book excerpt

Phoebe Robinson’s Guide to Being a Boss

An excerpt from the comedian’s new book.

Phoebe Robinson. Photo: Yavez Antonio
Phoebe Robinson. Photo: Yavez Antonio

Comedian, writer, and podcaster Phoebe Robinson has written a new collection of essays titled called Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, which hits stores on September 28. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from a chapter of the book called “Guide to Being a Boss From Someone Who Has Been Building a Mini Empire for Two Years and Counting,” in which Robinson reflects on her journey from working as a receptionist at New Line Cinema in 2006 to heading up her own production company — which expanded to include a book imprint, Tiny Reparations Books, at Penguin Random House in 2020 — and how she manages to juggle so much work at once. If you want the rest of the tips, well, you’ll just have to buy the book.

Being a Black woman and a boss is the shit! I know. I. Know. Despite all evidence displaying the multitude of the Black female experience, society is, more or less, content on boiling us down to an outdated and monolithic narrative that the BW in charge is nothing more than just breaking down one civil-rights barrier after another, delivering rousing speeches at the ready, and Negro-spiritual humming when the going gets rough. The common perception is that being a Black woman in a leadership role equals overcoming obstacles only to encounter more trials and tribulations, and while I didn’t believe that, I was still a bit anxious about what it would be like for me since I didn’t have personal examples to use as reference points. I’ve never had a Black female professor or high-school teacher. Same goes for never having a Black woman as a boss. Sadly, this is the norm, especially in entertainment.

Black women have so much to offer as bosses, but because of the constant negative media depiction of us, we are underpaid, disrespected, discriminated against when we’re clearly qualified, and, as a result, not considered for leadership positions. And outside of Shonda Rhimes, there weren’t a whole host of examples to call on, which not only saddened me, but fueled me to be the Black lady boss I didn’t have in my life.

I’m sharing what I’ve learned in the hopes that you will be a little less in the dark than I was years ago. Is some of what I’m about to tell you going to be ignorant or ignorantly presented? I think we all know the answer to that question. So thanks for signing up for this DeVry University version of Harvard Business School. Please note there are no refunds, I’m the only faculty member, my office hours are the minutes I spend waiting for my Lyft XL, and the only required reading on the class syllabus are my two previous books and Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, who filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Aww, Rob. Like Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast!” Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned from running businesses and building a mini-empire for two-plus years:

What Warren Buffett Should’ve Told Ya

No. 1: For Some of Your Employees, This Is Just a J-O-B.

This rule is not what any business owner wants to hear, but the sooner this reality is accepted, the more effective and successful you and your company will be. The truth is that no one on payroll, no matter how loyal, will ever, ever, ever care as much about your company as you do. Which means that, yes, for some of your employees, it is JUST. A. JOB. There will be times when they don’t want to be there, so they’ll occasionally call out sick, kill time surfing the internet or texting friends, or, yes, leave work early to go to a dentist’s appointment. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe anyone goes to the dentist. Fine. Maybe Lupita Nyong’o does, because her teeth are blindingly white. But for the rest of us? Uh-uh. No way.

Anyway, knowing that some of your employees are not emotionally invested in the success of your company can bruise the ego, but I beg you to remember: This. Is. Not. Personal. Most employees are not going to give 1,000 percent or maybe even 90 percent or 75 percent of themselves to a company, and why should they? The company does not have their DNA swirling up in its helixes, so there isn’t that unbreakable bond reminding them that, at the lowest points, it’ll be worth it. Sounds like common sense, but it’s easy to forget when you’re deep into the day-to-day.

You have to remember that your company is not your employees’ dreams. Some are in a financial pinch and need steady income to tide them over until they can either get back on their feet or find something better. For others, you and your company were the fallback option for the dream gig they didn’t land. And finally, there are those who legit heard everything you said the job did and didn’t entail, agreed to the terms, and then, when they started doing the job, made it clear that they don’t want to do said job and made it appear as though you pulled a rope-a-dope on them. This leads me to …

No. 2: Every Single Person Lies During a Job Interview, So Don’t Believe Everything They Say; Instead, Listen to Your Gut

Much like dating, in which you don’t really know the person you’re with until three months in when the honeymoon period is over and everyone stops acting on their best behavior, you don’t really know who you hired until they’ve been working for you for a while. Take me, for example: According to all my employers when they hired me, I had the typing skills of a court stenographer and could put together PowerPoint presentations like a modern-day Don Draper, and my biggest flaw was that I worked too hard. Cut to me having that job: I typed with a maximum of four fingers (and still do!), copying and pasting an image from the internet to a document stressed me the fuck out, and every day was senioritis as I generally went on autopilot shortly after lunch. But I said what I had to say in order to get the job, so why wouldn’t the candidates do the same to you?

I firmly believe most people aren’t lying to you out of malice. They have bills and responsibilities, and like you, they’re adulting, and unless they are a trust fund baby, they need money to live. So it only makes sense that they’ll present the most idealized version of themselves, even if it’s for a job they don’t really want. I write this not so you’ll turn into a distrustful person; rather, I want you to hone your gut instincts so that you’ll listen to your Spidey sense when a job candidate says or does something that doesn’t sit right with your spirit.

For all you current and soon-to-be bosses, let me save you a lot of strife and headache: Providing solid employment in exchange for a salary, perks, and health insurance is not a hoodwink. It is not your responsibility to make work feel like summer camp. If someone agrees to a job offer yet is unwilling to hold up their end of the bargain because it’s not glamorous or fun every second of the workday, they’re wasting your time, because you’re here for business and they clearly … aren’t.

No. 5: You Didn’t Get Into This to Dracarys a Bitch

Or maybe you did. I don’t know your life, but what I do know is acting a damn fool anytime anyone dares to breathe in a way you don’t approve of or behaving like a dictator will create not only a high turnover rate but an environment where your employees talk shit about you. For real, if your employees’ impersonation of you is so good that Lorne Michaels is booking them a window seat in economy plus so they can join the SNL cast, then you done fucked up and need to reexamine your draconian behavior. But let’s put a pin in a potentially bruised ego due to office trash talk because, frankly, that self-absorbed reason shouldn’t be the motivation behind the way you carry yourself at work. What should motivate you is making the decision about whether you want to be a boss or a leader and figuring out how best to execute that.

What I’ve observed in me and my friends’ experiences is that the typical boss just makes demands, caring only about the bottom line, and treating people as though they’re disposable. And I get it! Ruling with an iron fist and intimidation can get the desired results. Just look at dictatorships, politicians, and Jamaican hair braiders. But leaders, especially the successful ones (note that success is not limited to amassing wealth; I’m talking interpersonal skills, encouraging your employees to exceed their potential, etc.), are a different breed. Leaders are inspiring, make their employees feel like they’re in the fight with them, and show they care about more than the bottom line, all of which can cause their employees to exude the most coveted yet elusive quality: loyalty. I mean, who is loyal to a boss? No one? Maybe a few, but, truthfully, those few are loyal to what the boss represents and provides: money, power, and access.

No. 6: Ooooh, Child, Surround Yourself With People Who Will Keep It Real

This is pretty self-explanatory. Not every idea you’re going to come up with is going to be that next great idea that will elevate your company. In fact, some of your ideas will be shit. Straight-up clangers that make contact with every square inch of the toilet bowl on their way down the drain. And you need to have cultivated an environment and hired a person (or people) who knows that doing their job includes letting you know when you’re taking things down the wrong path. Obviously, this should be done with tact. No one’s asking for Real Housewives of New York City’s Bethenny Frankel energy, where you’re going to be roasted for jokes. But you do need to have someone who can challenge your thoughts and opinions because they have a different perspective than yours, which is probably part of the reason you hired them in the first place.

Now, yes-people, on the other hand? Sure, they’ll stick with you when the going is great and make you feel good with empty praise because everyone loves being around a winner. However, when you’re about to #StruggleBus it for a while, as all businesses are wont to do, these suck-ups are nowhere to be found. They’re either gone and onto their next meal ticket or standing silently when speaking up could turn things around. Now it’s up to you who you want in the trenches with you, but as for me, I’d gladly take someone who’s bold enough to tell me what I don’t want to hear if that information is in the best interest of my business, over a heaux paying me lip service and guiding me toward disaster because all they care about are the checks clearing (a.k.a. getting paid) and that they feel like they’re my “favorite.”

No. 7: Ask for Feedback

It’s not enough to have your employees’ input on the direction of the company; they also need to have input on you. Oh, you thought you were only going to give, and never receive, feedback? Like, you were just gonna hand out your customer reviews on what your employees need to tweak and improve and get nothing in return because … what? You’re infallible? Ya ain’t Black Jesus, walking on water or turning water into wine. At best, you’re turning water into Crystal Light, which no one asked for, so yeah, there are areas that you need to improve on. That’s why you better learn how to take critiques that, by the way, aren’t even going to be that harsh because your employees are nervous to say the wrong thing that, at best, will cause you to treat them negatively or, at worst, get them fired. Trust me, it’s way more difficult for them to give you feedback than for you to receive it. Still, it’s tough to hear constructive criticism.

In the beginning, every time my employees gave me criticism, I wanted to vomit. My skin got hot. My mind raced, as I felt like I was the worst boss and that my employees had already uploaded their résumés to because they were ready to leave. But that was my own shit. With time, my adverse reactions to hearing how my not-so-great tendencies affect those around me have lessened as I’ve learned to accept this truth: Not all feedback is negative or ill-intentioned. Now, if you’ve employed some messy folks who have ulterior motives and are whispering in your ear to manipulate you, then at least you found out you’ve been carrying an Iago on your payroll, but that’s not what’s happening in most cases. Your employees, when given the opportunity, want to help you get to the next level because it means they’re going with ya. That’s why I tend to end most meetings with “Is there anything that I can do that will make your job easier?”

No. 9: Understand What You’re Not Good At / What You Don’t Like Doing and Have Other People Do That Shit

Orgasms are great, but have you ever tried paying someone to do things you don’t wanna do and gained hours of your life back? I don’t know about y’all, but, to me, delegating feels like a rebirth. There’s nothing more counterproductive than bringing an “I ain’t really trying to fuck with this right now” vibe to tasks I loathe (expense reports, scheduling meetings across various time zones) or that aren’t my strong suit (super schmooze-y calls because I hate kissing butt to get what I want), because either I’ll make careless mistakes, I’ll take twice as long to get things done because I’m dragging my feet, or my negative energy will be a buzzkill for everyone around me. Believe me: Once you get to a place where you don’t have to do everything yourself, you shouldn’t, and instead, you should trust others to help take care of the smaller details so you can focus on the big picture, which is you being as successful as you’ve always dreamed. And to have free time making curated U2 playlists for your friends even though they didn’t ask for them. Just me?

No. 10: Your Employees Don’t Have to Like All Your Decisions, But They Gotta Respect Them

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted L.A. Gear sneakers. I don’t know why, but I had my heart set on owning a pair of shoes in which the soles lit up like a Times Square billboard every time I took a step. So I asked my parents, and they politely said, “Hell no,” and told me my Keds Champion leather shoes would suffice. True, but I was 10! I didn’t want sensible-ass sneakers! I wanted something that looked dope and oozed suburban wealth. None of that fazed my parents, and they held steadfast to the opinion that their money would be better spent on food, mortgage, and other practical bills. Sure, I was annoyed for maybe a week or two, tops, but I didn’t act a fool. I simply got over my disappointment, put on those Keds, and played with my classmates. And if my parents weren’t wholly confident in shooting me down (they probably were since they’re not label people, so, if anything, L.A, Gear’s popularity only made them more inclined to decline what I was asking for), they didn’t show it because they knew that buying me whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it, could turn me into a shallow person.

This is what you have to understand when you’re the boss. You’re going to call some shots or do things your employees won’t like. They have to get over it, and you have to get over the fact that you’re going to disappoint some people, because guess what? Sometimes what’s in the best interest of your business will be at odds with what your employees want, and that’s okay. Your company cannot be run by committee, so you’ve got to make the executive decisions. And if you want to explain the reasoning behind the choices you make (and more often than not, I think you should) so your staff understands your thought process, gets a sense of when you’re open to taking risks and when you’re not, and can have a better grasp of how they can come up with ideas that align with your vision, do it. Still, there’ll be times when you’ll want to go a different way. Your employees have two options: They can lick their wounds and get on board with Keds, or they can be rude, dismissive, and demand L.A. Gear — and you can try to find a solution or agree to part ways if they’re incapable of respecting your authority. Either way, what matters most is that you set the tone and they follow it. Basically, you’re Kirk Franklin, they’re the choir, and y’all about to perform the fuck out of “Melodies From Heaven.” Good luck!

Well, I hope this provided some guidance on how you can operate your own business. I know there’s a lot to figure out, and it will always be a lot because there is always more to learn, tweak, experience. The magic is not in doing it how Warren Buffett or Shonda Rhimes or I have done it, but in customizing the rules to fit your wants and needs.

Some leaders have zero interest in conquering the world; they just want to monetize a passion or skill set and have a nice living and be a part of their small-business community. Others have grand designs on changing the industry they’re in or leaving a mark on history or pushing the conversation forward. Whatever the case may be, just do your work and create a legacy you’ll be proud of, and if grit, determination, creativity, and the occasional fantasy about destroying your life in spectacular fashion are what’s needed to get the job done, you’re my kind of CEO. Let’s chat.

But not on Zoom, please. If I get a Zoom invite from you, I will definitely fake my own kidnapping.

Excerpt from PLEASE DON’T SIT ON MY BED IN YOUR OUTSIDE CLOTHES by Phoebe Robinson with permission from Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.  Copyright © 2021 by Phoebe Robinson.

Bitch, Champion where? Y’all, do a quick Googs of “Keds Champion leather sneaker,” look at that shoe, and tell me what championship that shoe represents? Keds is messy as hell to name this shoe that when it should be called “participation ribbon for doing the bare minimum of showing the fuck up.”
Phoebe Robinson’s Guide to Being a Boss