Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > on making the most of a dodgy boss

on making the most of a dodgy boss

The obvious positive that you can take from working for a poor boss is that you can see how not to do it. Learning from your own mistakes and failures is great, but watching others screw up is all very good experience and you can benefit a lot from it, but there is another, often overlooked, plus side to working for a dodgy boss.

For all that I am critical of Human Resources departments in all of my years I have not, so far, come across one that sets out to place incompetent people in positions of authority. It happens for a variety of reasons, but the general principle is that, however useless as a leader someone might be, they do have qualities that got them the job. These are likely to be technical or professional skills or a track record of performance at a lower level; something that suggested that they were ready and capable for the job they now have as your boss.

Very few people are a perfect fit for a job and the selection process, aiming for the best person for the job, will pick the better of the candidates that they see. One HR person that I worked with used to work it from the opposite direction and, instead of looking for the best qualified candidate, would look for the one with the fewest faults. My point is that whilst you may have someone that you would not trust to lead you out of a 50 metre cul-de-sac in broad daylight they will have some qualities and a smart operator will look for these and learn from them. This approach has worked well for me as in this example.

I will call my case study Barry. He was public school and Oxbridge educated and had almost no people skills whatsoever, yet he had led a coup to oust his boss and landed the hot seat. His biggest problem was that, like many poor leaders, he was a coward for whilst all leaders experience fear, the good ones deal with it and grow, but the bad ones cave into it. This led to his second major flaw for he used bullying tactics to rule by fear and bullying was endemic within his immediate circle as a result. Enough of the downside though. One of the reasons that he had got into a position of power was that he had a reputation as a brilliant negotiator. This fascinated me for although bullying, which he was plainly good at, is a legitimate negotiation tactic, it is not a card that you can use all of the time and some of Barry’s successes could not have come from that as he could seemingly go in with the weakest hand imaginable and still come out with something.

It was some time before I saw his trick because we usually moved in different circles, but one day I had to go into a corporate budget meeting to support him. I had already learned that he was a meticulous planner and superb at preparing to meetings. I had prided myself on being pretty good at that, but Barry was almost OCD in his approach and I had learned from him to up my game and on this day I learned a real lesson in how to use that skill.

Barry was a numbers man and at this meeting he picked things apart in ways that were so oblique it was sometimes hard to see the relevance. He also shifted position constantly, one moment arguing a set of numbers from a per capita angle, then another set on the basis of percentage of corporate cost, another of percentage of revenue; he seemed to be all over the place, but as we got to wrap things up it became clear that he had won us a budget that was wholly inappropriate by running rings around his peers. It was wrong in terms of the overall corporate good, but for Barry it meant breathing space (and yes I benefitted from it too), but it was the lesson that was more important for me. He had not appeared to be negotiating at all, but he had been all along and the plan that he had made had been executed to the letter. I may not ever have been able to emulate his skill, but knowing the secret helped me a lot along my career.

Dodgy leaders do not like to share their secrets, skills or talents. They work on the old adage of knowledge being power and keep what they know to themselves because they are afraid that if others hold the key they can use it better. To learn you need to watch and work it out for yourself, but remember that no matter how bad they are they will be good at something, maybe several things, so for as long as you are stuck with them, watch and learn.

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