Challenge and Breakthrough

In 1985 I was hired by a national training company to be their accounting manager. I was thrilled, except I knew. I was not really qualified for the job. While I’d spent the prior 7 years in banking, most of that time as a lending officer, and it was true that I had some accounting education, and knew how to read financial reports, I had never actually managed anyone doing accounting! When I was offered the job I confidently said yes, but inside I was terrified! I wasn’t really sure if I’d be able to do the job.

In my first few months I made more mistakes than I care to admit, but they didn’t fire me. My boss had given me a job description, which we went over carefully when I was first hired. My responsibility was to do that job, and specifically, to produce the results as outlined in the job description. He went over it carefully with me and even had me sign it. That was our ‘agreement’ with one another

As I made mistakes, he’d let me fail at the level where the risks were not too great; and allowed me to learn from my mistakes by having to fix them myself. As I conquered various areas of my job, he challenged me to take on more, and to become better.

School was never something I had enjoyed but under these conditions learning felt different – it had relevance and applicability—and I became a learner. I began to see how what I contributed to the whole of the organization. I was able to see how what I did helped the company make good decisions, and I could see how if I produced inaccurate information, it hampered their ability to do that well.

Through it all, my boss held me accountable to that agreement we made when I first started; financial statements to management by the 10th of the month; cash flow reports due Monday by 3:00 PM; check runs to be done on Thursdays. While I found it hard to keep up, I knew what was expected of me.

When I didn’t meet deadlines, my boss would ask me “So what do you think is the source of this problem?” He explained “breakdowns rarely happen in the moment with the exception of natural disasters, so what could you have done differently in your planning to manage work flow better in order to get things done in the agreed upon time or get them done accurately?” In this questioning we identified where I was missing skills, which contributed to my slowness, and then we found some courses I could take to improve. I started looking for ways to plan my time better too. While he was patient, he never moved the goal post. He didn’t let up on the standards we originally agreed upon.

While he was patient, he wasn’t the perfect boss. There were times when he was relentless, and I was resentful, but at the same time, I was learning a ton, and my confidence was building. The one thing that was clear– he was committed to my doing well – and in the end, that was what mattered the most.

Within six months I was meeting my job responsibilities, and producing at the level that my job dictated. Around that time they asked me to take on the job of controller. Again, I took the job terrified that I wouldn’t be able to live up to their expectations. This time the job description outlined higher stakes – budgeting, forecasting, financial analysis. All topics I knew something about, but didn’t have the depth of experience I need to do the job.

As with the job of accounting manager, I made my share of mistakes, but this time I knew more about what to expect. What I most appreciated was that he never held me as less than competent. He let me know he believed I was someone who had the potential to learn and do great things. Every time he gave me a new challenge and I protested I didn’t know how to do this or that, he’d say “great! – go learn how.” Thankfully he made resources available to me for training and education, and made time for me when I needed him to teach me.

And so this is how it went for five years. Sometimes it was exhausting, but I felt alive and realized I could do anything! My realization gave me the courage to go back to school and complete my degree in business and finance. The year I left their employ to have my son, I started my own business – that was 26 years ago. I have never regretted that choice a single day in my life. It’s not to say it has not been without challenges – but that experience allowed me to know I had the ability to overcome those challenges.

What really worked about how that manager was with me?

  • He gave me a clear set of guidelines for how to “win the game” – a job description that outlined specific results
  • He held me accountable to those results, and communicated with me regularly about them
  • He challenged me to continue to grow and learn, and not just settle for good enough

The greatest gift we can give a person is to believe in the possibility of who they are. To not be afraid to challenge them, and see what they CAN do instead of what they can’t do. The next time you have an opportunity to work with someone, ask yourself what is possible, instead of looking at all the limitations that person brings. Ask yourself, how you can empower that person to their highest level of greatness?

Being clear about what is expected and getting agreement on that is the first step. By using job descriptions that are results driven you can start to craft a game plan where people know the criteria for “winning the game” with you. That and continual feedback are two tools that will help you build great teams!

Make it an extraordinary day!



  1. Larry Wendt

    Great article, Vicki!