where the writers are
Good Bosses vs. Bad
Color Tile

There is one person that most of us have—a boss—and as I’ve heard from close friends recently, most of those bosses are just not great. These bosses do not fire up the workplace or make anyone feel secure. They’re not empathetic or willing to fight for them or clever in how to raise morale. They micromanage, allowing little freedom in how to get a job done.

A National Public Radio story a while back gave some great examples of the worst bosses ever. There was the finger snapper, the insensitive boss, and the boss who sent threatening emails including, “Listen, Goddamit, and I am deadly serious... Your damn bonus next year won't buy you a cheese sandwich if (production) doesn't turn around.”

This has made me think about my first great boss. I’ve had four particularly great bosses over the years, including one at CalArts and the present chair of Santa Monica College’s English Department. Three of them have been women.

My first great boss, though, was a guy named Bob who was the manager of the Color Tile store in Woodland Hills, California. I was twenty-seven, having just returned from living in a trailer park in Alabama where I’d started a mini-mart with a friend from Pennsylvania. Neither of us had been to the South. That had been an adventure.

Upon returning to California, I was in need of money and a job, and I was ready to take about anything. I had a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and psychology, which got me nowhere. My resume showed only that I had worked in two camera stores and a mini-mart. I knew nothing of tile, but I found Color Tile’s ad. Bob saw potential in me. Color Tile wasn’t the usual tile store that caters to contractors. Color Tile was for do-it-yourselfers.

My job would be two-fold: sell people on ceramic or self-stick tile and then teach them how to install it. After hiring me, Bob taught me how to plan out a job, cut tile, lay it down with epoxy or thin-set mortar using a notched trowel, add grout, seal it, and more. To test me, he had me build several displays.

The selling was the hardest thing, and my selling magazines door-to-door as a teenager came back to me. It’s important to listen, then try to meet the needs of a potential customer with what you can sell, and be professional and reassuring. In large part, we were selling beauty. Tile would improve our customers’ lives.

It wasn’t a glorious job, and I was one of five salesmen. We worked six days a week—sometimes seven if someone was sick. We had to wear pressed shirts and ties. Our sales totals were watched closely, and if one’s sales were poor a couple weeks in a row, Bob might have to let that person go. After all, Bob’s store’s sales were monitored, and his boss, who oversaw six Color Tile stores, would get nervous if someone wasn’t performing.

In short, everything was going against this being a good job, but Bob always made it “Us vs. Them,” with “them” being the corporate world of Tandy Corp, Color Tile’s owners. Bob gave great football-coach-type speeches every Saturday morning when we all came in an hour early. He’d say how we had a good sense of color, how he’d received happy calls from customers, and how our sales could beat all the other stores in the West. He’d often pull each of us aside to say what we were doing right, even if we didn’t have the biggest sale recently. He’d tell us what we might do better. He made it clear how he appreciated us.

He also showed us things to do that most Color Tile stores didn’t do. If we didn’t have enough of a particular tile, we’d call around to other stores, find it, then drive to the other stores when we weren’t working to pick it up, even though we wouldn’t be reimbursed for time or gas. If a customer didn’t like Color Tile’s selections, we were free to show them competitors’ tile, buy it at a contractor’s price, and resell it. If customers felt overwhelmed installing the tile themselves, we had a half dozen contractors we’d recommend who did wonderful jobs and on time.

And know what? Our store was one of the consistently top-rated ones in the country. Even though our store was smaller than many others, a few times we had the highest sales in the West. When we did, Bob would have us all over to his house where he and his wife would cook us lobsters. Color Tile was a consuming job, yet somehow Bob made us feel important and good about ourselves.

In fact, it was with that can-do sense that I showed Bob and the other salesmen some of my short stories that I was always writing. They loved them. They thought I could become a writer. After working at Color Tile for more than a year, I applied to grad school for creative writing. That led to freelancing while in school and then to being a senior editor at a publishing company.

My life changed for the better, thanks to Bob. Thank you, wherever you are.