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The Southern California Job Market : Making It Work : Is the Boss an Ogre? Take Heart--You're Not Alone

March 07, 1994|KRISTINA LINDGREN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the ripe old age of 24, White House aide Andrew Friendly knows all about tough bosses.

With television news cameras whirring, he has been berated by President Clinton on an airport Tarmac in Vail, a golf course in Arkansas and a porch in the nation's capital.

Friendly is still in the high-profile job, which White House observers say makes up for the public abuse, especially considering that Clinton is given to hasty, if private, apologies.

Cindy Velasquez, now a successful advertising account executive, also felt the sting of an intimidating taskmaster early in her days at a Denver television station. The former boss, whom she won't identify, once called her "Teresa Taco" and sent her on paid leave in her eighth month of pregnancy, saying he was afraid she'd have her baby in the office hallway.

She persevered, cultivated mentor relationships with others at the station--and ultimately outlasted her boss.

Most everyone has known a Boss From Hell. They can be the creative but exasperating detailer, the control freak or the intimidator intent on proving his or her superiority. Then there is the manipulator who says you're empowered, then proceeds to second-guess your decisions, or the opaque one who expects you to read his or her mind, then doles out demerits when you guess wrong.

Been there, you say? Done it? Don't want to experience it again?

Odds are you will, say human resource experts. In today's tougher economic times, companies may be downsizing, but workplace stress is multiplying. Squeezed between investors anxious for increased productivity and profits and employees anxious to learn how to meet those expectations, even the most benign of bosses can turn into a take-no-prisoners Darth Vader.

"It's too much of a buyer's market out there today, and the employers are the buyers," said Pat Allen, a Southern California psychotherapist and communications specialist. The market is "glutted with prospective employees, people so desperate for a job that they will take disrespect, disregard, snide remarks."

People like Kathryn Besemer.

Besemer's strategy for dealing with Steve Jobs, the perfectionist founder of Apple Computer and Next Computer in California's Silicon Valley who is renowned for temper tantrums, was to anticipate Jobs' every demand, then comply. The same strategy, she adds, also works with Mo Siegel, the visionary Colorado herb collector who helped found Celestial Seasonings Inc.

"Most people aren't so difficult. If you watch them, you can figure out what they want, what they value," said Besemer, who worked for Jobs at both Apple and Next and is now a vice president at the Boulder-based herbal tea company.

For example, Besemer spent countless hours culling through nearly 40 shades of green before divining the exact one Jobs envisioned as the corporate color for his extravagant unveiling of the Next Computer at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall in 1988.

"People call it 'Steve's Green' or 'Next Green,' but that green was important; it had to be a rich color," she said. "For a lot of people, green is green, they don't care. But Steve cares. And I tell people, if the chairman of the company cares, then it's your job to care too."

Besemer, who left Next a few years after picking Steve's Green, said she never got into shouting matches like other Jobs employees, because she would tell Jobs that she was making an honest effort to understand and clarify what was in the perfectionist boss's mind.

Jobs "is very driven, and he'll say, 'You just don't get it!' . . . If you can't wrap your mind around something, that's when he gets most frustrated," she said. "But if he thought you were genuinely trying to understand, if you said, 'Steve, I'm trying to get it, help me with this,' then he would hang in there with you."

Many say the need for teamwork in the '90s and beyond will force mean and exploitative bosses out of the marketplace. Maybe so. But don't hold your breath.

"If the boss is a jerk, the type who yells and screams, then a lot of this stuff doesn't matter," said Richard A. Moran, author of the book "Never Confuse a Memo With Reality" and an organizational change expert for Price Waterhouse in San Francisco. "You have to grin and bear it until the boss leaves or you do."

Compliance as a way of manipulating the boss into feeling in control is often the only answer short of quitting or being fired, said psychotherapist Allen, who has offices in Century City and Newport Beach. Allen calls it a form of seduction, a means of defanging intimidators, if only temporarily.

"What you're doing is buying time," Allen said, "playing the game for a little while as you look around for a better situation."

Stephen J. Scheier, another Apple alumnus who now advises corporations on change and improvement, distinguishes between bosses who are out for No. 1 and those whose passion is for the success of the organization. In dealing with the latter, he offers some tips:

First, understand what motivates him or her. Then, if at all possible, support that vision. Many people have disagreed with a hard-nosed boss and paid the price.

But Scheier believes it's worth the risk to stand up for your ideas or convictions--provided you can back them up. "These are dominant personalities who are . . . looking for people who won't be a speed bump," he said.

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