Lessons From My Secret Journal

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For 25 years, I kept a “Secret Journal” at work, with notes about people I worked with over the years. 

Today, I’m making it public.

I kept a Secret Journal with entries about people I worked with during my career.  Today, I'm making it public. Click To Tweet

I titled my journal “Lessons Learned From Bosses”, and gave myself a self-imposed challenge to learn 6 lessons from everyone I worked for:

  • 3 positive attributes I wanted to apply in my own life.
  • 3 negative attributes I was hoping to avoid.

The lessons were learned primarily through the behavior of my bosses, though at times I also captured relevant quotes.  If I saw my boss doing something that made people cringe, or I found demotivating, I’d add it to the “negative” list.   If they did something well or made a comment that motivated me, it went on the “positive” list. Sometimes, I’d take the opposite of a negative I had observed, and write it as a positive.

I enjoyed keeping this journal throughout my career.

Today, I’m excited to make it public.

secret journal

Below, I share some of the best lessons from my Secret Journal, with names withheld to protect the innocent. 

Note To All:  Be Self-Aware. Others are observing you.  The words you say, and the actions you take, make an impact on those around you. I’m not the only one who is affected by a boss’s behaviors at work.  Someone who works with you may even be keeping their own secret journal…

We all have positive and negative attributes.  Be introspective, and continually seek to improve the way you interact with others.  Add to your positives, and work to minimize your negatives.  Over time, you may just become a better boss and a better person.

(Side Note:  Images are dancing through my head as I type these words.  Many of the folks I worked with are readers of this blog, and I suspect they’ll be trying to figure out what I learned from whom.  Have fun, folks, but I’ll warn you in advance that you’re attempting an impossible task.  For fun, I did include a few hints on those lessons where I felt it appropriate to indicate the source.  I suspect many of you will hear my voice in some of these lessons, as I applied the lessons and gave them as advice to others.  Now, you’ll know they came from my secret journal.  Surprise! )

The secret journal expanded beyond bosses over the years to include other work associates who taught me lessons.   I changed the journal’s name to “Lessons Learned”,  loosened up on my “3 Positives / 3 Negatives”, and began writing notes into my secret journal whenever I saw or heard something that I wanted to capture.   None of my co-workers ever knew I was keeping the journal, and I doubt that many of remember teaching me these lessons.  I hope a few folks remember the lessons I tried to teach to them during my journey.

Today, I’m sharing the lessons from my secret journal for the benefit of you, the reader.

Revealing My Secret Journal

I decided to reveal the existence of my secret journal on the night of my retirement speech when I cited 6 Lessons Learned From 33 Years In Corporate America.  I mentioned my secret journal and read verbatim the following lines from a friend’s retirement speech 10 years earlier, which I had captured in my secret journal:

  • Before you speak, listen.
  • Before you write, think.
  • Before you spend, earn.
  • Before you criticize, wait.
  • Before you pray, forgive.
  • Before you quit, try.
  • Before you retire, save.
  • Before you die, give.

As I closed out my retirement speech, I cited my secret journal, and left my co-workers with the following advice, which was the final of the 6 Lessons I shared that night:

Learn from everyone you come in contact with, and write down the lessons you learn.

It’s Time To Share The Secrets

Since I’ve been retired for 9 months, I’ve decided to share my favorite “Secret Lessons” with you today.  Below, in no particular order, are the lessons which have most resonated from my 30+ year career in Corporate America.

Appraise Others “From Below”

When managers are evaluating candidates for a role, they most often look to their management peers for input.  Since your peers are also managers, this approach only results in “feedback from above”.  Instead, focus on talking to folks equal to, or below, the candidate you’re considering.  This “feedback from below” is more important, since you’re looking for the candidate who best motivates those “below” them. 

Most people “manage up” differently than they “manage down”.  You want the ones who are good at “managing down”.  Avoid those who focus on “managing up” to the detriment of those they’re being paid to manage.

From a man I worked for several times during my career, and highly respected.  He gave this advice on my last day working for him.  I was leaving the next day for a new city, having just been promoted to my first management role.  This was one of the most important lessons I learned in my career, and I’ve seen the wisdom of this lesson time and time again.  Every time I made a personnel decision, this lesson came back to me.  Thanks for the great advice, Jack.  I hope Florida is treating you well in retirement.

Always Provide Context

When you’re asking someone to do something, always provide the context surrounding the request.  Folks respond more favorably to a request if they understand why they’re being asked to do something.  Also, they’re more likely to do a better job at the task if they understand the broader context of why they’re doing it.

From the Steelers fan who used to take on the Auto companies with me.  I’ll never forget our first trip into Detroit, that meeting with Tony was legendary! 

Make The Other Person The Most Important In The Room

People appreciate being shown respect.  Make someone feel that they’re the most important person in the room, not just through words but (more importantly) in the way you treat them.  Focus on what they’re saying, and listen with both ears.

From a man who died way too early.  Ed, thanks for always making me feel special.  You’re still missed today.

Related Entry: “Making others feel stupid demoralizes them.”

(The related entry was from someone who should have learned from Ed.  I’m glad you got fired.)

Focus on the job, not the next promotion.

Too many folks worry too much about their next promotion and not enough about excelling at their current job.  Put your effort into going above and beyond in what you’re being paid to do.  The best way to a promotion is through exceptional work in your current role.

Related Entry:  You don’t get anything you don’t earn, don’t expect something for nothing.

Don’t Whine

No one likes a whiner, and whiners tend to suffer in their careers.  Whining hurts your reputation, which is your most valuable asset.  Be positive and proactive, and be very careful if you find yourself complaining.

Related Secret Journal Entry:  “Choose to be an optimist, it’s more fun than the alternative.”

Another related Entry:  “Only you can choose your attitude, so choose to be positive.”

Give Public Recognition

When someone does a good job, give them public recognition.  It’s been proven that public recognition can motivate people more than money.  Don’t take credit for the work of others.

Related Entry: “Don’t Shine Your Shoes With Other’s Sweat“.  (I’ve always loved that line, it came to mind many times during my career as I saw people take credit for work I knew others had really done)

Maintain Work/Life Balance

Over the years, I’ve (unfortunately) known many workaholics.  Some excel in the workplace, but their personal life suffers. I first witnessed it early in my career, and always made it a priority to attempt to maintain balance in my life.

Sure, there are times when work must take priority.  Don’t neglect the times that the opposite is true.

Be Thankful For The Problems

If it weren’t for the challenges you’re working to fix, you wouldn’t have a job.  Any monkey can run an organization that is running trouble free.  Be thankful for the problems, they justify your pay.  Continually look for more problems to fix.  Fixing problems is the ticket to success.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

Not every hill is worth dying for. 

I’ve witnessed many a person die on a hill they should have gone around.

Eye Contact = Trust

“If someone won’t look me in the eyes, I don’t trust them.”

This one came from a veteran purchasing guy I called on ~20 years ago when I spent some time in sales.  It always stuck with me, and I’ve found it to be remarkably accurate.  Since he’s passed away, I’ll give him credit.  His name was Fred Benedict, and he worked for Carrier Corporation in Syracuse, NY.  He made that comment to me when I told him I was being promoted to a new position.  He complimented me on always looking him in the eyes, and then made that quote.  I wrote it down as soon as I got in the parking lot.

He was a legend.  

The Pricks Eventually Get Found Out

Apologies for the language, but it’s straight from the secret journal.  It’s amazed me over the years how often this plays out.  If you’re dealing with a real “prick”, be patient.  They won’t be around for long (though, frustratingly, they’re often around much longer than you’d prefer).  I always smile when they get “found out”, and think of this lesson from my secret journal.

FYI, no specific individual taught me this lesson.  It was learned by decades of personal observation.

Control The Inputs

While you’re held accountable for the outputs, that’s not where your focus should be.  Focus on the inputs.  If you do a good job managing those, the outputs will follow.

From a guy who rose through the ranks to be President of North America, then retired early to a very nice house on a lake in South Carolina.   Working for him on the North American Management Team was one of the more enjoyable spans of my career.

Be The Calm In The Storm

As you rise into management, focus on being the calm in the storm.  Even if you’re tied up in knots inside, demonstrate decisive calm on the exterior.  Go to bat for your employees, and shield them from as much of the “Corporate BS” as possible.

You Get Out Of Others What You Put Into Them

Build others up, don’t tear them down.  Encourage others to accept the credit they’re due for the things they’ve done.  Mentor and teach those who are “below” you.  What you put in as an investment in others will pay back dividends for years.  Garbage In, Garbage Out.  Respect In, Respect Out.

From an “old salt” who made the comment when I was a new Plant Manager.  I always appreciated “the veteran” helping out “the rookie”. 

Three Things We All Have:  Time – Energy – Money

  • When We’re Young = We have Time & Energy, but no Money
  • In The Middle of Life = We have Energy & Money, but no Time
  • When We’re Old = We have Time & Money, but no Energy

Told to me by a close friend when he was “mid-career”, and decided to leave a very prestigious position to have a go at being a solo entrepreneur.  He wanted more time with his family.  Fortunately, it worked out well for him, and he’s now making more money running his own gig than he made in his previous “prestigious position”.  He also has more time for his family.  I’m happy for him.

Know What To Know

“Some folks know business, some folks know THE business. Few know both, and the ones that do are the stars.”

From a very senior leader who once gave me his treadmill when he moved.  I always respected you, Brian.  I hope you read this post.

Don’t Blame The Boss

Don’t blame your boss for something you’re asking your employees to do.  It diminishes your authority and the respect your employees have for you.  Take personal responsibility for what you’re being paid to do.

Take Time To Smell The Roses

After my retirement speech, I wrote a post in July which shared a few of the lessons from my secret journal.  In A Man In A Kilt, I wrote about Curtis Hixon, a man I greatly admire.  He’s made a big impact on my life, and I share again, in closing, the three lessons he demonstrated during the four years I was honored to work for him:

– Take time to smell the roses.
– Keep your job in perspective.
– Treasure your family.

I worked for Curtis from 1988-1992, and his were the first lessons I entered into my Secret Journal. Given that they were the first, it somehow seems appropriate that today I present them last.  Thanks for your friendship, Curtis.


My Secret Journal, Revealed.

I never knew if this day would come, but I’m glad it has arrived.  

I hope you benefit as a result.


Your Turn: Which lessons most resonated with you? What lessons have you learned that I should add to this post?  Have you ever kept a secret journal?  Let’s chat in the comments…


  1. Good stuff Fritz. I like the “Focus on the job, not the next promotion” rule since I see that violated all the time. My job has a very rigid hierarchical system, which just creates a fevered pitch to get promoted and step on the next rung. Too many people strive to get face time with seniors, when their job actually requires them to collaborate more with the “worker bees” who are doing the actual work.

    1. Dave, thanks for being the “early bird” again today! Yep, I saw a lot of folks too focused on the next job, a phenomenon certainly made worse by hierarchical structures. I always found that collaboration with the “worker bees” was the most satisfying part of my job. They don’t get enough credit for what they do, and I always tried to make it a priority as a manager.

  2. Great insight — both for how to present yourself on the job and when you’re outside the four walls of corporate America. Thanks for the reminder that ALL of this matters, both to others we encounter, and to enrich our own personal experiences with connections we’re making in our lives.

  3. Great post Fritz.
    It’s a little late in the game for me. I wish I had read this forty years ago! But, the next generation and current generation of workers will definitely benefit. Thanks for being a Mentor to all of our kids. I am forwarding this post to my three kids, who all operate their own businesses.

  4. For me it’s always been 1) focus on the job, not the next promotion and 2) pick your battles wisely. Always give 100% at your current job and if you perform, the right people will notice and promotions will happen. As you move up the food chain, pick your battles wisely. Upper management is like The Hunger Games and Predator…combined. Snipers and landmines are everywhere. What you don’t say and don’t do then might save your life…

    1. You only give 100%? Tsk tsk. Wink.

      BTW, I love The Hunger Games/Predator analogy. No doubt, the work environment can be a brutal place. Fortunately, mine wasn’t too political, I’ve heard stories from folks who have had a much more difficult corporate culture. Fortunately, our management was focused on culture, and kept it in check as much as possible in a workplace with 10,000+ employees.

  5. Great perspective. I caused my own glass ceiling throughout my career by leading people theough change and organization politics. Fortunately I gained great friendships and respect from those as peers and direct reports from below. Unfortunately, hierarchy viewed me as a middle manager that would not ascent to the ideology of how they expected me to think, speak and behave. My career still flourishes as I have 4-6 more years before I call the corporate job complete. But I will always be a middle manager because of my principles and many of those lessons outlined in your blog today.
    In retrospect, I have won the day. Amen…

  6. “Don’t Shine Your Shoes With Other’s Sweat”

    Love that comment. Wish I had known about it when I was in the work place. I felt public recognition was one of the key reasons for my success as a manager in motivating staff so I always went out of my to do this. Also if I was presenting work from my team to seniors in more private settings I would always give out personal credits for my team where due. I also think this is a one way street. You take public responsibility personally for things when they go wrong even if you know exactly where the errors came from. When I resigned my manager was a bit shell shocked as he had not seen it coming but I simply said I had recruited really good people and trained them well so he had nothing to worry about.

    Unfortunately, in my experience, the pricks do not always get found out. Ambition (I never had much) can get you a long long way and some people are just really good at brown nosing. One guy I knew had a raft of people who simply refused to work for him but he still managed to get to a very senior position. One of his tactics in meetings was to listen to all views before coming out in favour of the most senior person in the room. It used to really amuse me as I could see it happening time and time again but no one else seemed to notice and unfortunately it appeared to be effective for him in moving up the organisation.

    1. Funny, I’ve probably thought about the “Shine Your Shoes” lesson more than most of the other lessons. It’s disappointing to me when people take credit for the work of others. I commend your practice of giving others the credit, especially in meetings with Sr Mgmt. I always tried to do the same. Great addition to the discussion about it being a one way street. Others know they screwed up, and they respect you even more if you take the bullets for them.

      And yes, you’re correct on the pricks not always being found out, but I’ve always believed they will, ultimately, get what they deserve. I know a few guys like the one you mentioned, almost funny to watch them bounce around on those puppet strings. In time, lets just hope someone cuts those strings with scissors.

      1. This is where I think it’s critical for people to speak up, as they are able. I’ve seen quite a few pricks in my day and I was fortunate enough to be around when pretty much the entire pyramid of them collapsed over a 6 month period. It was epic!

        But the reason it happened is because someone spoke up at a key moment. Speaking up is hard. Living in fear is no fun. I highly recommend getting over fear as much as possible and saying what needs to be said at those key moments.

    2. PJ – great management style – give credit to your team members when they do well and take the blame when things go south. I also have taken this path and it buys you all kinds of support when you need it………..extra hours to meet a tight deadline, etc. To go along with the taking the blame when things go south……..I always added that we will get it fixed. Rarely were their any consequences when you own the problem and fix it. Likely you used the same tactic.

      Taking credit for other’s work is just criminal in my book. I have zero respect for people that do this to further their own careers. Zero integrity and deserve to lose the support of their team members who experience this or see their colleagues experience this boorish behavior!

  7. Fritz, these are so good! Thank you!

    I approached my work knowing everyone could teach me something. Fortunately, I only ran into a few who could only teach me how not to be. I wish I’d written down what I learned.

  8. Hi Fritz,
    I love this post…and it would be great to get out to folks just starting their career path. Any of us who have managed people can relate to all the positives and negatives you’ve shared. The one that resonated with me the most was
    “Don’t Shine Your Shoes With Other’s Sweat”
    This happened to me so many times that I can’t count. The positive outcome was that I made sure to always give (public) credit to the teachers I led.
    And the most important advice is to be true to yourself and prioritize family. They are there when you are working and (hopefully) when you resign/retire. Jobs come and go but family is our glue.

    1. Nancy, thanks for your kind words. Interesting to see the “Sweat” lesson hitting home with several folks, seems a common problem we all deal with. Kudos to you for giving credit where do. Love your comment about family being our glue. True, indeed, and important to remember the priorities that really matter.

  9. It’s always good to get a confirmation on what one believes (to be honest and true). But doesn’t the squeaky door get the oil, even though the Pricks Eventually Get Found Out – hopefully.

  10. Long time reader, first time commenter. This is gold! It’s full of common sense advice but things you don’t really think about consciously. I’m mentoring some up and comers and work. Thanks for making my job easier. I’ll just send them to this post!

  11. Thanks Fritz, I always hoped I gave good advice to those around me. Learning is a two way street and I certainly learned a lot from you. Your experiences that you related to me about your summer jobs in the Outdoor world prior to entering the Corporate world reminded me to return to doing the same as I had somehow neglected them after being promoted to Area and then Regional Mgr. In taking time to Smell the Roses and keeping your job in perspective with your family’s importance in mind you also excelled in your jobs over the years. You proved it is possible to do both. A Great lesson for others. Thanks.
    Your friend, Curtis

    1. “You proved it is possible to do both.”

      I could ask for no better compliment from you, a man who has earned my utmost respect. Thanks for teaching me to Smell The Roses (it’s possible that, while I was working for you, I MAY have taken an extra 1/2 day on one of my trips to Tennessee to tour the Stones River Battlefield…just sayin’).

      1. I’m glad you took the time, I hope you did other “time Outs” . Personally, I often scheduled a bit of extra time when visiting all those Air Conditioning/ FinStock customers in Middle Tennessee to go through Lynchburg and take the Jack Daniels Distillery tour . The home spun tales told by the guides were worth the time. They were all retired Distillery Workers and had some life’s Lessons to teach…LOL
        I remember one who took us up to one of the aging warehouses, unlocked the Pad Lock and one visitor questioned the other big Pad Lock hanging next to the door. The guide said the lock he took off was the Distillery’s and the other was stamped BIR. He then told us that was the Bureau Of Internal Revenue whose local representative came by each morning at 9am to remove it so the workers could get inside and rotate the barrels . The IRS agent returned at 4pm to change back to the BIR Lock and he said “Cause the Federal Government comes to work late and quits early”

  12. Great post. I think I experienced just about every lesson you mentioned. I think my philosophy and one I hope is in other “secret book” is one I shared to everyone I mentored. “Give your team public credit for successes and take the blame for setbacks”. As the manager I had the ultimate responsibility so acknowledge it and move on. Luckily for me successes greatly outweighed setbacks. We never had failures. I had peers that could just not do this. They took credit but threw employees under the bus when things did not go well. Great post.

  13. Thank you once again Fritz for another thoughtful and inspiring blog post. I came across your content just a short time before you retired. You always have something so interesting to say. Always gives me something to think about. Thank you so much, enjoy the day.

  14. Although we would be from different generations and very different career fields, I wish I had the chance to have worked with you. I can only imagine the financial conversations we would have shared and appreciation for each other’s love of discussing the topic of retirement planning. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us. #belikefritz will eventually catch on. Until then, you’ll see me post it in hopes that those in their pre-retirement years can realize you are the guy to emulate.

    1. #BeLikeFritz – I think I’ll follow that advice. I’ve been told I’m just like him. I don’t encourage others to do the same. Haha. Thanks for your words of encouragement, I hope my words can help people on their journeys.

  15. Two good ones come to mind for me.
    1. Take care of your people, they take care of you. From a director above me. Notice, they did not say, if you take care of your people, they will take care of you. Always take care of your people. I know he always did me.
    2. Give credit, take blame. I don’t remember where I got this one. It’s similar to one or two of yours above. For me, it only seems right to give others credit where credit is due. But if you in a leadership position and somehow your team messed up, take the blame. That’s kind of like yours above to insulate your reports from the corporate BS.

  16. My favorite is making someone feel that they’re the most important person in the room. All too often, we focus on ourselves and don’t take the time to actually hear what others have to say. The best way to learn and grow is to ask questions about people and then shut-up and actually listen to them.

    Love the list, Fritz!

    — Jim

  17. I just loved this post- especially “Be Thankful For The Problems”. When my colleagues/ direct reports would complain about this & that- I’d remind them that as credit analysts it was our job to solve problems as most things we dealt with were a problem. If everyone paid their bills and was worthy of a higher credit line, monkeys could do the job- or, in our case it could be outsourced to Kuala Lumpur which many other shared services groups had already experienced. Finding solutions by working closely with treasury, sales & customer service was the ticket to my- and my direct reports- success. Fortunately, I had a mentor who for 8 years was willing to share his wealth of knowledge freely with his group. He managed down, and did it very well. When I took on his role, I actually felt prepared as a result of his many hours guiding me to follow almost every every item on your list. Thanks!

  18. Platinum words of wisdom for sure! I have witnessed most all of these myself and could not agree more. It is amazing how valuable using “We” when describing something that has gone well can be for getting others to climb that next hill – and there is always a next hill. Just one of the few things that we both learned from a common interest in KY!

    Love the “Don’t shine your shoes” analogy. I recall another from an old crusty early manager who said “If you can’t do anything else, then at least stand in a strain!” His point was to stay busy and active and opportunities will come. And how true that was and still is.

    Thanks for taking the time to write these pearls down. I wish I had done that myself. But if I had, I couldn’t have summarized them any better!

    1. David, great to see you on my site, thanks for stopping by! I suspect we learned some lessons from a few of the same folks, it’s been fun to watch our paths cross over the decades. I hope retirement is treating you well – no need to “stand and strain” any more!

  19. Great stuff Fritz. Saw many managers apply the positive and avoid the negatives and visa versa. The “shoe shine” analogy is the best. Come see us at HHBC when you can. Hey to Jackie.

  20. Fritz, I am so behind on my blog reading these days and have been desperately missing your posts, but I’m back now and what a post to start with. Love the Secret Journal and love the lessons learned… I’m trying to come up with a way to share these nuggets of wisdom with my interns as they are about to embark on their professional journey. What valuable information to pass on!

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