Mentoring My Boss: The View From Down Here

by Valerie Poulin (Toronto)

twowomenatcomputer.JPGWhen I decided to return to life as an employee after a decade of freelance and contract work, I thought that it would be tough to find get back into the swing of things. But while I dreaded leaving behind the freedom and flexibility of the freelance life, I longed for the stability of full-time employment, as well as the back up that comes from being a part of a team.

When I landed a job with medium-sized and growing pharmaceutical company that offered variety and required a creative edge, I was ecstatic. I anticipated that my stress level would be nothing compared to what I had in my prior life because I’d have a layer of insulation, a manager to whom I could turn, who would push back when other departments were reluctant to book meetings, when colleagues weren’t forthcoming with requirements for a project, and when developers were unaccommodating. After my years of working alone, I now reported to someone with the power to adjust unreasonable timelines. I couldn’t wait.

But what I had not considered was how I would feel upon my return to an office setting, under the supervision of a boss who was many years my junior. It came as a bit of a shock to me that not only was my boss a newly-minted manager who had never actually managed anyone before, but also that I was her sole report.

Despite the frustration I felt in the face of her “greenness”, I was willing to cut her slack because, even this many years later, I can still clearly recall the repeated frustration of being an inexperienced supervisor. Twenty years ago, what I, as a new manager, needed most was supportive employees. I had been forced to learn to supervise using the “trial by fire” methodology and the “swim or sink” philosophy. Interestingly, I learned much more about management from those employees who challenged me. Unfortunately, I also lost a lot of sleep over their intolerant behavior. As my boss’ sole direct report, I determined that I would be the kind of subordinate I’d wished I had. I appointed myself her unofficial mentor and set about trying to teach her how to supervise in general and me in particular.

One year later and my boss is still learning about her own abilities and inabilities. She’s gathering confidence in her decisions and learning to release the reins of a job that is no longer hers. And she’s doing it in a receptive, calm, and supportive manner.

What I realize now is that she’s already a better people manager than I ever was. She doesn’t need me to coach her. She needs me to do my job to the best of my ability and if that means dogging her over details and the practice of technical writing, than that’s what I’ll stick to doing.

Following her example, I’ve already learned to be a better staff member. That’s the sign of a good manager, though, isn’t it? She never needed my coaching, but she allowed me to discover that on my own. Wow. The view from down here is enlightening.