On Being the Boss

Barb here.

In August of 2010, I was standing at a crossroads. On August 5th, Wimba, the ed tech company where I was Chief Operating Officer, was acquired by Blackboard, Inc. On August 18th, my first mystery novel, The Death of an Ambitious Woman was released.

It was the second time a company I worked for had been acquired by Blackboard. So when people asked what I planned to do next, my answer was, “How many times can the universe send you the same damn message? I am going to write, full time.”

Like most leaps into the abyss, mine was subjectively crazy. I was in my peak earning years. I’d had two “good exits” which meant that, even in a recession, I could market myself as a pretty hot commodity (if only in the rather narrow, but surprisingly active, subspecialty of selling companies to Blackboard). On the other side the ledger, I had no idea if anyone would buy my newly released book and I didn’t then, and still don’t, have a contract for another one.

No one was waiting for the next book, except me.

What is Your Day Like?

I’ve never given or attended a talk by another author where that question didn’t get asked. For a long time, I couldn’t understand the fascination. But now I get it.

Because I was in trouble.  I’ve always been an overachiever trapped in a procrastinator’s body, and if over-thinking were an Olympic sport, I’d be in Michael Phelps territory by now.

I felt like I was out there on my own, trying to remake my life. How to balance supporting sales of the current book with writing the new book? How to replace the sense of connection you get from going to work everyday with a group of people who share a purpose? And what to do about all those errands that, you know if you’ve ever been out of work for an extended period, grow to eat your life and make you wonder how you ever held a job?

I still don’t have all the answers. Yes, that’s right, after a year, I still don’t have all the answers.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is that I need to be as good a boss for myself as I tried to be for other people during all those years at work.

When I was a very young manager I learned it’s not that “happy people are productive people” but instead that “productive people are happy people.” It’s an old bromide, but in my long years managing people I found it to be absolutely true. Most people want to do good work.

The best part of this little rule for the manager is that it’s actionable. Rather than dedicating yourself to the amorphous and always unsuccessful goal of making humans beings happy; your job, your only job, is to remove the barriers to their productivity. In the work world, that means not making people wait for decisions, not forcing them to fight the same fires over and over, not trapping them in endless, pointless process, not making them work with inefficient tools and so on. When you look around an organization, it’s pretty easy to see where the barriers to productivity lie and then to roll up your sleeves and remove them.

So what did this mean for me? After a fair amount of trial and error, I discovered that a productive writer is a happy writer. So lately I’ve been focused on removing the barriers to my own productivity.

For years I listened to writers talk about how they got up with the chickens and had all their writing done by breakfast. My biorhythms seem to be hardwired against this and, irrationally I admit, there were times when I wondered if that meant I couldn’t be a writer.

But the principle still holds. If you do your writing before you get mixed up in the rest of the day, you feel good, and you can go on about your life, getting all those other things done, without feeling the weight of but I haven’t written yet.

It’s a duh. I know it’s a duh. But for me, it’s felt great this year to learn that old dogs, can indeed…well you know.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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7 Responses to On Being the Boss

  1. Barb: This is a wonderful article. I will definitely be reposting it. Thanks.

  2. Sarah Smith says:

    I love this. “Removing the barriers to your own productivity.” You’re absolutely right (and right about what a manager does).
    When you’re not in the get-up-at-4-AM space, another way of putting yourself in this zone of productivity is to say “I can think about that next scene all day, and at X time, I get to sit down and write it!”

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Reading this today right after reading Steve Jobs 2005 commencement speech. Sometimes we need to be reminded to take a breath, take stock, and pay attention to the direction our lives want to go. And to write the way WE need to write. It’s so important for writers to understand that there is no one right way.

    Of course this morning, Steve Jobs and Barb Ross have one kind of advice for me, the to-do list says, wait a while, honey…there’s stuff that needs to be done. So I’m shelving this passionate desire to go transcribe those 16+ hours of interviews with a warden and to begin helping him shape his wonderful book, and doing “stuff” instead.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Kate, I wrote this before news of Steve Job’s death became public, but I couldn’t help thinking of this post in the context of his death as I read the tributes afterward.

      One thing Job’s life proves is that there are second acts, (and in his case, third acts and fourth acts) in life. How grateful we all are for that.

      I’m writing this on my Apple desktop, but I remember well the Lisa that the owner of the very first start-up I worked for unveiled with great ceremony one day. I carried my Macintosh back and forth to the office in a specially designed backpack. It was in the days when I was still carrying children around, so the Mac didn’t seem so heavy.

  4. Paul Doiron says:

    Great post, Barb (and fodder for my future interview with you). I am currently in a managerial position which is all about making other people productive, since there are limits to what I can do myself. I often get asked how I can balance my life as a novelist with my responsibilities at Down East and I usually make a joke, but the truth is that I have done so mostly by being my own boss when I write in the sense that I use the same strategies to make myself produce that I do with my staff. I give myself license to think outside the box but I hold myself to deadlines. I understand when to apply pressure and when “goofing off” will free me to discover a solution that I won’t find by simply pressing harder. Steve Jobs quotes are buzzing around the Internet today and rightly so. I think that’s mostly a function of how fearful most people are at taking that big leap (in whatever aspect of their lives). I admire you for doing so.

  5. An excellent article, Barb! I agree, people want to be productive, which essentially means that they want to feel they’re making a difference — in their company, their community, the world, wherever. A leader’s responsibility is to make it possible for them to do their best, which in turn not only benefits others but produces feelings of satisfaction and self-respect. So many bosses these days are all about “me” — obey me, listen to me, pay me more.

    Have you heard about “The MBA Oath,” written by two Harvard MBA grads? It will give you hope for tomorrow’s bosses.

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