You’re not going to like this…

No good day starts with the boss wandering by to see you and starting off with the warning, “Well, you’re not going to like this…”

Yeah, some people have a real talent for understatement. I’m not going to get into the how and why of not not like “this,” because it’s not all that important. I mean it’s bad enough being served a double helping of shit sandwich without recounting the experience in agonizing detail. Right?

I’m also not reliving the experience because the insult added to this particular injury was as bad if not worse than the “this” that I was sure not to like. You see, I walked through the entire first half of the day thinking that it was Thursday and that only a “make up” telework day stood between me and the weekend.

Realizing my my error well into the day, I just opted to give up all hope… because other than meaning another day of not living under a bridge, I’m not going to like any of this.

The older I get the more I realize exactly why keeping whiskey in your desk drawer is frowned upon. Sigh. If only I didn’t have to avoid unemployment and the inevitable poverty that follows.

Another lost day…

In spite of myself I’ve become something of a convert to the concept of working from home. That one day a week is a reprieve from the never ending background noise that’s inevitable when you cram twenty or thirty people into a small space and then expect them to do work. My telework day, in fact, is the one day out of the week when I get to focus on whatever is in front of me to the exclusion of all other things. Even when the issue is vexing, addressing it without interruption or commentary is something of a pleasure. It seems there’s no limit to what you might be able to accomplish when you’re not being interrupted by something else every few minutes.

The most pressing issue with working from home in my experience thus far is that on at least half the days I should have been doing it, I’ve found myself getting dragged into the office for “something important.” That usually translates into flipping slides at some briefing or enduring a meeting that could just as easily have been a phone call. So far it looks like the week is so pock-marked with these “must attend” meetings that a day in the home office is in all likelihood lost.

We can say that we want employees to be “telework ready” all we want, but when the default setting is “you need to come to the office” instead of finding a way to get the job done remotely, we’re never ever going to get to a place where we’re not tethered to a quaint 19th century notion that work only happens when the bosses can look down a long row of desks and see people doing things. I suspect that method of “doing work” is too ingrained in the organization for it to change – which is a shame when the alternative is hiring grown ass adults, letting them display initiative, and holding them accountable if they don’t. Yeah, now I know I’m just talking crazy.

Not much fear, but a shit ton of loathing…

Today, perhaps as much as or even more than any other, reflects one of the biggest reasons I’ve learned to loath Monday through Friday. Sit back and let me tell you a little story…

It was supposed to be a run of the mill briefing. Spend an hour talking about Topic A, find out the new whims of the powers at echelons higher than reality, and drive on smartly towards the finish line. A few hours before show time, they also added Topic B to the lineup. That’s fine. A little bit of fiddling with the material and all will be well. Thirty minutes after that they announced the need for a pre-meeting meeting. Fine. Good. Let’s talk about what we’re going to talk about. Ten minutes later, a message comes out adding an additional 30 minutes to the meeting. Now we’re weighing in at 90 minutes with Topics A, B, and C. Finally, an hour before everything is theoretically supposed to be in place, the final call comes that we’ll really be discussing Topics A, B, C, and D so please have that prepped and printed in the next 30 minutes. Also, your 60 minute meeting is now scheduled for 120 minutes.

At the appointed time, the people gather – the deputies, and strap hangers, and clerks, and slide flippers, and administrators that accompany every movement of important people. The court of a minor royal house, if you will. And then, when all were assembled and the proceedings were just getting underway, the Gods on Olympus decided to take a pass. More commandments would be issued. More perfect explanations offered. And opportunities to revise and extend remarks concerning Topics A, B, C, and D would be offered before laying the motion to reconsider back upon the table.

Fuck all if we don’t make every little thing 10 or 100 or 1000 times harder than it needs to be if you’d just let common sense prevail instead of spending all day every day worried about what asses need covered and which ones need kissed. I use to be good at just turning off my brain and letting the stupid flow over and around me like a river in spring flood. The older I get, though, the harder it seems to keep my mouth shut and my own ass out if trouble. At this rate I can’t even begin to imagine the things that will come flying out of my mouth 17 years and 11 months from now when self-preservation is no longer an operational consideration.

The price or: Being caught at my desk…

Nothing good ever starts with the boss coming by asking “How busy are you this week?”

The answer, the answer I should have given, true or not, is “I’m busier than a one-armed paper hanger, sir… Doing great things for God and country.”

Instead the answer was “Meh, what do you need?” I made the cardinal mistake of showing even the least semblance of interest. I made a mistake and the consequences were swift and certain.

One little slip up, friends, is precisely how you get yourself drug into the middle of a three and a half hour meeting on Friday that up until just a few minutes before was none of your damned business.

I’ve lead the internet in warning future bureaucrats about the dangers inherent in volunteerism. In my career, I’ve never been rewarded for putting up my hand and asking for more work. Although it leads the list by a fairly wide margin, volunteerism isn’t the only form of creeping workload adjustment that can ruin your day.

While I didn’t quite volunteer today, I did present myself as a convenient target of opportunity. Just being at the wrong place at the wrong time can result in two reports and a half a day worth of briefings ending up slipping from someone else’s pile to yours before you even realize what you’ve done.

“Surprise!” Says the universe. “That nice easy week you were planning… the one with the low pressure slide into the weekend? Yeah, you can go ahead and forget all about that.” The universe is a real son of a bitch like that.

That’s what I get for being caught at my desk. I know better. And now I’m going to pay the price for not turning that knowledge into action.

Managing up…

I should give almost all of the writing credit for this post to a friend of mine who brought to my attention her belief that raising a toddler is effective practice for dealing with the average kind of management one encounters in the workplace. Now I’m just assuming these ideas are work to toddlers because I have no direct personal experience, but I can attest first hand that they can and probably should be applied to your interaction with management

The abridged list of ways to deal with the bosses that is also applicable to dealing with the tiny dictator of your own creation is:

– Explain that you can’t do multiple things at the same time. If possible, make them prioritize.
– Limit the choices you give them to just 2 or 3 things. Otherwise, it will take too long and they’ll come up with something crazy.
– There is great power in routine
– Lay the groundwork well in advance for any changes to the routine
– Catchphrases and jingles are your friends
– Celebrate the little things, like pooping in the potty. Sure, you figured it out a long time ago, but it’s important to validate their pride in doing something grown-up.

Set expectations, create a routine, and make sure you celebrate the little successes your local manager has. I’m quite sure these few steps will have you managing up your chain of command in no time at all.

A finite resource…

It’s long been my opinion that three-day weekends are the best time to tack on extra vacation days. On a normal weekend, by the time the cooking, cleaning, and general upkeep is finished, it’s practically Monday. Extending that already long weekend into a 4th day, though, means time to get after some of the projects that never get to the top of the list during a normal weekend. This weekend, by example, was the first swing at bringing order to a basement that for the last 20 or so months has been not much more than a dumping ground for extraneous “stuff.” Now that it’s less prone to taking on water, the extra day gave me a chance to at least start turning the place into something useful. It’s going to take a few more days like that and a lot more shelving, but it’s started and that’s why I like the extra long weekend – they let me end a week feeling like something got accomplished.

Because every silver cloud has a lead lining, though, I couldn’t manage to escape the jackassery that is the American office. If I were a smarter man I wouldn’t have bothered checking the voicemail when I saw the number that left it. The boss calling two hours into your day off is never to tell you that there’s been a payroll problem and they’re crediting you with $50,000 in back pay. Still, curiosity got the best of me. Curiosity will, in all likelihood, eventually be a contributing if not a causal factor in my death.

Instead of an unexpected windfall the boss was letting me know that the uberboss called a “surprise” meeting Thursday morning, but that they couldn’t make any progress because I was the keeper of the particular nugget of institutional knowledge that they happened to need. Instead of pressing on with stiff upper lips, they decided they’d reconvene when I was back in the office on Monday. Except they won’t technically be reconvening when I’m “in” the office since the gods of Olympus decided to schedule the meeting after the end of my scheduled day.

It’s a small thing. A bare hiccup, really. The intrusion into what up until that point had been a blissfully quiet and content day off, however, was enough to twist my usual smirk into a decided sneer. My boss, knowing well my love of schedule and my grave distaste for hanging around after the close of business, did his best to spin the news – wondering if I could just come in late to offset the time at the end of the day. Wonderful, my reward for being the keeper of this particular bit of knowledge is that I get to jack up my day by coming in when traffic is at its worst, there’s no parking, and not going home until well after the sun has set. Excellent. Thanks for this outstanding opportunity to excel.

In and of itself, it’s nothing. What it represents, though, is much more significant and far more troubling. It’s an endemic situation where we continue to try cramming ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag. At least one other person should be as informed about my projects as I am, but we don’t have the manpower to provide that depth of coverage. There should never be a point at which someone at my decidedly junior level is able to foul up the works by simply taking a vacation day… and for the love of God, when you’ve put yourself in that position don’t expect that couple of good people you’ve got left to continually jump through their own ass to bail you out. Eventually the answer is going to be no.

Goodwill and desire to be a team player are a finite resource, especially when no one is doing a damned thing to refill the well.

What great looks like…

A while back I ran one of my occasional “You Ask It, I’ll Answer It” special features. Last night while trying to bring some semblance of coherence to my notes I discovered a leftover question that was asked but apparently not yet answered. I aim to remedy that oversight this evening, but I beg to be allowed some creative license with the question. As written, it asks “What makes an excellent boss?” That’s probably about as subjective a question as you could ask of any employee, but I’m going to take a swing at answering it by way of talking about a guy I use to work for – and wish I could again.

It was a long time ago. I was twenty five and three years out of college. A refugee from an abortive career as a professional educator, Uncle Sam offered to take me in, train me, and let me stay a civilian – as long as I was willing to go wherever he told me to go at the end of the initial six month training program. When the bosses at the schoolhouse asked if I was ok going to DC, I was thrilled. As it turns out, being a low-graded employee in the imperial city doesn’t make it a location at the top of too many people’s dream sheets.

The guy I worked for in DC was probably as close to a perfect boss as I could have hoped to find on my arrival. He’d been everywhere, done everything, and seemed to know everyone no matter where you went. He’d get you a place in meetings half a dozen levels above your pay grade and then put you on the spot to offer an opinion as an expert in your field. Nothing was off limits and any door you wanted to open was opened. Every day with this guy was not just a master class in the profession, but also in the politics of the office.

Professional growth comes with mistakes. While he was happy enough to let you flail around finding a solution, I never managed to screw something up so badly that he couldn’t fix it with a couple of phone calls. I did my time, put in the work, and he made sure the promotions and raises followed. He took care of his people and that counts for far more than I realized at the time. Despite the dissent from an old guard he was determined that his organization was going to be infused thoroughly with new blood. The more seasoned I become the more I appreciate just how far he was sticking his neck out to make that happen.

I can’t even speculate what turns my career may have taken if I had landed in Washington and found a hidebound boss too concerned with grade, or structure, or process. God knows in the years that followed, I’ve run into enough of them to compile volumes of what it is to work for an assortment of bad bosses. There have been some damned good ones in the mix too. You almost always here about the bad ones, but there are still bosses out there who at least try to do the right thing.

My experience, though, has been that the really great ones only show up once in a career – and that’s largely dependent on being in the right place at the right time. It seems more likely to spend 30 years bumping along with bosses that fall somewhere towards the middle of the bell curve. I was fortunate to have one really impressive boss experience right out of the gate in this career… but taking the bad with the good it also means my mental achievement bar for what it means to be great is set almost impossibly high.