the position I’m in now, it’s so easy to think that academia is entirely screwed up, a huge mess, with incompetence everywhere, so much so that it’s amazing anything gets done — and yet the world outside academia is not so different after all! It’s good to remember things aren’t necessarily better anywhere else (well, it’s also a bit depressing too …)

  12. Lilian – she is one of the great and wonderful women of the world, really she is. I’m just sorry I don’t see enough of her these days!

    Emily – how nice to have had lovely bosses! But complaining about them is a necessary part of life. ;)

    Apiece – Fawlty Towers could have been set in my old company! As soon as you don’t have to actually suffer them, bosses are funny in retrospect, though.

    Dorothy – so true. I remember thinking to myself that no matter how bad my day was at the university, it was a delight compared to office work! And the difference between commerce and academia is that in commerce people are often only in it for the money, whereas people are often passionate about their research or teaching, even if they don’t know how to show it very well.

  13. So, I see m to have escaped from the business world in the nick of time. I loved your descriptions; this post made me remember the job interview from Hell and I imagine if I had taken that job I would have some stories to tell. But I didn’t take that job, instead I started doing massage for a living. Now, I have stories of other people’s lives running around my brain, but ethically I can’t share them. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to explode with all the information. Maybe if I did vignettes on my blog . . .

  14. Healingmagichands – oh how I wish I could hear some of the stories from your massage practice. I can imagine so well how interestingly loquacious very relaxed people must be! And I think it could only be good for you to offload some of that excess information. Vignettes sound like a wonderful idea. ;)

  15. I like to think some day I might be my own boss, but I don’t imagine that ever happening. I have had some interesting male bosses–the one I have now I am pretty much polar opposite of. Our common ground is that we both have cats (well, he has one). But you have to take what you can get and work with it! I have owned the Women’s Room for a long time and still would love to read it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it!

  16. Pingback: Sunday Links « Other Stories

  17. Danielle – mutual appreciation of cats is a good place to start with bosses! Every little helps. Here’s hoping that one day you will indeed be your own boss and enjoy all that lovely autonomy. The Women’s Room is very good, but long (for wimpish me at least). I hope I’ll finish it next week.

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