5 Lessons I Learned from My First Female Boss

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work closely with a senior executive at my company at the time on a very important, and rather high-level, project. She was incredibly well-regarded, and many assumed she would take the helm of this multi-billion-dollar organization when the current CEO retired (she did not, unfortunately, but that’s another story entirely).

Still, it was the first time I was exposed to an executive at this level, and it taught me a great deal about leadership. I’ve since had many bosses, mentors, and sponsors, but none has had the same impact as this one. She was not quite perfect, but she was a very good leader, and one who really cared.

This is what she taught me:

1. Always take the call. From the moment I met her, I knew she had a daughter and a husband, and they were the most important figures in her life. She could be in a meeting … and it didn’t matter the nature nor scale of the meeting — it could have been with our CEO — if her family phoned, she took the call. And let me be clear, it wasn’t always urgent; a quick update on what happened at school that day or a call to confirm plans. Still, she always took the call.

2. Recognition — in any form — is long-lasting. To this day, I remember every five-dollar bill she sent to me. On birthdays, anniversaries, and for exceptional work, you could expect a hand-written card with five dollars in it. We’d joke that it would buy nothing more than a cup of coffee, but it was always the best and most memorable cup I would have.

3. Reverse mentoring is a gift. She knew nothing about search engine optimization, but our internal agency was doing a great deal of work for customers in the area. I recall her sitting down with the head of the digital practice seeking to understand — to learn — more about SEO and the value it provided to customers. She would often cite the now infamous example of the company that made trailer homes that insisted on calling itself (everywhere on its site!) the leading provider of manufactured homes. The challenge? No one was searching for manufactured homes. They were googling “trailer home” or “mobile home.”

4. It’s not always fun. She took the helm of a division at a time when one of the business units in it was sorely underperforming. I was working with her at the time, and I watched as she made extremely difficult choices — replacing a beloved leader, spending more time on the road than at home, regularly presenting to a challenging Board of Directors. As I look back, I realized that I was learning — up close and personal — the focus and commitment required to operate at that level.

5. We are human. She passed out in our office one day. One minute she was upright and the next she was on the floor being tended to by a colleague. Ultimately, she would spend a night in the local hospital before heading back home to rest and recover. While not serious, that illness forced her to rethink priorities and her lifestyle. She had been on the road so much, not eating enough, and under a great deal of stress. It caught up with her and served as a pivotal point. After recovering, she started running and always had healthy snacks with her to ensure she ate. It’s a habit I’ve picked up too.

She is not the only female executive I was privileged to work with, but she was the first … and likely the most memorable. And today, she and I are Facebook friends and have mutual relationships that allow us to stay in each other’s lives. Our daughters both played the same sport; her daughter was an accomplished collegiate athlete and I would cheer from afar. I recently learned from a mutual friend that she’s starting a new chapter after more than forty years … off to pursue her personal passions.

Of course, I wish her much success in this next chapter. But most of all, I want to thank her for all that she taught me, whether she knew she was teaching or not.

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