Imagine if your boss said: “OK, let’s raise the stakes. Let’s say if you don’t hit your goal, you lose your family. You lose your family, and they come and live with me! How likely would you be to hit your goal?”
There are great leaders who inspire you, and then there are “leaders” who seem to suck the life out of you.
I’ve been fortunate to experience both, so I could determine which direction I wanted to go with my career and more importantly my life.
I started my newspaper career working at the Rochester Post-Bulletin in Rochester, Minn., back in 1994. I didn’t realize how good I had it working for the Small family, a.k.a. the Small Newspaper Group, LLC.
While I had never intended on making my long-term livelihood in the newspaper industry, I found that I enjoyed it and it came easy for me. My original aspirations were in the pre-veterinary and computer science disciplines. But, after a few degree changes in college, I finally figured out that a focus on business marketing and finance at Purdue University was my calling.
However, the best education I received was working at the newspaper learning my way around each department.
In 1999, I was promoted to circulation director and corporate trainer at the corporate headquarters in Kankakee, Ill. I enjoyed my time with the wonderful daily newspaper staff at The Daily Journal, as we grew circulation year-after-year – making the advertising department’s job a little easier.
Then, in 2002, I was promoted to publisher of the La Porte Herald-Argus (Ind.), which our team evolved into the La Porte County Herald-Argus, growing circulation, ad revenues, and commercial printing operations at an incredible pace. We had an awesome team full of ideas, and they could make anything possible. We even published our 125th year special anniversary issue in 3-D and provided 3-D glasses for readers within the newspaper that day.
In 2006, I was contacted by a headhunter seeking to fill some publisher positions in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My wife and I had two young children, and we constantly talked about how we wanted to move back to Southeast Minnesota to be closer to family. We wanted our children to know their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
So, in February 2007, I accepted an offer to work for an Iowa-based media company, with my publisher position operating out of an office in the Southwest Wisconsin region. Again, I had the pleasure of working with an outstanding group of people in Platteville, Wis. And, while we were happy to be within four hours of family in Minnesota, it still wasn’t close enough.
In July of 2008, my boss — a vice president who reigned with an ominous disposition — who controlled every division of the company with puppet strings, coordinated a conference call, and here is how it went.
Our location was producing great results, but others were struggling. The corporation was hoping to squeeze more blood out of the turnip. We were asked to come up with a contingency plan to produce additional revenue by the end of 2008. I did my best, but I saw the writing on the wall with the automotive and real estate market being very volatile.
“On a scale of one to 10, how likely do you think you will be to hit your contingency goal?” he said.
I gave him an honest answer, “Based on the way things are going with the real estate and automotive markets, I would give it an eight out of 10.”
“You are going to give me an eight out of 10?” he said, coarsely.
“Yes, but we will strive for hitting that contingency goal,” I emphasized.
“An eight is not good enough,” he said. “OK, let’s raise the stakes. Let’s say if you don’t hit your goal, you lose your family. You lose your family, and they come and live with me! How likely would you be to hit your goal?”
Who says that?
I was immediately thinking that he was crossing a line in which any Human Resources Department would throw in a penalty flag. However, the Human Resources Department reported to him, and he had just promoted the Human Resources Director into their position. He owned people, by all standards — myself included. My job security hinged on his happiness with my submission to his expectations.
I ignored his statement about my family, and I continued to respond by saying that I would give it my best shot and strive for hitting the 10. He repeated the statement about my family coming to live with him another four times, and I continued to ignore his reference to my family as I told him that I would strive for hitting a 10.
Our phone call ended, and I immediately thought to myself, “I can’t work here anymore, not for this guy. Who treats people like that?”
On the evening of Wednesday, July 23, 2008, following that insane conversation with my egotistical boss, I came home and told my wife that I needed to start looking for another job opportunity. I told her about my conversation with my boss, and she understood my concerns. But, as it turns out, I wasn’t necessarily looking for another job opportunity. I was looking for a life-changing opportunity.
Since 2004, when our daughter was born, I had been looking into buying a newspaper. I figured we would be able to establish roots in a community if we owned a newspaper. No more job transfers, or following the career path of whichever opportunity was available.
And, in 2008, an opportunity presented itself. It was perfectly timed, too. Just as The Financial Crisis came crashing down on the newspaper industry and the rest of the world, I joined the ranks of layoffs in October 2008.
January 26, 2009, marked the beginning of a new life for my family, and for me — personally and professionally. We purchased the Fillmore County Journal.
Since that day, I vowed to never treat my employees the way I was treated by some pompous newspaper executive who failed to understand how to lead with emotional intelligence. And, I have established the mantra… “How we treat people is more important than making money.” If you treat people (employees and customers) with a humble appreciation, you will achieve great things. If you wake up everyday and strive to help people succeed, you will be successful. That’s what I believe in my heart.