Just ignore the boss Tom Peters On Excellence

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In 1966, I went off to Vietnam as a 24-year old US Navy ensign in a battalion of 800 Seabees, the Navy's construction corps. We were all subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it never occurred to me to be boss-conscious.

Fact is, I thought the world of our commanding officer, Dick Anderson; as I look back, he's one of my premier mentors. But I never paid much attention to him. I had a lot to learn (an understatement), and he was a busy guy. Instinctively, I turned to theexperts - enlisted men who were surveyors, electricians, bulldozer operators, and in particular to the chief petty officers who always seemed to have time to explain if you were genuinely interested in what they were up to. The other folks I worried about were my customers - mostly Marines and Army Special Forces types for whom we were building bridges, airstrips and gun emplacements.

I figured (although I don't recall pondering it deeply) that if I focused on the customers, and the guys I was working with, then the bosses would take care of themselves. It made sense in 1966 and makes sense in 1994.

A lot may be changing, what with flatter hierarchies, virtual organisations, re-engineering and empowerment, but I have always thought it was silly to think much about bosses. Hey, let `em boss (if that's what they do), and devote yourself to getting better at your trade (bridge building or financial planning), serving your customers and supporting your peers. Things will almost always turn out OK.

Is that tantamount to looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses? Perhaps. But at least it's a corrective to the tons of books on coping with, managing or manipulating your superiors. Most are a waste.

Of course I acknowledge the reality of office politics - in the Navy or at your place. But if you're running the best store or best distribution center or best human-resources department or best platoon in the outfit, your "supervisors'' will pretty muchleave you alone.

And that gets to the nub of my concern: People spend so much time looking up (ie, sucking up), that they short-change the time spent getting better, coddling customers and tending their community of peers.

There's another side to the coin. Suppose you are a boss. Performance issue No 1 may be figuring out how to keep employees from catering to your whims. One solution is to supplant boss evaluation with peer and subordinate evaluation - or "360-degree evaluation'' to use one of today's hot terms (that is, evaluation from all points on the compass). I favour peer, subordinate and self-evaluation - with the boss in a distant fourth place. The truth is, I favour hiring people who need no official evaluationand know who they are and where they stand (and act on it) without the intervention of formal procedures. The catch is that it takes remarkable forthrightness to see ourselves as others see us; In fact, the more driven we are to perform, the less self-aw are we often are of our impact on colleagues. Hence, a little (or more) peer evaluation can go a long way toward smoothing the rough edges.

Bosses also ought to get off their high horses and quit viewing themselves as motivators. The average person, age 18 or 58, comes to the workplace with motivation. Our primary role as "leaders'' is to clear the way and let the troops get on with the job.

Which takes me back to 1966 in Vietnam. What "my'' chiefs mostly taught me was how to help them - and the front-line guys - to get their work done. There were a host of things I could do as an officer to make their life more productive - and, thence, better serve our customers. The lessons stuck and, 28 years later, I belatedly offer my heartfelt thanks.

My chief executive buddy, Captain Anderson, was on to me in a flash. That is why we ended up getting along so well. He, too, was a product of the school of benign neglect of bosses. He figured his job was to train the devil out of his sailors and junior officers and to build stuff quickly and well for his customers, not to turn out pretty reports and waste time kow-towing to the bigger brass above him.

Dick (as I learned to call him years later) chuckled at my disregard of his eminence - and my preoccupation with the task at hand. He'd chide me sometimes ("You really should salute, Tom. I am your commander''), but he was clearly a supporter. Which I never forgot: as a sometime boss, I've spent the last quarter-century trying to emulate him.

You can get a bloody nose with this strategy. But it generally works and surely enhances your ability to look at yourself in the mirror without flinching. That's no small thing.

TPG communications

Comments