Like a Boss part 3: Horror stories!


Well, not exactly horror, just some lessons learned on my first serious managing gig. To set the stage: I was 19 years old, moving in on 20 and had spent a year or more working at movie theaters in Seattle for a year or two. I moved up from new guy, to lead, to assistant manager pretty quickly. I was going to spend Summer in Alaska and looked to work in the Theaters there for a few months.

The local district manager checked with my old boss and must have got a pretty glowing review. After a few days working for him he offered me the chance to be General manager at the first theater I ever worked at, the Polar-Tri. After a couple days interning with its current GM it was all mine.

I was proud and confident and also not really completely ready for the challenge. The place was run down, not mismanaged but not well managed, and the employees were neither well trained nor very motivated. It had been years since some of the good dispensers had been cleaned and later we discovered nearly all the auditorium speakers had long ago been stolen. Rats lived there in abundance and so on. On the surface you wouldn’t know but behind the curtains it was a dump.

I got off on a decent foot, getting the employees together and explaining my view of running a theater, my belief that we should all be partners in running the place, and the kind of things I considered good practice. I didn’t bad mouth the old boss because I know he was generally liked. I expressed I wanted us all to do a good job, and hopefully have some fun doing it.

My notion of leadership at the time was that if you set a good example and treated people with respect folks would follow. And that was true of employees who took pride in their work and generally wanted to be helpful. It was not true of people who would prefer to work as little as possible for their paycheck or who understandably thought a 19 year old was not much of an authority figure.

I didn’t know how to deal with people that needed direct motivation. One big embarrassment was when one employee left a disparaging note on the bar counter. I forget what it said. I should have taken it, considered what it meant, and gotten folks together to see what I could do to address it. Instead I wrote something snide on it and left it there. One of my wiser employees pointed out how dumb that was to me in private but by then the damage was done, and I was too ashamed to try and follow up the proper course. I diminished myself to an anonymous critic rather than a responsible manager and I played the part of a foe to a critic rather than someone looking for their cooperation.

Another huge embarrassment was my habit of locking my keys inside my office, inside the theater. I’ve always been forgetful and I didn’t have a car so it was pretty easy to not realize I’d left my keys somewhere until it was too late. Rather than think hard on how to change my habits or make it hard to forget my keys, I simply compensated by being clever in breaking into my own theater, often with the help of another employee. No one really called me out on it but they should have, it was shameful and undermined my authority. Being a good leader often means you must transcend your own personal weaknesses.

My final great failure was the way I dealt with my assistant manager. I inherited her from the old manager. She did the minimal needed to keep the place going (and to her credit never had to break into the place) but she did not set the example I wanted. She stayed in her office all the time, mostly smoking and hanging out with her boyfriend, both against the rules and neither much helpful in cleaning up the place. Again I lacked the courage to  demand she change. I was afraid of rocking the boat, unsure of my authority, and shy of confrontation. Instead I played passive aggressive and more or less just badgered her to change. Ultimately my crappy tactic worked in that she quit, but the day after I turned over the theater on my way back to Seattle she broke in and sabotage the place cutting open all the syrup boxes flooding the offices with the stuff. At the time I only had blame for her, but older and wiser I realize much of that outcome was my fault. Worse, someone else had to clean up the mess I made. She was a bad apple and it was my responsibility to get her to change or fire her quickly.

Mind you I had some wins. That place was cleaner and better run when I left than when I got there. I had hired a lot of good people (turnover is high in theaters in general) including an assistant manager I trained and mentored who went on to take over the theater when I left. Less than a year later it was sold to the school district and eventually torn down, but I was proud to leave it better than I found it. In just a few months, I learned a great many lessons both from success, but more so from some serious failures.



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