I had a long phone call with a friend this afternoon. My former boss, actually.

For about five years while I was with Verizon, I had the privilege of working for Nita Awatramani, a woman whom I consider to be one of the three most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Although it took some time to find the rhythm of being on her team, it was an excellent working experience once I figured out the often frenetic pace of the job.

The two things I admire most about Nita is that she’s both fair and uncompromising. On the surface that may seem like a contradiction, but I think it’s commonplace for anyone who has a mastery of seeing beyond the surface and understanding the nuance of a situation. It’s what made her an effective manager and what, I am sure, makes her excel in her role as a thought leader in the area of Information Security.

Fair in that she would always set the expectations of the goal or deliverable, provide the resources needed to achieve the expectations, and then give me the bandwidth to go do my job. Sometimes that bandwidth would stretch outside the typical nine-to-five, Monday through Friday, but working additional hours was part of the job and was folded into the expectations.

Uncompromising in that when I failed, I knew in no uncertain terms I had failed. There were occasions where the directness of the conversation took me aback or caught me off guard, but I learned so much from those moments and it drove me to be better. And as time passed, I did get better and those moments deserving reprimand for my performance became almost non-existent.

Through it all, our relationship only grew stronger. What started as strictly an employee-boss relationship became a friendship, one that allowed us to pick up the phone after not having had direct contact in over three years and have an hour-long chat.

In speaking with Nita, we talked about our time together at Verizon, how some things have changed, and how most, unfortunately, have not. We also discussed our individual perspectives of where the average work environment is, she providing aspects into the familiar IT sector, me providing my experiences with a religious non-profit and a church. Although the operational aspects of these are varied and different, it turns out there are some similarities, those being the dynamics of good and bad management.

In the end, she concluded it’s sad to see what she perceives as the celebration of mediocrity. The good and average is so accepted, it’s rare to see managers push for the great and the excellent. My summary statement was more along the lines of managing to incompetence. Rather than raising the bar and challenging employees to do better, management avoids the uncomfortable conversation and settles for an unspectacular status quo. I think we were both saying the same thing but from two different perspectives.

This takes me back to Nita’s sense of being uncompromising. I know the skill sets I developed and the work ethic I provide would not be what they are today if not for Nita challenging me to not settle for good enough with my work. Nita always drove me to work beyond acceptable and strive for exceptional. It was hard and I didn’t always like it, but it was always worth it. Time and time again our team was the one best positioned to provide the necessary analysis, anticipate the upcoming requirements, and we were never – I mean NEVER – over budget.

I miss working in an environment like that, one where I am constantly challenged to learn and grow, and one where I need to sprint in order to keep up with the intellect and smartness of the other people in the room. We fostered relationship and friendship because we strove for excellence. Put another way, we did not operate at such a high level simply because we focused on our friendship. It was ironing sharpening iron. We made time, on occasion, to talk about family. We shared with each other what was going on in our respective lives. But first and foremost, we were there to work, and work we did.

I know not every organization is the same, and office/corporate culture varies so much across the spectrum of management. Still, it’s my experience that unless you strive for the best AND allow your people to work to do their best, the end result is always going to be second-best. You may have some fun in the process, but fun is no substitute for fantastic.

In speaking with Nita, it was nice to remember what fantastic feels like.

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