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Loves Me, Loves Me Not

While everyone may know that being the boss is no popularity contest, one CEO explains how that affects her.
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Everybody knows that being the boss is no popularity contest. But it can be hard to keep giving orders and still feel good about yourself

I spend an inordinate amount of time second-guessing myself, and I wonder if other company presidents do the same. At work I'll insist that something be done better: a seam must be sewn straighter, a color has to be more pure. And then as I walk away I'll cringe and wonder if my employees hate me. I'll often search out someone I trust and ask, "Did I go too far? Was I too mean?" I can never be entirely sure that I've been that perfect boss -- kind, yet firm.

Nowadays I'm more direct and specific, and if I don't like what someone did, I don't dress the criticism up in a lot of flowers. But I wonder if I'll ever be comfortable in my skin. I do my duty, I do what I have to do to protect my company and my customers (or sometimes to protect our other employees), but then I walk away and think, "Oh my God, I can't believe I said that!"

Those moments are part of learning how to be comfortable as a company president. Being in charge is a calling, and it takes a kind of talent (whether you have the title or not). I was really shy as a child, and the leftover shyness makes being blunt even harder. But caring so intensely helps me to see more, to analyze better, and to insist that we do better and better in making our product, three-wheeled baby strollers for joggers. The standard has to be great strollers -- not just OK strollers.

That talent (or curse) to see clearly and care deeply that things are right used to scare me. My ex-husband (who's still my business partner) was fond of telling me how controlling I was. But he has never cared the way I do about the details. The first time I realized that something was right with me, rather than wrong, was when I sought counseling to help handle the stress involved in running my business during rapid growth. I talked about how uncomfortable I'd been after an incident regarding the color of fabric samples. I was so worried that the people I worked with viewed me as obnoxious.

We had just been starting to have our own dye lots, to get the pure, bright colors we loved, like teal, cranberry, and grape. Someone showed me the lab dip, and it was a shade different from what we had picked from the Pantone color chart. Our purchasing agent came to me and said that labs just couldn't get it perfect. I thought for a moment and then suggested we send it back. We did -- three times. The third sample was perfect, just bang-on correct against our original Pantone slip. To this day we teach our fabric suppliers that we'll be very nice about it, but we'll send things back and send them back again until they're right.

It was a small incident but an example of how I was getting the reputation of being very insistent, which bothered me. My counselor asked if I had ever heard of the "just-noticeable difference." I hadn't. She said it was a scientific term, like the difference between a microscope enlarging things 100 times and 125 times. She said that I must somehow see more shades of color -- or feel more acutely the degree of balance in a stroller handle -- than other people do. She told me it was a gift, this ability, and suggested I talk to my managers about their taking advantage of it rather than avoiding showing me things for fear I would notice that something might be off. My jaw dropped open. I'd never thought my wanting things to be better and purer was a gift.

Just yesterday a manager and I talked about some mesh for a canopy hood. I asked if we had gotten the new ultra-violet-light-inhibiting mesh for the canopy. He said he'd found something that looked like the other product, and it would probably screen out UV rays just fine. And I said, of course, that we should get the real thing, that screening out a bit more UV light for maybe $2 in cost per stroller would help prevent sunburn and was an important selling point. And I'll get my way.

Now, should I have called a meeting and listened more while some members of my staff tried to talk me out of this? We talk about everything in our company, and 70% of the time we do things by consensus. But someone has to be the leader. Someone has to be slightly crazed, obsessive, and willing to set a high standard. Someone has to be the butthead! Being president is not a popularity contest -- I've known that for a long time. It's just that sometimes it makes me sad. The mere fact that I have say-so, that in the long haul I'm the boss, no matter how much I couch it in friendship, means I'll always be a little apart from the employees. I can't be their buddy and then the next day insist that they do something over again because it isn't right.

So I bounce back and forth, being tougher than I have ever been, throwing fits if the shop is dirty or if we don't answer the phones quickly in the office, and then wondering if my personal drive is in conflict with the open, semidemocratic company I think I want. Until this year I would have been more polite, asking repeatedly, listening to all the reasons we couldn't do a job right, and assuming that if my employees couldn't or wouldn't do it, the fault was mine and perhaps I had been unclear or failed to provide a lovely environment. Now if I trip over a damned box one more time, it's going to be really unpleasant for whoever left that box in a walkway!

The turning point for me came at a seminar on quality for managers given by the Ritz-Carlton chain. Chief operating officer Horst Schulze dropped in unannounced and spoke to us. As he paced around, bursting with fire and energy, I caught a glimpse of the me that I wanted to be. He wasn't dignified or staid. He had absolute passion about the size of the soap bars and the grade of cotton in his sheets and couldn't stand it if they weren't right. He hinted that he might be difficult to work for, that he might not be a great listener because he can see exactly the best way to do something, how to always serve the customer. There was a crackle in the atmosphere around him, and I understood how this one man's passion had made its way to just about 14,000 Ritz-Carlton employees. Each one has a certain buzz, and I'm sure that buzz originates with Horst Schulze.

I sat there in a happy epiphany, and for a moment I saw where I was and where I wanted to go. The ability to see clearly, the longing to do one thing very well, was a gift I'd never fully accepted. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I wanted to be liked. Yet my talent, my passion, was always pushing its way into my business dealings. Asking people to do their greatest work is not the same as accepting them as they are, and it doesn't make them feel comfortable.

A few years ago when my company was in trouble I was criticized by more experienced businesspeople, and I almost lost my gift. I remember how desperate I felt when the financial crisis was over, and yet I had not lost my desire to do wonderful things, to make the best strollers on earth. My big and grand dreams are like a clear blue spot in a gray sky. When I was criticized constantly, that blue dot shrank down to a tiny pinprick in a dark, gray world. But Schulze helped turn me around. I would guess that his blue spot is as big as the sky, and his employees are enveloped in it. If there is one gift I would give to my company, it would be that we live in that large blue sky. And that would be my gift to my own heart -- to say this is who you really are, that it's all right to be this way, that you don't have to hide it anymore.

* * *

Mary Baechler is president of Racing Strollers, a $7-million manufacturer in Yakima, Wash.




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