Careers: Great Bosses and the Power of Silly Putty

Friday was my boss’s last day on the job. Her departure got me thinking about the positive lessons I’ve learned from all of my former supervisors (there have been negative lessons learned as well, but I’ll save those for another blog). Here are a few of the memorable takeaways I’ve come up with, and which I hope will make me a better manager, leader, and co-worker:

Never underestimate the power of Silly Putty. When my most recent boss joined us, we were in the throes of an incredibly busy part of the year and the entire team was under a tremendous amount of stress. At our weekly staff meeting, she gave us each our own Silly Putty, and almost immediately, the group became more relaxed. That taught me two things. 1) Always keep your eyes open to see if your co-workers are struggling. Some people will ask for help, others won’t. Being able to pick up on the non-verbal cues that the team is under pressure is a must. 2) Don’t take things too seriously. The work we do is important, but it’s (rarely) a matter of life or death: keep things in perspective. As a reminder of these two tenets, you may want to bring in your own supply of Silly Putty. (Endorsement disclosure: neither I nor my former boss own stock in Silly Putty – though we wish we did).

Be a players’ coach. It’s easy to talk about caring for your co-workers, but doing it is often another story. I’ve been lucky enough to work for some players’ coaches who genuinely cared about each and every member of the team and would do whatever it took to support us professionally and personally.

The devil is in the details. When I worked for a home improvement chain, our Regional Manager repeatedly taught us the importance of noticing the little things (his enthusiasm for details often putting him at risk of an aneurism). He made sure we checked for everything from burned-out light bulbs to guaranteeing that we always had the right items in stock. Everything we do is about brand…our personal brand, our office brand, our company brand. Customers and clients will notice empty handout racks, not returning phone calls within 24 hours, and cigarette butts on the sidewalk. Don’t you?

My last important lesson learned: Be cool like Fonzie (for those of you who have read my other posts, you probably know by now that I’m a huge Fonzie fan). I’ve learned, from observing great bosses, that employees (myself included), look to leaders for cues on how to react to different situations. One of the hardest things about being a boss or a leader is you’re constantly being observed. When all eyes are on you, always keep your cool. Leather jacket is optional.

What zany lessons have you've learned from a current or former boss?

Shawn Graham is an Associate Director with the MBA Career Management Center at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School and author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (

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