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Why We Love Tough-Love Managers

Bosses who hold themselves and workers to high standards can spur careers.

Spoiler alert: This isn’t a racy tell-all about office romance. Rather, it’s an appreciation inspired by some recent sessions with young people just starting their careers. They had questions about specific companies and industries. But I found myself responding by talking the most about specific managers who had shaped me in the various jobs I had over the years.

I’ve worked in positions ranging from the mundane to the relatively glamorous. And the places where I thrived were not the most obvious. Looking back, it’s clear to me that it was often the person, not the position, that mattered most. And so my advice to these young people was to find a manager you love.

Here are some of my favorites.

One summer during college I worked at a family-owned restaurant in Boston. I was the fill-in guy who covered the vacations of the busboys, dishwashers, and bar backs. I scrubbed pots and cleaned grease traps. The manager, tough as nails and omnipresent, taught me that in order for customer-facing work to appear flawless, a tremendous amount has to be done behind the scenes. When you aren’t serving, you should be prepping. If the prepping is done, start cleaning. The cleaning is never complete. The discipline he instilled in me has served me well.

As a result of that summer and my jobs in retail, I have always favored job candidates with hospitality or retail experience — regardless of the position I was looking to fill. To succeed in those jobs you have to know how to work hard with a smile on your face, deal with difficult people, and understand the importance of teamwork. Cleaning grease traps taught me some work that quite literally stinks is essential to the overall operation — and that I was not above doing the dirty jobs.

Cleaning grease traps taught me some work that quite literally stinks is essential to the overall operation.

After college, I had a manager who trusted me with responsibility far beyond my experience and expertise. Despite my junior status, I interacted with the CEO and a number of other senior executives. I wrangled celebrities (this is the relatively glamorous part of the story), and represented the organization to outside constituencies, including the media. These significant stretch assignments gave me ample opportunities to grow. And because this manager cultivated a supportive team atmosphere, I always had someone to reach out to when I found myself sinking rather than swimming.

Working with fashion designers, movie stars, CEOs, heads of state, and other bold-faced names also taught me invaluable lessons about how to treat people. Some celebrities were friendly and appreciative of whatever small service I provided; others treated me as a nameless, faceless servant. As a middle-class white kid, I had never known what it felt like to be invisible. Now I did. Ever since, I have tried to acknowledge the contributions of every person, not just the superstars.

Several positions later, when I took a job with a direct marketing company, my manager described his job as “removing the obstacles to my success.” He set the parameters of our relationship clearly and positively: His standards of accountability were high, and he expected me to ask for the resources and support that I needed in order to meet them. If I hit a brick wall with HR, finance, or an operating unit, he wanted to know. He modeled behavior that I then endeavored to pass on to my team.

Because we could discuss all aspects of our work openly and honestly, we developed a trust-based relationship that made it easy to improve my effectiveness and that of my team. Although I didn’t always like his answers, I knew I was always getting the truth, not some mush designed to make me feel better. There is no better boss than one who is straightforward and direct.

Still later, in one of my publishing roles, I had a manager who acted as a partner. At this point, I didn’t need a supervisor. But much like the last manager I described, this person was open and honest. She made it clear that she would have my back and expected me to have hers. She was clear about the quality of work she expected and encouraged new ideas that would help us get there. She was particularly clever about navigating internal politics and bureaucracy.

She makes the list largely because she actively encouraged me and every other person who reported to her to grow. No person’s job stayed the same over time. The people who didn’t last were those who did not want to stretch. I was able to completely redesign my job in ways that let me create a platform for the next stage of my career. Without her support and guidance, I likely would not be writing this column.

These dramatically different managers had several characteristics in common. Each cared about his or her people and the quality of work they produced. Each provided direction and the resources to accomplish the job they asked me to do. Each held himself or herself to the same standards as they were holding me. Most important, each saw the job of manager as an opportunity, not a burden. A great job starts with finding a manager you will grow to love.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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