Maybe I’m mean, but when I read “The Devil Wears Prada,” I sympathized with the Devil.
I’d say it’s about time that women further along in our careers share some pretty important information with those of you just starting out. Because if there’s anything I have learned after a couple of decades as a senior executive and occasional investor in software startups, it is this: I may owe you respect, encouragement, the opportunity to develop new skills, the willingness to sell my car to make payroll -- but I don’t owe you a fun job.
I pay you to help me help the company make money so that we can all continue to get paid. Unless the thrill of paying your electric bill can carry you through your darkest employment hours, there are days you aren’t going to like what you do.
There are days I don’t like what I do.
It’s not that I don’t sympathize. I can remember the tedium of my early jobs, the frustration of knowing that I was capable of more. And I have my share of crazy lady boss stories, too. (Anybody else ever work for a woman so enraged by you giving notice that she refused to speak to you in the office and started calling you at home at 6:00 am instead?)
But in all the conversations about women and leadership and leaning in, it seems to me that something important has been missing. No one gets to start out as the COO of Facebook. And when you do get to that place in your career that you are shooting for, you’re going to need someone else’s help to do all the crap that right now, at this very moment, you don’t want to do.
That won’t make you a bad person. It will just make you a boss.
Me, surrounded by the ghosts of employees past.
So in preparation for your future promotion, here are a few things that the less-than-fun female manager you are working for right now probably would like for you to know:
1. I’m not supposed to be your friend.
Years ago, a woman at one of my companies had a not-so-clandestine affair with a more senior man. After the inevitable breakup, private detectives were hired, people were stalked, lawsuits were filed.
If you want to be a walking HR violation, I prefer plausible deniability.
If you are having a sluggish morning because you stayed out late last night partying, it’s none of my business.
And if you refuse to come to work for weeks on end because your husband found out you were cheating on him, I really am sorry for the emotional turmoil you are going through. But eventually, at some point somewhere around Week Four, I am going to have to let you go.
Because my first responsibility to the business is to make sure that the work gets done. And that means that I have to hire, fire, evaluate and promote based on your performance – not whether or not I like getting together with you for lunch.
2. I actually do know more than you.
But that doesn’t mean I know how to do your job. I may not even know exactly what I want you to do.
I got off to a rocky start with a talented graphic designer fresh out of school who kept asking for specific instructions: What color? Where in the layout? I would respond by scrawling revisions all over her drafts in thick red ink. Once I saw the changes I hated them.
(I should note here that I have the design sense of your average sweet potato.)
One morning I came in to work to discover that all of the red pens on my desk were gone. “I feel like you are always grading me and I have to figure out the answer you want,” the designer explained.
Good Lord, no!
Here are the things I know that you don’t: I know how soon we need to raise our next round of funding. I’ve memorized the next five years of projected revenues. I know most of the major players and projects in my industry going back more years than I care to admit. And I am well aware of the things that I can’t do (that’s why I hired you).
I know where we’ve got to go. I’m trusting you to help us get there.
3. If I can do it, you can do it.
“What I really want to do is strategy.”
You have no idea how many times I’ve heard that during entry-level job interviews.
I like strategy, too. That’s why for years I set my alarm for 4:00 am and got up to do it. During office hours there are phones to answer, meetings to attend, travel plans to make, business plans to write, brochures to print, products to design, web sites to code and not a whole lot of time to sit and think.
So if I’m helping the guys pack up the palettes of equipment for the next trade show, I expect you to be right there next to me with a tape gun. On the flip side, if you’re frantically copying a proposal trying to beat the last Fed Ex pickup, I promise I’ll man the stapler next to you.
I firmly believe that making things happen requires a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. And I’m not alone -- my fat, old lady butt once got offered a VP job by the founder of another company because the rest of me was crammed under a cabinet while I connected cables for a demo.
By the way, I also believe that if I could start where you are now and make it to the executive suite, you can, too.
4. I don’t care if it is impossible. Do it anyway.
When I started out in technology, a wise woman boss kept telling me to “learn to use my personal power.” My most important job as your manager is helping you realize your own. So I push. I demand. Sometimes I expect a hell of a lot more from you than you do from yourself because I can see what you are capable of.
Sometimes I don’t care what you’re capable of. It just has to get done.
I will do whatever it takes to keep you paid. That has included, at various points, everything from emptying out personal savings accounts to selling my car, all while shielding you from just how close the startup of the moment is to financial ruin.
Together we’ve pulled off some extraordinary things. But the most important successes for me haven’t been the accounts landed or businesses sold.
A year or so after that young graphic designer and I started working together, she marched into the CEO’s office and announced, “Based on my talent, my years of experience as an artist and my very expensive graduate degree, you are wrong.” That change in how we see ourselves, that transition from imagining ourselves as passive and voiceless to strong and powerful -- helping you get there is what I owe you.
So love me. Hate me. But most importantly, learn from me. Then take what you have discovered about work and yourself and go on out into the world and use it to create a job you love for you. I’ll be cheering you on.