A D Ackerman
My Best Boss
I have had a number of “bosses” in my lifetime, as I am sure you have as well. Even if you remained at the same company or organization for many years, likely your position changed or your boss changed.
When I think back to the single person who had the most dramatic impact on who I was then and who I was destined to become, there is one person who always comes to mind.
Unfortunately, he is no longer in this world, so he won’t know that I am writing this tribute to him. But I know, and that is all that really matters.
Dr. David H. Smith was the Chair of the Department of Pediatrics in Rochester, NY, where I went to learn Pediatrics (my pediatric internship and residency) following my graduation from medical school. David (I always called him DR. Smith in those days) was a well-known researcher in pediatric infectious diseases, and worked on vaccine development in his lab, in addition to performing his clinical, teaching, and administrative duties. Most people were afraid of him. He had an impressive intellect, and a high standard for performance and behavior. As an intern and resident, I had the opportunity to work with him on the general pediatric ward and to spend time in conferences trying to answer his very difficult and always insightful and important questions.
Was I always correct?
No. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
But I was never afraid to try to answer and state my thoughts on what could be done in the best interest of the particular patient under discussion.
After completion of the required 3 years of Pediatric residency training, I was asked by my program to stay on as the “Senior Pediatric Chief Resident.” In this role I had responsibility for many of the administrative issues related to making the residency as well as the clinical services run. In addition, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Smith regularly—usually monthly. In these meetings we would discuss the state of the residency program, and each of us would raise whatever issues we had for the other in terms of making the program work as well as possible. I would “pick his brain” regarding some ideas I had to improve teaching by the residents for the medical students and junior residents/interns, and he would tell me about problems that others had reported to him so we could brainstorm approaches that might work. I never failed to learn important concepts of leadership from every interaction we had. He was an incredible mentor. He asked me a lot of questions designed to make me think for myself, to help me know myself better, and to design my own solutions for various problems. In retrospect he was using many coaching tools, but we didn't call it coaching in those years.
During this time, he was also working in the lab with a team of scientists to develop a vaccine against a bacterium that caused a great deal of harm to children, called Haemophilus influenzae type b (abbreviated Hib). This infection typically caused meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord and the spinal fluid) in young children, and epiglottitis (a swelling of the epiglottis that would close off the opening to the trachea (the wind pipe) in older children. Both diseases were often devastating, and killed, or permanently harmed those who were infected. The problem with the bacterium was that children under 2 years of age did not form antibodies to it (even if they had survived the actual infection) and all vaccines that had been attempted failed in that age group. Dr. Smith and his coworkers invented a process to attach the elements of the bacterial wall to a protein that would initiate a robust immune response, even in very young children. That process later became the standard for making vaccines against the type of bacteria that have the same type of cell wall as Hib. But before the vaccine could be made and given to children it had to be tested to ensure safety and efficacy. In fact, before the new style of vaccine could be tested, its precursor, made of the bacterial cell wall had to be tested in the U.S. It had already been tested in Finland, and worked well.
At the point that I was getting ready to finish my chief resident year, Dr. Smith was about ready to start testing the vaccine in American children, decided to leave the university and start his own company, specifically to manufacture the vaccines once they were fully licensed by the FDA. It could not be licensed here unless he could submit appropriate data to the FDA.
I was going to remain in Rochester for another year while my husband finished his Surgery residency, and I had spoken to Dr. Smith about what I could do during that year. During one of our typical mentoring conversations, he casually suggested that I could become the “director of clinical research” at his company, Praxis Biologics.
It would be my responsibility to oversee the testing of this vaccine in American children, collect the data, perform the statistics, and submit the final application to the FDA to obtain licensure.
I was flabbergasted. This was so important. How could he trust me to do something so important, so critical? I had never done any significant research before. Why me?
This is when he told me that he knew me. He knew my work ethic. He knew that I would not allow any data to get lost, or any mistakes to be made. He knew that I would learn all I could in order to perform this part of the research.
He taught me that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have the particular skills that were required. He knew that I would develop them in the process of doing my job.
And he was right.
We were successful in getting the vaccine licensed and that, in turn led to a major decrease in the incidence of meningitis and epiglottitis caused by Hib over the next decades. Now this bacterial disease is exceedingly rare. And I was given the gift of playing some small role in its eradication.
That changed my life. I developed the courage to attempt anything I wanted to do in life. It doesn’t matter if I don’t already know how to do something; I know that I can learn. It has helped me to remain curious about the unknown, and to rely upon my creativity in seeing things differently than others may.
This experience also taught me that it's much more important to see the whole person, rather than rely solely upon their skills. Surely, I wouldn’t hire someone who had never developed the requisite skill set. But given a baseline degree of competency, I look for drive, integrity and persistence in those I have hired over the years.
This experience also showed me how to be a good boss. Believing in your employee, trusting them to deliver what is needed instills in them the commitment to get the job done, and to do it right.
In fact, as a coach, I see now that being is so much more important than doing. I coach people, I don't coach skills or jobs. I want to see who you are and that in turn will inform and sculpt what you do and how you do it.
What about you? Have you had a boss (or anyone) whose belief in you led to your being able to achieve outcomes you might not have thought you could do before?
How heavily do you rely on a candidate meeting certain skill parameters, and how much do you rely upon the essence of who they are?
What other thoughts do you have about what makes a boss good or bad? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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