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Margaret Mia


Meeting Former Direct Reports | Inside Higher Ed

In the past week, without meaning to, I’ve met several former direct reports in different contexts. (In org-speak, a direct report is someone whose evaluation you write.) They’re all terrific people—I like to say that my superpower is talent scouting—and they all seemed genuinely happy to see me. I won’t betray any confidences, so I’ll just say that I was glad to see them, too.

The great thing about meeting folks who used to report to you but don’t anymore is that it’s much easier to be candid. We’ve seen each other handle all sorts of situations over the years, sometimes in contexts in which relatively few people really understood what was happening. There’s shared history, but also a sense of having seen each other at our best and at our less than best. I’ve known some amazing people, but I’ve never met a perfect one. Work closely with people in high-pressure environments for years, and you get a pretty good sense of the good and bad. You try to find people with whom the good far outweighs the bad.

The view is necessarily partial, of course. Shortly after TB was born, a colleague at work mentioned that he couldn’t picture me saying “coochie coochie coo.” As it happened, I was often a complete goofball with the kids in ways that I wasn’t, and wouldn’t be, at work. Sociologists have noted that work selves and home selves are often quite different. (The show Severance takes that to its logical conclusion.) And I’m aware that people will show different sides of themselves to the boss—never liked the word, but there it is—than they would to professional peers or to the people who report to them. That’s why I used the “assistant test” on prospective hires; if a candidate seemed promising, I’d ask my assistant how they treated her. The “kiss up, kick down” personality is toxic, and to be avoided. Places that have enough money to take candidates out to lunch or dinner sometimes use the “waiter test” the same way.

As a combination of personal temperament and philosophical belief, I’ve always managed with what some scholars call “low-power distance.” In other words, my direct reports were encouraged to speak their minds, even when they disagreed with me, as long as it was in good faith. I run meetings like writers’ workshops: the best points win, regardless of who makes them. (I teach classes the same way. Hell, I parent the same way.) People who are smart and capable tend to thrive under that style. People who need military-style clarity could get frustrated with it. And people over me who demanded what I saw as excessive or unearned deference could get annoyed when they received less than they wanted. As with people, no style is perfect.

Still, there’s something validating in talking to former direct reports and discovering that they understood, and appreciated, the climate in which we worked. Once the hierarchy is out of the way and we can talk just as colleagues, it’s even easier to appreciate them as people. And sometimes they offer suggestions or feedback that are so utterly grounded in direct observation that it’s hard to argue. One in particular explained a quirk of mine much more clearly than I had understood it myself. So, a grateful tip of the cap for that.

Looking back at my own bosses, they’ve been a mixed bag. Some have been terrific, some hit-and-miss, some … not terrific. That’s par for the course, I suppose, but I like to think we could do better. Thank you, former colleagues, for confirming my sense that we can.

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