Ronin Roundtable: Learning to Boss
One of the biggest challenges in transitioning from a freelancer or an employee to a business owner and boss over the last nearly 18 years of Green Ronin’s life has been, for me at least, figuring out what an effective “boss” looks like. In some ways, it’s been similar to figuring out how to be a reasonable parent, which I felt I was getting a handle on just about the time my girl left for college. My initial goals were bare bones: don’t make the mistakes your worst bosses made, don’t take people for granted, uphold your end of the bargain, have your people’s backs and set them up for success even in trying situations. Goals, yes, the basest of goals, but the strategies to achieve those goals were harder to come by, especially having had a distinct lack of such leadership in my own working life. I’d worked for bosses who made employees with pneumonia come to work under threat of losing their job if they didn’t, bosses who were greedy and racist and crass and expected me to shut my mouth and even lie to protect them or lose my minimum wage position, bosses who were verbally abusive, who bent and broke labor laws, who ruled through threats and intimidation, who failed to support their underlings and readily offered them up as scapegoats when things inevitably went wrong. Knowing you don’t want to do those things isn’t the same as knowing how to effectively do things differently.
When Green Ronin was just a fledgling project, we had a small number of people and projects to consider. We worked with people we already knew well on a handful of projects and the whole endeavor was relatively forgiving of our inexperience and our missteps. Even as the company’s reputation grew, we remained a small and tight-knit group of “regulars” and what we lacked in the way of a central office and corporate buzzwords, we made up for in flexibility and a sense of camaraderie, that we were all “in it together.” Our guiding principle became to hire people who were good at what they did and let them do it… which is, fundamentally, still something I believe in but which also failed to provide guidance in some important ways. We’ve worked with a few folks in the past who “didn’t fit” with this freewheeling management style and it took more self-reflection than it should have to realize that was a failure of management as much as any issues of personality conflict or “poor fit” on behalf of the person doing the work.
In recent years, Green Ronin has enjoyed some spectacular (and satisfying) successes and we have been able to grow as a company and expand on our offerings in ways we’d never really come close to before. For the first time in company history, I have personally been divesting myself of responsibilities instead of taking on more. We have brought in new blood, people we haven’t known for years in advance of working with them, people with years of experiences unlike our own who have brought wonderful, fresh attitudes and perspectives. We have been made so much better and stronger from their contributions. We have also entered yet another phase of growth and responsibility, now that we’re not just a core of 4 (or 6 or 8…) people who know each other well and have deep and affectionate personal bonds in addition to our professional associations.
Many of us who make up the core of Green Ronin are hardcore introverts, shy sometimes, conflict averse sometimes, of a practical “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude towards things…especially because many of us feel passionately that there ARE “broke” things out there that need attention. Like the cobbler’s children going without shoes, I suppose. We never had a policy on how we handle having to take significant time off on a project for family emergencies (such as prolonged illness) because, well, it had never come up…even while we supported the existence of those policies and protections in the wider world. We didn’t have extensive policies around convention volunteers because we’d only attracted close friends and well-known-to-us volunteers for very small efforts until we hired someone to oversee those and purposely grow those programs recently. We didn’t have a “training policy” because, well, we’d only ever hired people who were already experts and aside from asking them to be familiar with a new rules set, there wasn’t much to “train” them on.
In retrospect, I know there are many businesses that would have and did have such policies and procedures in place in formal ways before they were ever needed. Perhaps due to my upbringing, my feelings had always been that it was not only unnecessary but possibly wasteful and definitely presumptuous to address things that did not need addressing. That someone like me anticipating having a big enough business to justify “training policies” was putting on airs, getting above my station, or bragging (as a child might claim they were going to be a famous author when they grew up and have someone to serve them tea, just you wait). Human as those feelings may be, they don’t represent the actions of a good boss… at least not the kind of boss I feel a responsibility to be.
Learning to be a better boss has not been something that comes easily or naturally to me. It very much goes hand in hand with my observations last year that this industry lacks mentorship, at least in any structured fashion. While I have, I hope, been a reasonably good and supportive employer on a one-to-one level with the people who have come to work with Green Ronin over the years, I’m still learning to be better, more effective, more efficient and to provide both a protective and predictable working environment. I have many things I want to accomplish with this company and with the wonderful and patient people who have joined us on our projects thus far. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” Learning to boss better is my goal for 2018.