5 Life Lessons Learned from an Exceptional Boss

I have had times in my career when I felt like I was someone’s favorite. It’s glorious: the days are all bright and sunshiny and you can do no wrong. But I’ve also had times in my career when I was not the favorite: you get left out of meetings, you’re the last to know anything important, and you generally feel out of place.

by Mary-Susan Danker-Dake

To Jim Taylor, an exceptional boss.

I had the incredible opportunity to work closely with Jim Taylor, one of the CPA profession’s best, for four years at HoganTaylor LLP. During that period, I witnessed five qualities that are indispensable in a good boss.

  1. Listening to listen and not to respond

Many of us are poor listeners. We listen while formulating the next thing we plan to say the first second we get a chance. But to truly listen, we need to be fully present in the moment and to put aside our inherent selfishness and our enjoyment of the sound of our own voice.

When I would talk with Jim, his phone and the papers on his desk would be put aside and he would look me in the eye. When he asked questions, he would let me talk fully and completely, and I could always tell that he was very thoughtful about the question he was going to ask when I finished talking. At the end of each conversation, I truly felt as if I had been listened to, whether we were talking about a client issue or my husband’s latest writing project. No matter how interesting or boring the topic, Jim was 100% present in the conversation.

To be a good listener, give people your full attention when they come to talk to you. If you are busy, ask if you can come and find them in a little bit so that you can give them your undivided attention. Look them in the eye and focus on what they are saying. Repeat back what you have heard so that you know you’ve heard their full side. Give them the time and the emotional space to become comfortable enough to articulate their thoughts and start talking. Once they start talking, bite your tongue, focus, and listen.

  1. Being fair

Fairness is hard. It’s human nature to have favorites (let’s all agree that even if we aren’t willing to admit it publicly, we secretly—or not so secretly—have favorites). But how do you be fair to everyone you lead when you have favorites?

You do it by realizing that every situation has two sides to it and by being willing to listen to and investigate both sides without prejudice. Being fair means that you are looking out for all the people involved. I have learned that being fair does not mean that you treat everyone the same, but it does mean that you have the same level of enthusiasm for each person’s growth, well-being, and success, and that as far as it is possible and practical, you provide them with the tools and the opportunities to become the best they can be.

I have had times in my career when I felt like I was someone’s favorite. It’s glorious: the days are all bright and sunshiny and you can do no wrong. But I’ve also had times in my career when I was not the favorite: you get left out of meetings, you’re the last to know anything important, and you generally feel out of place.

So how can we practice fairness in the workplace? As you’re divvying up special projects, deciding who to send to a special training or conference, or even doing relatively small things like choosing who to talk to each morning, who to invite to go to lunch, or who to joke around with, be aware of your biases and keep in mind that the little things do not go unnoticed. Strive to give each employee the level of attention and engagement that they personally need to thrive.

  1. Embracing creativity and innovation

When you have a good model for what you do, it’s easy to become complacent, to keep doing the same old thing each year. It takes courage to be willing to urge people to critically question the model and find ways to improve, especially if you had a part in putting the thing together in the first place.

But the payoffs of creativity and innovation far outweigh the challenges. First, implementing any improvements suggested by members of the team energizes the whole team. It makes people feel like they matter, that they’ve contributed to something greater than themselves. And isn’t that what we all want—to feel like we have a bigger purpose? Second, the improvements will likely result in significant savings of time and money. This frees up resources to pursue other opportunities.

  1. Showing appreciation extravagantly

In public accounting, a general practice is to take the team out for a celebratory dinner after a long or big engagement. Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to go on several of these celebratory dinners—they were usually at a nice steakhouse, and we could get whatever we wanted to eat or drink. And we could get dessert—the best part! It was a great perk.

When I was at HoganTaylor, our celebratory dinner always included our spouses or significant others. That was so special because it recognized that we were able to do what we did because of the important people in our lives. It was an appreciation not only of our efforts but also of the support system that made us the best we could be. Josh and I fondly remember those times of celebration.

You don’t have to spend a ton of money to show appreciation, but when you show it, go the extra mile. Put a touch of extravagance into however you do it.

  1. Being optimistic about the future

I joined HoganTaylor in 2009, when the economy was still recovering from the global financial and credit crisis of 2008. There were lots of unknowns, and the future didn’t look all that rosy. But through it all, Jim led meetings with a twinkle in his eye, the future in mind, urging us to serve our clients well, and encouraging us to make improvements where possible. This was always done with a view toward being the best we can be today so that we will be ready for tomorrow—because tomorrow will bring new challenges and opportunities.

Stay positive. Count your blessings. At work, that means being thankful for the things that are going right, for the people you get to work with, and for the good effects your work is having in the world.

Instead of letting challenges get you down, decide to overcome by getting creative with the resources you have. Another way to stay positive when things are tough is to humbly acknowledge that we are fallible human beings with limits and accept that we are capable of learning and doing better in the future. Press on to do the things today that will set you up for success tomorrow.

Mary-Susan and Josh met at Oral Roberts University and have been married for 10 years. They have three adorable children. Mary-Susan is an accountant and works for a large energy company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has lived on three continents, loves travelling, reading, hosting parties and is frighteningly passionate about all things Pioneer Woman.

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