Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who makes the better boss?

Recently, I've had a few interesting discussions with people about bosses, specifically, who makes a better boss and who is a better professional mentor and role model, a man or a woman. Wow, what a loaded question with a wide range of answers...

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have had said I would prefer to never work for a woman again.

My most recent experience working for a woman was not good. I moved back to Vancouver from London in 2002 and began working at a corporate office downtown. I started on the reception desk and before long I was assisting the accountant and then the President and the CEO, Sammy. The President was hands off. He didn't need much from me, except when Sammy insisted. The accountant was lovely and I had a few tasks to do for her, but nothing out of the ordinary or strenuous. She was predictable and the tasks were too.

But then there was Sammy. UGH. I think women like Sammy are the reason so many people have negative experiences with female bosses. Sammy was demanding. Sammy was flighty. Sammy was a narcissist. Sammy was just like Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada. Except Sammy wasn't wealthy, Sammy just *thought* she was wealthy. And Sammy didn't have the status in her industry that Miranda had in hers. She just *thought* she did. Sammy made my life hell.

I hated working at that corporate office and I wanted out. I had also decided that I didn't want to work for another woman. Everyone I talked to who worked for a man seemed so much happier with their work situation than those who worked for women, or at least they seemed happier than me, and I worked for a woman.

Men seemed to be more fair. Men seemed to be about business when it was business time and when that was over, personal relationships picked up where they left off. Women were petty. I saw this not just in Sammy, but in the other female executives as well - if there was a disagreement about a business matter, they took it personally. There were weeks when two of them wouldn't go for lunch together because of a business decision one made that the other didn't agree with. The guys, they got over it because the beer and game after work were about the beer and the game after work. The business decision? It was made for the betterment of the business and it could stay at the office.

Sammy was unpredictable. One day she'd be lovely - I spent a pleasant afternoon in Holt Renfrew with her picking out Christmas gifts for the staff one year – and the next day she'd be horrible and everyone would go out of their way to avoid her. Not so easy for desk was literally right outside her door. She would ask for one thing and when I brought it she's say, that's not what I want, why can't you read my mind. She'd ask me to remind her when it was five minutes before her next meeting and then scream at me for interrupting her. She'd tell me to go home early because I'd been there late all week only to yell at me the next morning because she needed me two hours after I'd left the night before.

I looked for a new job for a long time. I was reluctant to let go of my miserable job with Sammy because (a) I had a job, (b) I had benefits, (c) the job market sucked, (d) while she was crazy and unpredictable, she was also out of town often enough that is wasn't as bad as it sounds up there, and (e) I had some really good friends at the corporate office and they made me happy and sometimes we had crazy adventures. Then a new job pretty much landed in my lap and I hugged it and jumped at the chance for a change.

It was a big change. I no longer had Sammy to contend with; I had a male boss who was also an academic. Someone who needed to be reminded to get his haircut, not someone who had to be persuaded to get a manicure on the weekend, not during the week when we had a crucial conference call booked.

Sammy was a piece of work...and working for a man for the first time was heaven compared to that. I never wanted another female boss again.

Apparently I had totally forgotten about life before Sammy.

My first "real" jobs were at a shoe and clothing store and a fast food joint. My bosses both places were women. They were temporary jobs and pretty routine and I didn't think much about my boss. In both instances, she was just someone who trained me, scheduled me, and signed my pay cheque and pretty much left me alone otherwise. My next job was one I returned to for two summers. My supervisor was another student who was my peer and quite honestly didn't really supervise me. We were a tiny team that fortunately worked well together. My real boss was a man in a government building a few blocks away who occasionally stopped by for an extended coffee break to make sure everything was working the way it was supposed to.

None of my bosses was particularly inspiring. None of them provided much in the way of leadership or mentoring. I didn't look at any of them and aspire to do better or greater or more worthy things. They happened to be the people who would have something to say if I messed up, so I just made sure I didn't mess up.

After I graduated I went to live in London and work for WAGGGS...not only did I have a female boss, but all of my coworkers were female and we all lived TOGETHER. EEEeeep...I didn't really understand why people thought I was crazy until after I'd been there a, ever heard of hormones synchronizing themselves when women live together...yeah, interesting times!

D was my first "real" boss. Actually technically she wasn't my boss, but that's a different story. If I screwed up, well, I cared about what D thought.

D was all those things my previous bosses hadn't been. She was a true leader. She cared about Pax Lodge. She cared about the staff. She cared about our guests. She made me realize why it was important that I cared about the guests too. She inspired me to do my job better because it could make someone else's experience better.

D taught me that respect is to be given, not earned. Because she respected us, we respected her and life was much easier...Of course, if we did something to lose her respect, we would have to earn it back, but everyone started on a level playing field - everyone was given respect from the get go...and it worked. D pushed us to be the best we could be and to move outside our comfort zone.

After I left, I worked for two more women, but because I loved Pax Lodge and felt that D was a good boss, I was back at Pax Lodge within a year, this time working for her. I would have stayed longer, but my visa had other ideas.

But Sammy had wiped those memories from my mind. After changing jobs and working for my male boss who needed haircut reminders I was convinced I was never going back to a female boss again.

Then a year ago there was a major shakeup in our department and some people were let go and some were reassigned and our department was closed. I lucked out - I was reassigned. To work with a woman. Someone I'd never worked with and had met only briefly. She didn't intimidate me but I knew I wanted to have her on my side; I could tell being on the wrong side of her would be bad. I was terrified.

I had flashbacks to Sammy. I felt physically ill. It was not fun. For the first four months we were in different buildings a 12 minute walk apart. Things were going on in both our personal lives. There was upheaval. I didn't want the new building to be ready. I didn't want to move in across the hall from this woman.

I saw myself going on 45 minute lunch runs to pick up a sandwich because I had to find a place that made shrimp and avocado sandwiches and I couldn't come back until I had one in my possession. I saw myself not getting any work done and getting yelled at for it because I spent my day babysitting the boss's kids (for the record my new boss doesn't have kids). I saw my child languishing at daycare long after the day was over because I hadn't been "released" yet because there was an "emergency." I saw myself feeling sick all the time. I saw myself quitting. I didn't know what to do.

Luckily my new boss is not like Sammy. My new boss is an energetic, intelligent, inspiring woman. She's got great stories. She expects a high level of work, but she outlines her expectations very clearly. Even though she doesn't have kids, she's been excellent when it comes to picking J up early or working at home when J is sick. She encourages me to take vacations. She encourages me to take courses and buy and read books for professional development. She is constantly challenging me to push my boundaries and take on things I'm not entirely comfortable with (even though she's confident that I'll be fine). She is friendly. She is respectful and she is kind. She’s predictable - not in a boring way - I know that if she asks for x, she’s not expecting me to come up with f.

She is one of the people I've had this discussion with...her perspectives have been enlightening and many of her role models have been men, so she's tried to emulate some of their behaviour. We agree that things in the business world would likely run a little smoother if everyone was a little gentler with each other but also had teflon skin. It's not going to happen though.

I know this boss is not going to be my last boss...but I'm going to enjoy working for her as long as possible, because male or female, she's an excellent boss and she has reminded me that long ago, before Sammy, I had another amazing boss in D.

What do you think - do men make better bosses than women? Do women make better bosses than men? Or is it all about each individual's personality?


  1. I have been so lucky to have excellent bosses, all of whom have been men. That being said, I am a boss myself, and I get very good feedback from my female employees. I am wonderful friends with two women who used to report to me at our old company. And I'm very friendly with my current female employee. My female employees like me because they say I "get it", that I understand and am empathetic, and that they feel I support them and their careers as women. So it could be a pattern of behavior, but it's certainly not across the board.

  2. My chest tightened just a wee bit reading this post ;) I can FINALLY watch "The Devil Wears Prada" without going into arrest.

    I have had good bosses and I have had bad bosses. Both women and men. One of my bosses when I was younger (before being in entertainment) actually would go to the roof to smoke and drink coffee while I did all his reports and schedules. Fun times.

    I have to say that Sammy has ruined it for me as well. I will never forget how horrible she was at times. She frustrated me so much!

    People like that are like the bullies on the playground...totally insecure and not loving themselves. I know it sounds all fluffy, but if a woman is secure with herself and RESPECTS her staff, the staff will reflect it. If a woman (ahem, Sammy) berates her staff, makes them feel dumb, makes them do her kids homework and never says get a disgruntled employee.

    I prefer working for men and actually source it out when applying. Thanks Sammy.

  3. OH I HATE BLOGGER when it eats my (rather long) comments....

    @Christine - I think you've hit the nail on the head - a good boss is one who is empathetic and supportive. Your employees are lucky to have you!

    @Heddy - I knew you'd have a reaction...I hope you didn't break out in hives!

    I thought I'd never work for a woman again after Sammy, but I didn't really have a choice when I was reassigned...I literally had a few days notice - not enough time to look for a new job and sort out new daycare, so I figured I'd stick it out for a few months, see how it was and then apply for a new job. I haven't even updated my resume because my new boss is awesome! She believes in a friendly and fun work environment. She nurtures and encourages her staff's strengths and she pushes us to challenge our weaknesses and learn new skills.

    What a difference from Sammy...I ran into her periodically for the first year or so after I left and I was always cranky after I saw her...but it took me a few months to make that connection.

    You never know, you might find there is an awesome woman out there that you'd want to work for...thinking about it, I think Sammy was really the only bad boss I've had...but man, has she tainted it for everyone else!

  4. The only truly bad boss I've had has been male and he was a drunk so, really, I think we can all figure out why he was a bad boss. I have found that when I'm less than pleased with a female boss, it's usually because they let emotions dictate how they're going to interact with their employees. (E.G. I'm PMSing so they're all going to get yelled at!) and can't separate a work relationship from a personal relationship. If you social with coworkers outside of the office, that's great. If you let that relationship change how you treat them in relation to how you treat everyone else, that's a problem both for you and for them. I don't appreciate having all the extra work dumped on me simply because I didn't go to the spa with you all on Saturday morning.