good boss

What’s a good boss? No, it’s not the nice ones.

“Derek, how do I know if someone is a good boss during an interview?”

A young, eager graduate asked me this question during one of my talks.

“What do you mean by a good boss?”, I replied.

“Well, I want to avoid those horrible bosses I read about where they are always unreasonable and don’t care about their employees. I want a kind boss that can be my mentor.”

I paused for a moment.

This made me think about all the thousands of articles I have read about “leadership”, which paints the ideal boss as a kind, inspiring mentor, that will empower and trust their people. And I imagine this young graduate asking me this question is conflicted between how these articles describe a good boss, with the actual bosses that are out there.

It’s a valid concern because choosing the wrong boss can be damaging to your career, sometimes permanently.

So I started thinking about all my previous bosses that actually made a positive impact on who I am today. To my surprise, none of my previous bosses were one of these “good bosses” that those articles described.

My first boss was horrible but I owe him my career

“Derek, I want a cup of coffee on my desk every morning, black with no sugar.”

Michael drinks too much coffee. I probably make him at least five cups a day. He runs an accounting firm in London, and he decided to hire me to be a junior accountant which was great because I needed some income while I did my professional accounting papers.

He was one of these “horrible bosses” described by these leadership articles today.

“Why is this taking so long Derek? It’s already the second day I don’t see much work done. Were you doing any work yesterday?”, Michael said sarcastically.

“I have been working hard on this. It took five days last year and now you only gave me three days, there’s not enough time”, I complained meekly.

None of my previous bosses were one of these “good bosses” that these articles described

Michael had a bad temper, and even though I felt it was unfair, I tried my best to control my emotions because I really needed this job.

“The client is pressuring us on fees, so you will do the same work in less time. If I don’t see it completed by tomorrow morning, I am going to be very disappointed”, Michael replied.

Michael never bothered to sit down with me to explain how I can work faster and better. No “mentoring” the way these leadership articles say a mentor was supposed to be. He just let me figure it out myself, and at the end of every assignment, he would be sure I would receive the criticism I deserved.

I don’t think I’ve worked so efficiently before this. I was always kind of relaxed during university but the real world felt harsh. Nevertheless, despite what I felt was unfair, I worked really hard and completed the work the next morning.

good boss

Michael looked my work, and as he was going through each page, his ears started to turn red and I knew this was not a good sign. He looked up, and instead of praising me for being so efficient, he started berating me for all the mistakes I made in my work.

“I expected more from you Derek! These mistakes shouldn’t be made by you!”

Doesn’t matter if I had to work tirelessly to complete the work in record time. Michael will never allow me to have a single excuse for producing mediocre work.

This was just one of many similar experiences I had working with Michael.

I believe many people today visualise a mentor as someone that patiently guides them through your work, almost spoon-fed like they’re in a class. But I learned a lot from Michael not because of any “mentoring”, but through all this direct, transparent criticism I get from him every time I made a mistake.

And I got better and better at my work, and always held myself to high standards, because I knew if I didn’t, Michael would not hesitate to remind me of my shortcomings.

The Right Intentions

After many months working for Michael, one day, something unexpected happened.

“Derek, I know you think I’m being horrible to you, but this is the only way you’re going to learn fast. I want you to know that I will always hold you accountable to a high standard even though you are only a junior accountant. This is how my first boss coached me, and this is how I am coaching you.”

He said this in such a calm manner, and it took me by surprise. I felt his sincerity in his words and intention to teach and help me grow. Don’t think it ever crossed my mind that he was trying to coach me.

While I don’t agree with him on his style completely, I feel fortunate that he set such a high bar for me as my first boss.

He was never an “understanding boss” and his uncompromising attitude made me into a professional with high standards and strong work ethics. A attitude that I carry with me today as a business owner.

The “nice boss” will hurt your career

“Does Alex know that he shouldn’t be doing that again?” I asked one of our senior team.

“Yes, I mentioned it to him a few months ago”, said John.

“But why is he still doing it?”

“I wasn’t too direct, I kind of said it my way, in a better way so as to not sound too harsh.”

“It’s clear the message didn’t get through to him because he has not changed. It’s been a few months, and now when this person is not performing, you’re telling me that you sugarcoated the message and haven’t made it clear to him that this a serious problem?”

This is a typical conversation I have with a “nice boss”, who struggle to clearly criticize the work of their team because either:

  1. They misunderstand being a good boss as being an understanding boss
  2. They don’t like conflict
  3. They are vain and care too much about what other people think about them and want to be seen as a “good boss”
  4. They are afraid that their staff will leave them so they are nice, but realise that they are only thinking about themselves and not you

A clip about Jony Ive describing why Steve Jobs is so direct with his criticism

If you report to a nice boss like this, unfortunately you’re never going to grow.

Because you will always think you’re better than you actually are. And when you’re frustrated as to why you’re not growing in your career (the market is never “nice” and will always adjust you to your true value), you’ll be trapped feeling like a victim.

You won’t realise that it was your boss’ unwillingness to clearly and transparently criticize you that made you stuck.

Think about your current boss. Is he or she like this? If they are, I encourage you to have an honest conversation with them and demand for real feedback. Make them feel safe that you can take this feedback.

“Tough” is better than “Nice”

Sometimes I hear people complaining about their bosses not being understanding and have unreasonable expectations of them.

But ultimately, it’s a question of comfort vs growth. If you’re thinking “why can’t growth also be comfortable?” then I would say growth = change and all change is naturally uncomfortable. So if you want a boss that is easy on you, then you’re probably going to to be in your comfort zone and grow slower than those with a tougher boss and higher expectations.

Assuming you’re serious about building a strong foundation for your career, and you had to choose between a nice boss that won’t criticise you and push you out of your comfort zone, and a tough one that can be stressful to work for in the short term, I would ask you to choose this tough boss over the nice boss.

People often don’t reach their full potential without high standards and expectations imposed on them.

Don’t let a nice boss keep you in your comfort zone and hurt your career, with their misguided concept of what a good boss is.

A tough boss is contributing more to your career growth than you realise.

How cheating as a student taught me a lesson that I carry with me today

I heard a familiar voice whispering my name. I was in the middle of an exam. And my friend Joe, who was seated behind me, kept trying to get my attention.

“Shhhh… can you pass me your answers?”, said Joe, quietly.

I was a naive, 13 year old student then, not aware of the lesson I was about to be taught. Joe sits beside me in class, and was always chatty and playful. I knew he was not the academic type.

Being a good friend

“What?”, I replied to Joe, even though I knew exactly what he was asking for.

“Help me out man. Look, the teacher isn’t looking now, pass me your answers, quick!” Joe spoke with haste.

Should I give him my answer sheet? That’s cheating, so surely this can’t be the right thing to do. But I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important.

As our class teacher looked away, without thinking further, I quickly handed my answer sheet to Joe.

I didn’t want Joe to fail his exam, perhaps loyalty and friendship was more important

But what I did not realise, was that my Math teacher, Mrs Nora, was standing right outside our class, silently looking in from the back.

I did not see her when I passed Joe my papers.

I continued working on my exams. Ten minutes later, Joe tried to slip my answer sheet back to me.

As I turned to take my paper back, I caught a glimpse of Mrs Nora, still standing outside the class… and caught her looking right back at me!

My heart dropped. My first thought was that she would walk in screaming and tried to interrupt the exam.

But no. Instead, she gave me a disappointed look, smiled and walked away.

The conversation with Mrs Nora

I didn’t hear from Mrs Nora for the next few days. Maybe I got away with it?

That did not last long, as Mrs Nora walked into my class one day and asked me to follow her to her office. Without Joe.

I thought, “Oh no, what will she do? Will she call my parents? What do I tell them? And…. wait, why didn’t she ask Joe to come along, isn’t he also part of this?”

We stepped into her office, and she looked up at me.

“Derek, I saw you passing your answers to Joe. Why did you do that?” Mrs Nora said. “You’re a good kid. Did you know that you scored an A for this paper?”

I was nervous, and looked at her quietly without a response. I have always been a shy boy, following the rules, and never liked conflict.

“I am going to give you a C to teach you a lesson”, she continued.

Tears started flowing down my face. I felt a deep sense of fear and regret. And before long I started sobbing.

In an introverted fashion, no words would come out of my mouth, but my mind started racing, “WHY? Why are you punishing me? I didn’t cheat, I was only helping out a friend! Why isn’t he also getting punished??”

Almost as though she could hear the voice in my mind, Mrs Nora said “Did you know that Joe failed anyway? Even though he copied some of your answers. In the end, after helping him cheat, you didn’t manage to help him at all, and instead did something that makes me think that you do not have any integrity.”

Mrs Nora said, “Did you know that Joe failed anyway?”

“Even if you succeeded to help him pass his exams by cheating, how many times can you do this for him? Eventually he will still fail, because he didn’t actually get better. If you really cared for him as a friend, you should have encouraged him to learn to do the hard work in order to pass his exams. I want you to remember this.”

Still crying, I remained silent and accepted my punishment.

The lessons I carry with me

Joe knew what had happened. But he never stepped in to take responsibility, because why should he? He failed anyway. And needless to say, we stopped being friends after that. In fact, he eventually left the school without finishing, and I never knew if it was by choice.

It’s been 25 years since this happened, but it’s left such an impact on my life. Even though Mrs Nora said it in a way a 13 year old could understand, these are lessons even many working adults could use.

  1. If you really want to help a friend, sometimes you need to say to their face what is hard but true. Even if they don’t want to hear it, they need to learn to succeed themselves. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
  1. If you want to progress in your career, you have to work hard and be genuinely good at your job. You can get away with shortcuts by playing politics to get promoted, or taking credit for other peoples’ work, but over a long period of time, you’ll eventually be found out and the market (invisible forces) will adjust you to your true value. The reverse is also true – if you feel you are not progressing fast enough compared to your peers, as long as you have a great attitude to work, time will adjust you to your true value, so keep going.
  1. If you’re a boss that thinks being nice to your team is being a good leader, you’re much likelier to hurt their long term career. Teach them the value of hard work, or they will go through their career thinking they are better than they actually are, and struggle in the long term.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all:

“Good intentions” can never justify cheating.

 

derek toh malaysian fresh graduate

Malaysian Fresh Graduates Have Attitude Problems?

Here’s an interesting article that’s been going around social media recently about why many Malaysian fresh graduates remain unemployed. It seems, we can all basically sum it up to them having attitude problems. In fact, the article breaks this down into several key reasons:

  • Unrealistic salary expectations – RM3.5k to RM6.5k
  • Poor communications skills
  • Dreaming too big (it seems, if you are from a “small” university you should work with a small company)

Understandably, employers who agree with this are furiously sharing this article on social media, along with expressing their own frustrations with their experience of hiring Malaysian fresh graduates.

But many of the fresh graduates that I have interviewed or hired did not actually show such “bad attitudes”, therefore I am a bit confused. As a startup, our salaries are fairly modest. Yet we’ve hired many quality Malaysian fresh graduates. They are matured and capable. Their communication skills are good, their attitude is decent, and they certainly could work in any multi-national company, yet they are working in a small startup (are they dreaming too small?). Continue reading →

Radical Candor

Before we jump into how radical candor works, I want to write about the “conventional” or adviced method of giving negative feedback. In my previous jobs, we’ve always been trained to manage communication with colleagues, especially when giving negative feedback, using a common technique where you “sandwich” the negative feedback between positive ones, to get your message across but not hurt egos too much. The idea is that this allows negative feedback to be received without demotivating your team. Continue reading →

The Gen Y Mind

I was on BFM recently, having a conversation directly with Gen Y talent about their careers. We had honest discussions about work-life balance, job hopping, taking a gap year, find work that you are passionate about etc. Many important topics that are on many Gen Y’s minds, yet they’ve never had the opportunity to speak out and actually get feedback about how these ideas work in reality.

Have a listen here, and if you have friends who may benefit from listening to this conversation, share it with them too!

 

DIGI CXO Apprentice Program

Full disclosure: WOBB.CO is a partner to DIGI for their newly launched DIGI CXO Apprentice Program. However, I am not commissioned to write this particular article, and the opinions expressed here are genuinely my own. It’s a program that I am personally excited about, and I hope more companies consider launching such a program.

Continue reading →

What’s it like to work in a startup?

I was moderating a casual panel discussion yesterday at MaGIC’s startup career fair, and joined by some well recognised people in the startup scene, Josh Teng (Televate.io), Aaron Gill (MyTeksi), Joash Wee (Between) and Izwan Ismail (VLT Labs).

And while these are all very well respected leaders in their companies, the entire conversation was really chilled out, and you can tell that people that work in startups know how to have fun and don’t take themselves too seriously all the time. I think that’s a great trait of startups, because even your leaders are young, and it’s much easier to relate to then, and that really adds on to the appeal of being in these companies.

Biggest lesson? Startups care deeply about work culture, it’s the best advantage they have of attracting good people, and because of that, people who actually work in the startup environment can truly experience what it’s like to be part of a team that’s trying to change the world.