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The Angel Wears Prada

Having a good boss, not to mention a great one, can be a life-changing experience. Here’s how a sampling of Albertans met their maker

Feb 1, 2008

by Janice Paskey

Let’s say, alas, you’re not insulated from the need for a job. Once dissected, the anatomy of your day looks something like this: there’s the groggy hour out of bed, an hour or so commuting to work, eight to 10 hours on the job, the commute home, a few hours watching TV, shopping, doing sports, or putting kids back to bed and eight hours sleeping (if you’re lucky). Even if you’re no Freakonomics expert, the social implications of the math are fairly obvious. Most of your waking day is spent at one place, at work. And most of the day is under the tutelage of one person, your boss.

That direct supervisor has something akin to the divine right of kings. The power to keep you or let you go. In Alberta, the law is squarely on the side of the employer. Our economy evens the playing field, though; you are needed.

But this is a happy story. It is about best bosses. Everyone knows the effects of the bad boss: stress, worry, sleepless nights, tortured ruminations. Why meeee? Then, the eventual parting of ways, or going out on good, old stress leave. The effects of a good boss, however, are transformative. While much research is focused on leadership, the fancy word for what good bosses do, there’s less focus on the impact of a good boss. You haven’t seen a film called The Angel Wears Prada, have you? Just what can a good boss do for you?

Consider Adev Ahluwalia. He is newly self-employed, and able to look back at the landscape of 20 years of bosses. He is, admittedly, someone who is looking fairly content these days. He has a nice, new home in Calgary, two healthy kids and a wife who makes a good living. For the past year, he’s worked as a real estate agent, managed his father’s Cold Lake real estate holdings and is one of the founders of the investment fund Amcapita that’s investing in farmland and water technologies. Ahluwalia, 44, graduated with a degree in math and computer science from the University of Lethbridge, and for most of his career he worked in information systems. His best boss? It took him less than a millisecond to retrieve her name: Anne Trawick. Ahluwalia was a database manager under her at a technology company owned by Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers).

“She said, ‘Here’s what you have to do, go do it,’” he recalls. “At first I thought she was being lazy. But as we started moving forward [it became apparent] she was much more in tune with the business and technology than she had let on. There was never a lot of interference, but if I was going off the rails, she very subtly put me back on.” He contrasts this with his worst boss, and his voice changes and strains in the telling. “He was on me all the time. It was as if there were two people doing one job and I stopped caring because I didn’t have responsibility anymore.” The good boss effect, Ahluwalia says, came when he became a boss. He tried to be like his mentor Trawick, and focus on the big picture, not sweat the details.

Trawick followed a dictum that emerges from the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently: “Great managers define the outcomes and let each person use her individual talent to achieve them.”

There’s no shortage of leadership books out there. Mike Percy, the dean of the University of Alberta School of Business, is about to begin his third term in the role. He’s wary of business books on leadership, even going off the record to use an unsavoury adjective to describe many of them. “There’s so much out there driven by catchy titles,” he says. Percy gives credit to a few tomes, though, including From Good to Great and Built to Last. “They look at leaders who are not ego-driven; they are driven by values, focused on mission and vision, and they don’t care who gets the credit. Generally when you look at organizations that have been successful, they are not led by the charismatic leader who can’t wait to see his picture on the cover of BusinessWeek.”

The effect of a good boss, Percy believes, is something you can feel right away. “You don’t have a job; it’s fun. You’re building something. You’re part of something and get excited about where you’re going and what you’re doing.” The bottom line ends up benefiting from this good leadership, evoked by good bosses, too.

Speaking of catchy book titles, there’s the only semi-fictional The Devil Wears Prada, a thinly veiled roast of Anna Wintour, longtime editor and queen bee at Vogue magazine. The 2006 volume Snakes in Suits is one worth reading, because it may shift you from misery onto the trajectory of findinga good boss. The authors, both psychologists, examine how sociopaths function in the workplace. Many of these amoral types are drawn to fast-paced, high-risk, high-profit environments. They make a greatfirst impression, yet everyone is their pawn. They love to attack people in the privacy of their offices and push employees’ hot buttons, then capitalize on the emotional reaction. They go after two key parts of yourreputation: your competence and yourloyalty. (Are you nodding along?) The authors counsel a defence: stay calm, be professional, build allies, look for a transferor get another job, then quit. In the exitinterview, cite “personal reasons,” then move on. You’ll want to look for a good boss, because this person will propel you forward, and enhance your competence and reputation.

Blaire Lancaster, 29, says she’s further ahead in her career owing to two good bosses in a row. She is a bright woman who has little trouble landing great jobs. Lancaster graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in business administration, then followed an American boyfriend to Boston, where she landed the only job possible without a work visa: a local hire in the Canadian trade office there. She felt stuck under a boss she didn’t like, but had no options. Then in came a new supervisor, Michel Têtu, who she says was one of her best bosses.

“He took a chance on me and sent me out to do presentations on my own. He said, ‘I’m where I want to be in my career. Where do you want to be?’” Her previous boss? “He took that part all himself.” Lancaster later got divorced and moved to Calgary, where she worked for the Calgary Economic Development Corporation. When her boss, Clark Grue, left to start his own consulting company this year, she joined him a few months later. The things that Têtu and Grue both have in common? “They are empowerers, if that’s a word,” she says.

The impact of good bosses? Employees want to follow. “I realized my loyalty was with Clarke,” Lancaster says. Together, they are building a company, Rainmaker Global Business Development, that helps companies locate operations in Alberta.

Brian Stevenson also followed a boss he admires. Born in Victoria, he earned a PhD in business from Queen’s University and became a policy adviser to Lloyd Axworthy when he was minister of external affairs. After the government changed, Stevenson moved to the University of Alberta to work with Rod Fraser who was in charge of international activities. Last year, he received a call from his old boss Lloyd Axworthy, now president of the University of Winnipeg, about a senior post. “Once you work for Lloyd you’re on the hook for life,” Stevenson laughs. “He’s profoundly committed to a series of values that I agree with, and he is an endless source of ideas for imaginative programs and policies. You always have a sense of accomplishment after you’ve dealt with him.”

Stevenson and his family moved to Winnipeg a year ago. Simply put, Stevenson echoes what others say about working with good bosses: you feel challenged and good working for them. Axworthy’s impact on him? “I used to be more cautious and less open to risk. Now I speak more often and push the envelope more. I try to push people to expand their view of an issue. He’s taught me that you have to capture the imagination of your staff by giving them a bold mission.”

Then there’s Kyle and Dave. Neither is likely to be hobnobbing with a cabinet minister or university president anytime soon. They are 20-something labourers who work for Alberta-based Window Works. I know this because after months of calling around, they showed up at my door exactly on time and did the job for close to the original quote. I learned they’d been with this company for more than a year. Kyle, for 18 months.

“Who’s your best boss?”

“Well, I’ve only worked for a fast food restaurant and for Chris. So it’s definitely Chris.”

“What does he do?”

“He listens to suggestions…and stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Just stuff.”

Kyle isn’t the type to use the word empowerment, but his boss’s impact is the same. Consider the specimen before me. A strapping young man working in the service sector in the most competitive labour market in the world. He had been with his employer for 18 months, with no intent of moving. The boss is doing something right. This is an employee who felt heard.

So I talk with Chris Carrier, Kyle’s boss and owner of Window Works for 21 years. “We have clear expectations, and we train our employees in what to do to be successful,” Carrier replies. Window Works staff are on full commission with a bonus built in. Every two days, the team’s financial results are distributed amongst employees. There are clear incentives.

In Provost, Alberta, one boss found an incentive of a different sort. Joanne Friedrich, 37, found her boss’s establishment of anearby day-care facility paved her way back to a job she loved. Veterinarian Ian Goodbrand is a great boss, she says. “He cares about his employees, and he wants you to take responsibility, work hard and care about the business.” Friedrich had been with Border Veterinary for seven years as an animal technologist and manager of the animal hospital when, at 34, she had triplets. Now there were logistics. How she was going to continue the 40-minute each way commute from her farm in Saskatchewan, and find day care, she didn’t know.

Goodbrand anticipated his employees’ needs. Ten of the 12 were women and had 11 children among them. He had already paid an employee to do work at home and take care of some employees’ kids as Provost had little child care available. Then last year Goodbrand rented space and opened a subsidized company daycare within walking distance. Friedrich returned to work four days a week after her maternity leave, and will start full-time later this year. “For me, once I knew my kids were taken care of, my job was stress-free,” she says. Not to mention Border Veterinary took her and other senior staff to Arizona for a three-day strategy session in 2006. “It’s an awesome place,” she says of her employer.

There could be some downside to having a good boss. Employees might just stay too long when moving around between companies and jobs might ultimately benefit their careers. They might find that a good boss becomes too much of a warm bath, when they could be shooting some rapids. But to each a time and a place. And who knows, the Prada-wearing angel with a corps of loyal troops might just overtake the devil boss in good time.


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One Response to The Angel Wears Prada

  1. Wendy D says:

    This is a very uplifting story. My new manager is an arrrogant man who thinks he was put in the place to single handedly save the day. He is so busy kissing the secretaries butt and making veiled threats of laying me off that I am having no choice than to go on stress leave. That in itself is stress enough. I am a diligent hard worker who now has bad attitude thanks to him. He only wants people that will kiss up to him and worship his every move. He also has no concept of the field he is managing and when I try to show him little tricks of the trade he snubs me.