What lessons from your first boss do you still use today?

This has been a week of reminiscing for me.  I had a business opportunity come up that gave me a good excuse to talk to many industry old-timers, including several of my former bosses.  I started thinking about my first corporate job as a public relations specialist and how much I soaked in from the talented professionals all around me.

Part of my first job was to summarize important industry, business and customer news and have it typed in a standard format for worldwide distribution by 8 a.m.  Back then, that meant being in the office by 6 a.m., actually reading things called industry publications and business journals on something called “paper.”  And cut and paste literally meant cut and paste. But I still loved it. And I loved all those smart folks I looked up to.

I thought it would be fun to see what advice you gleaned from from your first boss that still rings true today. Here is some of mine:

  • Enthusiasm matters.  Approach jobs that you dislike with enthusiasm and somehow they seem a little more tolerable. And, when you’re enthusiastic, you get noticed.
  • Hustle.  Make it happen. Find a way to win. Overcome.
  • The customer is not always right, but they are always the customer.
  • Good writing matters.
  • You can’t always be popular, but you can always be fair.
  • A leader who is impatient is driven.  A new employee who is impatient is annoying.
  • When in doubt, wear the tie.
  • When you are at a company party, you’re still at the company … not a party.
  • The keys to power in an organization are usually held by the administrative assistant.

What about you?  What words of wisdom do you carry with you from your first boss?  Please share in the comments below!

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  • I discovered your homepage by coincidence.
    Very interesting posts and well written.
    I will put your site on my blogroll.

  • Not to attach my name to something unless the job was done well and correctly. At the time he was referring to a mopped floor ( I was 14) but it has stuck with me and is a vital rule to this day.

  • Dan Levine

    Mark, love this post. My first boss taught me something I keep with me every day: be honest and have integrity in every interaction. If your company has a shortcoming, don’t duck it — acknowledge it and let folks know the steps you’re taking to correct it. No company is perfect — how you handle your weaknesses is what sets you apart from the rest.

  • Working in the House of Commons, UK Parliament, for a Party Leader in the mid-1980’s made a profound impression on me as a recent graduate. He gave an inspiring demonstration of the importance of being true to your own values rather than ambition and helped me to understand that the world does not fall apart simply because you take a decision others disagree with. Over 20 years on, I can see that so many of the calls he made against conventional wisdom of the time have been proved correct.

    Subsequently when giving crisis communications or issues management counsel, I’ve always tried to give the advice in the best interests of resolving the situation and not on the basis of what the boardroom wants to hear. I wouldn’t claim that I’ve always judged that perfectly, I’m sure it’s cost me contracts at times, but I have slept better as a result.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    @Kristen — That sure holds true for me too. Everything you do and say becomes your “brand”

    @Dan — Courage is a great lesson and not always easy to implement in the face of corporate pressure. Was listening to some of the testimonies about the coal miners in WV today. Could that have been prevented?

    @Fiona — so nice to hear from you and encouraging to hear your lesson of integrity came from a politician. Great!

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  • Danny Shelton

    “Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there and there won’t be any problems!”-Mr. Thomas

  • From a few of my first bosses:
    -Good enough is not enough.
    -If you don’t have time to do it right, then you won’t have time to do it over, so do it right.
    -Always provide completed staff work (an old IBM term), all (I mean all) documents should be labeled, paginated, by-lined, and branded.
    -Don’t gossip
    -Always think “next steps”
    -have a firm handshake (from dad)

  • When you bring up a problem, have two proposals for potential solutions

  • Mark

    Interesting stuff! Thanks!

  • Mark, if I may share a story about enthusiasm in the face of a job you dislike –

    In high school, I was in marching band (I can’t believe I’m admitting this). Every year, the last week in August, we had a ‘boot camp’ of sorts to get a jump start on learning our half-time show. It was hot and miserable. Well, halfway through the first one I ever attended, I & my cohorts were grumbling through the marching, when our band director called us to a halt and yelled at us from atop the drum major stand.


    So, we all started YAYYY when we had to repeat a formation and waving our arms excitedly. And, what do you know, we ended up having a pretty good time, and not noticing the heat so much!

    Not a lesson from my first boss – but a lesson I took with me into the workforce. And it has served me very well.

  • Jim LeBlanc

    What I learned from my first boss: If you do cocaine on your desk, you will get an armed escort from the building.

  • I’m going to follow Jenn’s lead and share a few things I learned through observation:

    Never confuse position power with influence.

    Never think you’re bigger than the rules or worthy of operating beyond the boundaries.

    When you have an employee who operates with Loyalty and Integrity ~ do what it takes to keep them motivated.

    Great post Mark, loved everyone’s comments. And Jim – that was funny!

  • Jim, did you work for Tony Montana y/n

  • Respect. I’ve walked out on jobs hoping to leave the boss hanging. I’ve never treated anyone without it nor tolerate the lack of it in my work .

    Mr LeBlanc, that happened to you too? LOL!

  • Jim LeBlanc

    Jenn, if I told you who I worked for, your life would be in danger : )

  • The best boss I ever had was when I lived in Finland. He used to have the whole team eat lunch together around a round table on Wednesdays. Anyone could say anything and every comment and suggestion was treated with respect and interest. It allowed a very young me to grow in confidence and find my feet. Fresh out of university I felt like someone special because all these really experienced folks around me took me seriously.

    I’ve taken that with me and even now I’m my own boss, I always try and find time to connect with everyone in my virutal team – especially the younger people.

  • Mark

    Jim, You’re scaring me. : )

    Everyone else … awesome!

  • My first boss was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known or worked for. It was at a ballpark, keeping score, when I was 12. He taught me patience, and to own what you were doing.

  • Never to settle for the status quo and that no matter how busy you are it’s always important to make the time to step back and ask yourself “is this really still the best way to (fill in the blank) or have we just fallen into a bad habit?”

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