How I Went from Being a Boss to a Leader

How I Went from Being a Boss to a Leader  

By Peter Barron Stark | December 6th, 2011 | Leadership / Quest Newsletter

How I Went from Being a Boss to a Leader Are you a leader or are you the boss, supervisor, manager, director, general manager, vice president or president of a group of people?

What’s the difference?

Supervisors, managers, directors, vice presidents and CEOs all have a title and a place on the organizational chart that gives them permission to tell a group of people what needs to be done. A leader may or may not have a title, but they always have a relationship where people make a conscious decision to follow them.

When did you realize you are a leader and not just a boss? For me, it happened in 1985. Between 1981 and 1990, I co-owned Photomation West, a commercial printing company. We had 17 employees and specialized in printing high quality brochures and fliers. I was 27-years-old and because I had no technical expertise in printing, everyone on the operational side of the business had very little respect for me. To be blunt, no one listened to me and seldom did people do what I asked them to do…even though I was the owner. If I wanted something done, I had to go ask my business partner – Paul Cartwright, who, to this day, remains one of my great friends – to go tell the people in operations what I needed them to do. You might be asking, “What value did Peter bring to the business?” I was an expert in sales, marketing, developing and bringing new clients into our company.

My moment of enlightenment came one rainy day in March, 1985 when I went to the back of the shop and told Frank, our lead Heidelberg pressman, what job I wanted him to run first that day. This was a simple request coming from the person who owned the company. When I went to the back of the shop two hours later, I found out that Frank had his own priorities for the day and was printing a different job. I was livid. I stormed off to my business partner, Paul, with one goal: fire Frank. Paul is a wise man who always did the right thing when it came to leadership. Paul stopped me and said “Before we go fire Frank, who is the best Heidelberg pressman we have ever had,” he went on to add that Frank can print a lot better drunk on the job than most people can sober, “I want you to think about a few questions.” Paul asked me the following:

  • Have you ever asked Frank for his opinion about the best order in which to run the jobs?
  • Have you ever told Frank he is doing a great job and you really appreciate him and are grateful he is on our team?
  • Have you ever told Frank you care about his personal and professional success?
  • Have you ever asked Frank about what we could do as owners to make the operational part of our company even more efficient and profitable?
  • Have you even thought about asking people questions, rather than telling them your orders when you have absolutely zero expertise in their areas of influence?

I could have said, “Paul, this is great feedback and all of these questions are really good. I need to think about it and get back to you with a new leadership development action plan tomorrow.” I did not respond like that. I was pissed. This was confirmation that, not only did I have a forty year printing pressman veteran who did not respect me as the owner, my own co-owner did not respect me as the owner. My immediate thought was to quit. Pull the trigger on our auction clause and enter into a buy sell agreement. I did not do that. Like most times in my life when things go really wrong, I ask myself a simple question, “What if it’s me?” What if Frank and Paul are both right and I don’t deserve or have not earned that level of respect?

I realized the answer to every one of Paul’s questions was “no.” The old adage that no one cares how much you know or what your position is until they know how much you care is so true. The day I started to ask for Frank’s opinion and recognizing his contributions to the success of our Company was the same day that Frank started to come to me and ask for my opinion and what he could do to help me better achieve our goals.

There is one more story I need to share about Frank that, in 1989, helped define who I am as a leader. Frank was an efficiency guru. To be even more efficient, he bypassed the safety stops on our state of the art Heidelberg press. This allowed him to lift up the safety cage and have access to the rollers without stopping the press. With 40 years of experience, I felt he must know what he was doing. Maybe it was even an industry standard for the greatest of pressman. But, in my mind and heart, I knew the safety stops were there for a reason.

One night, after everyone had gone home, I was in my office and Frank was finishing up a job. I heard Frank scream for help and found him with his arm caught up to his elbow in the press. Frank coached me on how to pop rollers out of this press so we could free his arm. When I popped the last roller, he literally dropped to the ground. The next morning, Frank showed up with a black and blue arm that looked like it had been through a rolling pin. I went out to the pressroom and told Frank to sit down with me on the side of the press. For four years, I had built up a relationship with Frank by valuing his opinion and asking him great questions. This time, I had a short speech. I said, “Frank, last night you really scared me. Because I care about you and love you for who you are and what you have done for our business, I am now telling you this. If you don’t fix the bypass on the safety cage before you start work this morning you can’t work here.” He looked at me and said, “It’s already done.”

My lesson: leadership is a balance. Doing the right thing is not easy, especially when you know the people you lead may not agree with your decision. When I saw the safety cage had been jeri-rigged, I knew it was not right but I did not want to resort back to my old ways of telling. In this case, it was the right thing to do. Frank and I were both lucky the only damage was a black and blue, flattened arm. If I had not been there, it could have easily been a much graver situation.

Leadership is a relationship that is built over time. Most likely, you are reading this blog because you have a title and a place on the organizational chart. Our quest for you is that not only you have a title, but you have the skills to build a relationship where people all around you are highly motivated to follow you in the direction you want to lead.

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