Leadership Matters: Can You Build a Better Boss?

hand of businessman in suit building a growing staircase out of wooden blocks
Bill Vogeney Photo
Chief Revenue Officer
Ent Credit Union

8 minutes

7 best practices for developing yourself into a better manager and leader

One of the personal development initiatives at Ent Credit Union that has gotten my attention is “Podcasting with a Purpose,” where leaders, emerging leaders and want-to-be emerging leaders listen to a timely and relevant podcast. A regularly scheduled Zoom meeting follows the podcast, where participants dig into the topic.

The topic of this week’s podcast, “How to Build Better Bosses” caught my eye. While I’m technically much closer time-wise to the end of my career than the beginning, I feel like I’ve been going through a bit of a career renaissance in the last year. I’ve been pushing myself and, at the same time, reminiscing about the past. “How to Build Better Bosses” made me realize I’ve learned a lot about being a boss, a manager and a leader from my past bosses. Here are some of the things I learned from different bosses over 44 years in the workplace and 35 years in management.

1. Find Opportunities for Your People to Build Trust

My first job was assistant to the chef at a public golf course restaurant. I was almost 17 and had been cooking at home since I was 10. It was still my first job, though, and I had a lot to learn about cooking for paying customers. Frank, the chef, realized I learned quickly, so he found opportunities for me to build trust. He started doing this on busy nights like the weekend.  Once the initial “rush” was over, he let me take over and churn out plates of food without his explicit approval. Sure, I made some mistakes, but I built confidence in myself and I earned his trust. The most important thing about this trust building? He took chances on me and gave me some room for error—but not too much. If I had to prepare a dish for the first time, I could always call him in. Eventually he trusted me enough to work an entire weekend by myself when he needed some vacation time, and I knew I could handle just about anything thrown at me because I was prepared.

2. Lead by Coaching

My first “real” job, as I like to say, was at Norwest Financial (later acquired by Wells Fargo) as a credit manager. Once I graduated from college, I wanted to get into banking, but 1983 was a bad time to get hired as a trainee in that world. So I went to work making small loans and collecting tough accounts at Norwest. After two years as a trainee and later as an assistant manager, I got my first branch management position in Ohio. My district manager was new to his position as well, having been recently promoted from a branch manager position in Seattle. Arnie was one of those “always on,” positive kind of guys.

More than anything, Arnie was a great boss because he was a good teacher and coach. Prior to my manager role, for two years as a trainee I was taught the essentials of the business by the book. I learned the basics of how to make loans and collect with virtually no creativity. Arnie taught me how to build a branch and build the business. He was a good coach, ever positive, and hearing him talk about new ideas got me excited. Admittedly, not all his ideas were easy to execute, and other branch managers in his district had a lot of questions and concerns. He never ducked a good question, and he spent a lot of time working through different scenarios one-on-one with us.

3. Don’t Ask Your Employees to Do Anything You Wouldn’t Want to Do

My second branch management job at Norwest was a larger, troubled branch in Florida. I’ll have to use an alias for my boss, so I’ll call him Robert. Even 35 years later, I think about my change in fortune as I went from reporting to one of the more innovative, positive district managers in the company to potentially the worst DM. Robert was old school; he had been in the business 40 or more years with several different companies.

His age had nothing to do with my negative experience with him, though. Let’s say that Robert had some different ethics. One day, after badgering me for hours about our delinquent accounts, he decided to really put the full-court press on me over one $500 loan I couldn’t collect—I had even knocked on the customer’s door to try to get a payment. After hearing my “excuses,” Robert audibly sighed and replied, “I miss the old days when all it took to be a good collector was to have an attitude and a gun.” Excuse me?

Another aspect of Norwest’s business was the sale of different credit insurance products. One month, I was just below the established goal, and he offered a way to improve my success rate. He suggested that if a customer declined the insurance we were offering, I should slowly move the insurance disclosure closer to the customer “on the sly” for them to consent, while slowly moving the check further from the customer.

Yes, he was slimy. After a few encounters like this, I realized I would never take his advice. And if I wouldn’t do it, I sure wasn’t going to ask my employees to do it.

4. Find Talent and Grow It, and …

My first credit union job fell into my lap almost 34 years ago, when I was hired as AVP/lending for what is now known as $4 billion FAIRWINDS Credit Union, Orlando, Florida. Truth be told, I’m not sure I was hired because of my potential; in reality, I was cheap. I later found out I was their fourth choice—their first three choices for the job were all 20 years older than me and wanted $20,000 a year more (in 1988 dollars!) than what I was willing to accept. I was grateful for the opportunity then and I don’t care what I made in the early years.

Ed Baranowski was the CEO, and he took great pride in finding talent and developing it. At the time I was hired, the senior management team consisted of six people. Ed and two of the VPs were all around 50 years old. The other three VPs, including me, were under 30. Ed saw something in me and tried to cultivate it. He was a patient man. I was a bit like a bull in a china shop. I made mistakes. He forgave them. He coached me. He forgave me some more. His inspiration and guidance over 30 years ago helped me develop the mindset I have now.

I’ve had a long career, and “it’s not about me” anymore. What’s important are my people. I look back at my career and realize it has turned out far better than I could have expected. A big part of my success and satisfaction is from Ed developing me. I just hope to have a lot of my current employees look back in 30 years and feel the same way.

As a bonus, from time to time someone would call Ed “boss.” He would immediately reply, “I’m not a boss! You know what boss spelled backwards is? Double S-O-B!” I’ve always remembered that—don’t be the Double S-O-B.

5. Advocate for Your People

It’s not enough to grow your people; you have to advocate for them. Whether that’s in the form of promotions or pay increases, you have to keep the right people moving. If you as a boss don’t take that as a personal challenge, who will?

A previous CEO here at Ent, Charles Emmer, was great about this. Once he got comfortable with me overseeing lending, having fixed some problems and making the loan business grow, he turned his attention to making sure I stayed happy. I received several promotions I didn’t expect, and honestly, I never had to start a conversation about compensation. Prior to working for Charles, I’d have to say my compensation met my expectations. Under Charles, it exceeded my expectations.

6. Don’t Take Yourself Seriously

Charles made another significant contribution to who I am as a boss. Charles had a well-developed, self-deprecating sense of humor. I think he used it as a balancing act. As a CEO, I suppose it’s fairly easy to take yourself too seriously. His attitude helped keep moods as light as possible most days.

Managing a multi-billion-dollar credit union isn’t exactly a bowl full of cherries—certainly there were a lot of opportunities for stress levels to rise, so his sense of humor wasn’t always on display. Yet when things calmed down, his sense of humor helped smooth things over. Charles was also very good at apologizing when he had a bad day.

Personally, I can take myself way too seriously, so I need such tools to keep myself grounded.

7. Have a Problem?

Perhaps my favorite boss of all time was one who wasn’t the easiest to work for. Randy Bernstein was my peer for a while, then my boss, then the CEO here at Ent. Randy could be demanding, and he could also have an amazingly kind heart.

What made Randy a great boss was explained by one of his favorite sayings. He used to say, when the situation dictated it, “If you have a problem, bring it to me. It’s our problem then, and we’ll work on it together. If you don’t bring it to me, then it’s your problem—and trust me, you can’t afford to have problems.” I think Randy meant he didn’t want to be surprised and sure didn’t want you trying to sweep problems under the carpet. That part was pretty clear.

However, in addition to the intended meaning, as a boss, I’ve emphasized and embraced “We’ll work on this together.” Collaboration with your employees. Rolling up your sleeves. Not just handing down an order to fix something. It’s an invitation to share ideas, make mistakes and come up with a better plan. That’s the kind of boss I want to work for; that’s the kind of boss I want to be.

Authors of Management Books Will Hate This

I’m not much into reading books on management or listening to podcasts on the subject, to be honest. Early in my career, I didn’t have much money for books (still wouldn’t have read them if I had the cash!), and there were no such things as podcasts in 1983 when I graduated from college. But I was still learning. The reason we refer to a career as a “ladder” is because there are often many steps along the way. Each and every step can reinforce what we like—and dislike—about bosses. And each step also means you’re more prepared to be a boss or a better boss as well.

CUES member Bill Vogeney is chief revenue officer and self-professor lending geek at $8.7 billion Ent Credit Union, Colorado Springs.

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