The first time I met him, he was at his desk in his office. I was a young university student trying to land an internship at one of the most renowned FMCG companies, and he was the said company Finance Manager.

I eventually landed that internship which would later become my very first job as a Financial Analyst in the company. I soon found out that what I saw during the interview was an unusual setting for him: he would never sit at his desk, and you would always find him wandering in the corridors talking to people and stopping at the desk of this or the other person.

He was, in fact, one of those rarer and rarer managers who didn’t wait for people to come to them in the dainty atmosphere of their office, but he went out to talk to the people in his team.

He was not a big person (he was actually on the smaller size), but the authority that emanated from him would amply compensate for this. He was one of those persons you cannot avoid to listen to. He had piercing eyes, and he was a bit harsh in his ways and for every young (and less young) person in his staff it was always a great challenge when the moment came that he would stop at YOUR desk.

The scene invariably played the same: he would sit and start asking a question after the other about a specific business issue, relentlessly!  He was always on top of everything, asking the most poignant questions one can imagine (and many ones cannot even imagine!) and I ended up considering my ability to answer to those questions as a clear sign of my professional growth and development. The day I was able to reply to all the questions, and I saw a satisfied grin on his face, I was delighted!

He was not an easy person to work with, but our conversations were always fascinating and valuable. I reckon that much of my work ethic was generated during those very demanding Q&As.

There are three lessons that I’ve learnt from my first boss, and I’d like to share with you.

1. 150% of nothing will always be nothing

In reality, he used very different wording for that, one I cannot repeat here. But this phrase was one of his mantras.

Think about a company where the marketing department was ruling and where many young enterprising brand managers were always trying to launch a new product or most of the times new variant of an old product. Their objective was to prove that their initiative was financially sound and so they would sometimes be a bit “optimistic” about market size, market share, growth rates, pricing and so on. They would boast great growth rates for products in a teeny-tiny market. And from this very situation, the phrase was born.

The not so hidden meaning of the phrase is, for me, a powerful one.

Don’t look at the small victories, aim high, try to find the next new big thing that will boost the business (or to your personal or professional life); because the highest growth rate of something minimal will always be a tiny thing: one it’s not worth fighting for.

2. Changing what is written in a business case won’t change the reality of the business.

The situation was not significantly different from the previous one. The same resourceful brand managers were trying to dope the numbers of a business case to make it work. As finance people, we would run different versions of those business cases, each with a slightly different assumption. Some were more robust than the others and some just unrealistic!

When the time came for him to look at those financials, he would discard the umpteenth version of the business case with a smirk on his face and would say the above phrase!

And my learning from that is that It’s entirely useless for sugarcoating something for the sake of it, the reality will always come out. I see also a less apparent invitation to be braver and early abandon projects that didn’t get a chance to pass to the next phase.

With my designer’s eyes, I cannot miss the relevance of this “fail early” lesson!

3. We’ll always find the budget for a good project

The “we don’t have the budget for this” has always been a constant in all the companies I’ve worked for. I know that many of you can relate and I bet a lot of you have come up, at least once in your life, with a very bright idea that would hopelessly be stopped by a boss merely saying: No, we don’t have the budget for this. My boss had a completely different view. A pioneer at this respect,   he was always open to considering new (sound and robust) projects.  The other side of the coin was that even though a project was in the budget, it didn’t automatically imply that you should go ahead with it. Every new initiative had to go through a financial assessment, and if the numbers were not satisfactory, then it was a “no go”. Basic concepts in the financial world but important ones.

For me, this was a gamechanger, and it would push me to keep an open mind and open eyes to be sure that the most promising initiatives would not fall through the cracks of the corporate organization. I felt empowered in asking more questions and in getting a deeper understanding of the projects I was presented.  This lesson was particularly useful when I moved to the Production Plant, where other more technical projects became part of my daily job.

My learning from this is that it’s easy to say no to the new bold idea when it’s something derailing from the preset path. On the other hand, it requires a lot more work and guts to say yes to something new but unknown. You have to be brave. 

Even after so many years, I tell and re-tell the above stories because they’ve always meant a lot to me; they’re part of my “founding” story as professional.

Though I think that the most important lesson I’ve learnt from my first boss comes from his behaviours. He was never at this desk and was always amidst his team, ready to challenge but also to support. And I want to summarize this in the following words:

Go out and talk to the people. Go where things happen. Be the protagonist of the show and not a spectator!

And you, what did you learn from your first boss?

Check out the other posts in the “Lessons Learnt” series:

A deal with the devil – Lessons learnt from skiing

The perfect recipe – Lessons learnt from cooking and baking

Fairies, adventures and other stories – Lessons learnt from reading fiction novels