Goodbye to the best boss I’ve ever had

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– I heard that you quit your job – the words echoed in my ears. It was a call from Michael.

“How on earth did he already know?” – I thought. “It must have been our Lebanese friend who told him. He was the only person who knew.”

– Yes, that’s true. The message was being distributed very fast.

– Well… I’ve been thinking about us working together for a long time. Would you like to join us for some time until you find a new job?

– I think we can try. But I want to think things through, so I can only work part-time.

– Okay.

It was February 2016 and the person calling me was Michael.

We were dear friends for about 7 years and had worked together in 2 other businesses. And the 3rd was apparently on its way. He had started a company with his fiancée. Their business baby – ExplainVisually – was the first whiteboard animation studio in Poland.

Their first-ever client was Carlsberg which was really impressive. And I became their first full-time employee. My job was to do all the things they didn’t have time to. Which meant mostly marketing and talking with the new clients.

They had been doing such a great job before that they didn’t need to do any marketing. The clients were just coming after them having seen their work.

But now they wanted to take it to the next level. And so it started.

In March, I made an analysis of their marketing strategy and proposed one of mine. We started the execution. The major obstacle for the business was the lack of time. Michael and Klaudia had to focus on operations.

Very soon we found out that we needed more people.

In June, we made an out-of-the-box recruitment campaign. Thanks to Klaudia’s incredible creativity and charm it ended up being a staggering success. Later on, our Case Study from this campaign was cited by numerous HR portals and websites.

Everything looked pretty good. And then came that one day in August.

It was a nice sunny day when Michael told me we needed to make changes. Summer was always very hard for the business but this time we also had to cover the office costs and my salary. The company’s account balance meant we desperately needed more clients.

We went out with Klaudia for a picnic near our building. Sitting on a blanket on the green grass with dogs playing around, the hard topic of our discussion didn’t seem that hard. We went through our main problems and possible solutions.

It turned out that business looked good on some metrics but we didn’t get enough sales. Michael convinced me that we needed to focus on other things. Even if they’re much harder to do and don’t give the pleasant fast reward.

I worked hard on content marketing and better customer care. Michael, Klaudia, and our new team members gave their heart and soul to deliver top-quality projects. It was a tough year. But at the end of the year we managed to double our revenue.

I understood then that in business you need to focus on things which give you results and ignore flashy metrics that look attractive but don’t work well.

***

During this time, Michael often only responded to my e-mails after a couple of hours or even days. He was taking care of video editing, talking with clients, and managing the projects. When the sun was shining and the weather was good he also took his flying lessons.

I told him we needed to work this out since we needed to expand our marketing. And I needed his decisions to move further. He told me that it can wait. I was angry. My job was to acquire as many good clients as I could. And he was limiting my efforts.

It took me a while to realize that people had been coming to our company because of our great product. Not marketing. And if we fail on delivery of the product the marketing is bound to fail as well.

At the end of that year we had a very challenging project. It was the biggest project in the history of our company. We had to conduct market research, do conceptual work with numerous experts, and of course deliver before the deadline.

During the first days of e-mail exchange with a client, I got really furious.

I was sitting near my desk whining about how bad this client was and how they change their mind all the time. Michael listened and agreed on some things but didn’t comment on others. The next day, Michael was going to a meeting with them. He asked if I wanted to join him. I refused. But he insisted. “Go. Please. It will help” – he said.

I joined him. A couple of minutes into the meeting it became clear that our clients were actually really nice and competent people and all the tension went away. Suddenly I understood what Michael had meant to do. He wanted me to see the humans behind the e-mails. The whole relationship changed so dramatically that later he let me manage that project.

***

Thanks to Klaudia and Michael, the business meetings were really nice. We were often seeing corporate managers, directors, sometimes even members of the board. But all of the ice melted once we started because we cared enough to see the people behind the titles. And I learned that if you’re competent enough, you can joke and have a lot of fun during the meetings.

Over the past 1,5 years, we’ve had a lot of internal meetings as well. I came up with many ideas and Michael was often shutting them down with a smile. I had to admit that he had a point.

It taught me that if you go to a meeting don’t just throw ideas. You need to think them through. If you do this you don’t go to a meeting with ideas. You go to a meeting with good ideas.

It was very helpful. Every time I had an idea I prepared the pitch. When it went through Michael’s crossfire questions and he accepted it, I knew it was going to work out.

He was really open though. When I told him that I wanted to work 6 hours a day since I prefer to be ultra-productive for a shorter period of time he said: “Okay, let’s try”. We have tried together countless little creative experiments to push our company forward. Most of them didn’t work out. But the other few really paid off.

***

Sometime later, we had a little conflict with a client.

They were trying to accuse us of things we hadn’t done. Just typical e-mail politics, when someone wants to shift responsibility for problems while their boss is on cc. I was naïve back then.

I said:

– Michael, we are client-centric. We should do whatever we can to have this client. Let’s say it was our fault and then we won’t have any more problems.

– No. I feel bad about the fact that they accuse me of something I haven’t done.

He wrote a diplomatic yet quite straightforward email which pointed out the facts.

I was scared that it might be too harsh. But after some time, I understood.  We can afford to lose a client but we cannot afford to lose our dignity. There are situations when you simply can’t say yes.

I also remember my first huge mistake.

I was responsible for finding a digital marketing agency. I prepared thoroughly and screened them in the best manner I could. But it turned out that I had chosen really badly. The only thing that worked in their company was sending big invoices every month. We lost a lot of money due to my mistake. Since the company and our marketing budgets were small it was incredibly painful.

– I feel really bad at this decision – I said/

– Well… I’m glad you feel – he responded.

After that he never mentioned it again. He knew I felt responsible for it so he didn’t need to push further. We only joked about it a couple of times. He realized that you need to adjust the toughness of your communication to your interlocutor’s ability to catch the point.

***

Which reminds me of the story that helped me to change my attitude towards the communication.

We were very tight deadline. I was nervous since I didn’t get the response from Michael fast enough. I called him saying “What the fuck Michael? I need this right now!”. I heard silence in response. After a few long seconds, he said: “I know you need it and I’m going to take care of it but I don’t think we should talk like this”.

I was shocked. When emotions went out I got the point. Only when we have enough respect for each other can we work efficiently when the hard times come.

And Michael understood it. He was always a little bit introverted. Some might say even phlegmatic. It turned out to be his advantage though. When clients were calling and we felt pressure, he didn’t panic. Even when he got nervous he always tried to think rationally. I learned that the harder the situation the less you should panic.

During this whole time, we were able to create a beautiful atmosphere in a company where we mixed artistic looseness with extreme professionalism. And it’s something we’re going to carry on.

Every quarter Michael and Klaudia made at least one video for NGO at the discounted price. I tried to wrap it up on our website’s “About Us” section with a clumsy line: We believe in doing good things.

Lately one of the NGOs e-mailed us. They wanted us to resend the videos as they couldn’t find them since their moving to Iraq.

When I told them that Michael died on 30.08.2017 as his glider crashed in a tragic accident near Warsaw’s airport they responded:

DCA worked with Michael on a project to protect innocent Syrian civilians, especially children, from explosive remnants of war.

The animation he produced was really excellent and the safety messages were very clear.

We hope to be able to save many lives in Syria through the dissemination of the animation and the sharing of its safety messages.

And that’s the moment when I really understood why doing good things matter.

Our team really liked you. We even made a Visual Goodbye for your funeral trying to catch the memories.

We haven’t been a Fortune 500 company but many of their managers could learn some lessons from you. I hope this text will inspire some people just like you inspired me.

Rest in Peace my friend.

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