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Springsteen, Adjacent

I did not know it then, but I was a junior in college, 21 years old, when I worked for and with the best manager I would ultimately ever have. More than 35 years and a dozen supervisors later, he is still my go-to response when asked the question “Who is the best boss you ever had?”

It was 1987 and I was the Promotions Coordinator for the Recreational Sports Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (Go Mustangs!). A dream job if there ever was one.…an aerobics class (is this still a thing?) or an intramural dodgeball league need advertising to drive participation? I was your girl.

I was already embedded in my position at Rec Sports when at the beginning of Fall Quarter a kind of goofy-looking man showed up and was introduced to the student leadership team as our new supervisor.  Was he arrogant? Was he awkward? The collective jury was still out when my father suddenly passed away. When I returned to school after Thanksgiving break my friends and coworkers were understandably shy around me, not knowing the appropriate reaction to a grieving colleague. He came to my desk and quietly said “I don’t know what to say, so I am just going to tell you I don’t know what to say.” He stood there with me in that moment and just held space. He said nothing and he said everything at the same time. In an instant our relationship shifted: This goofy, arrogant, awkward man gave me my first exposure to empathy in the workplace.

Over the next two years he would unknowingly teach me more about life and leadership than any other person to date, and much more than I ever learned in the classroom. He helped me understand that you need to know, really know the people you lead, and that requires spending time in conversation, solving problems and learning new things together. He didn’t just teach me about life in the general sense; he oh-so-subtly made me consider the kind of life I wanted to create for myself. His zest for living was infectious, his curiosity limitless. He taught me to look at the world through a new lens, to always ask myself 'what’s possible from here?'

Long before I was even aware of engage surveys, employee retention, toxic workplaces and stay interviews, the manner this leader daily lead his team invoked a sense of pride in each of us, dared us to dream, collaborate and contribute in meaningful ways, motivated us to always go the extra mile and find laughter along the way. He personified leadership presence. He created an environment where we could do our best work and celebrate our successes together.

Alas, graduation meant all good things indeed come to an end. Even though our working relationship was over (sniff, sniff) I considered myself fortunate to take with me these key leadership learnings, largely gleaned from working with him:

  • Great Relationships are Transformational, not transactional

  • Aspire to Inspire

  • Lead with Curiosity

  • Champion your People to Stretch

  • Instill Trust

  • Insert playfulness whenever possible

While completing the certification process to become an Executive Coach, an instructor walked us through an exercise on Emotional Intelligence. We were to consider the Best Boss we ever had - he naturally came immediately to mind. I emailed him to let him know about my new career path, this exercise, that I still regarded him this way, and to thank him. Mostly to thank him. He responded:

So. Oh My. You've made an old man cry...

I get into long text/chats every few months with [another former Cal Poly Rec Sports employee] about family, politics, the state of higher education, etc., and they ALL inevitably revert back to the days when we were building a program from scratch... No real roadmap or reference points. We just tried to hire fantastic students with a good work ethic, and people who would give a damn about what we wanted to become. Then we turned them loose to make stuff happen. Turns out the talent ALWAYS rises to the top! The convo always ends with a 'fictional' Grand Rec Sports Reunion invitation list: "Invited" / "Not Invited".

YOU are Always Invited First!

I am thrilled for your new adventure/venture!

It's just perfect. I probably "called it”...

Confident, not arrogant. Awesome, not awkward. Great, not goofy.

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