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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Bossing. I don’t like being a supervisor – even when it’s only a temporary expedient. I didn’t like it when I was one and I don’t like it when I get to pretend to be one now. I like it even less when top cover is nowhere to be found. And while I don’t like it, don;t think for a minute that I’ll shy away from making decisions. They might not always (or even often) be the right one, but we won’t flail around blindly in the name of indecision. Mercifully nothing I touch is life or death so the consequences of straying outside some unknown left or right boundary marker are pretty minimal. I suppose they could always throw the job to someone – anyone – who might be more interested or more qualified, but that’s most likely wishful thinking on my part.

2. Email. If you send me an email there’s a better than average chance that it arrived. You don’t need to call me 15 seconds after hitting send to ask if I got it and then ask me to opine on the topic of your inquiry. The fact is, I wasn’t sitting at my desk staring blankly waiting for your email. I know some people are a bit ADD about checking their email as it arrives. I’m not. I’ll work in whatever issue you have after I’ve reached a suitable stopping point with whatever it is I was working on while your message was winging its way across the network. Even then, sadly, you may not be the most important thing in my inbox. Priority of effort goes (not necessarily in order) to the boss, the uber-boss, echelons higher than the uber-boss, and then, lastly, everyone else. It’s not personal, but I feel like tending to people who have some authority over my yearly performance appraisal first is a pretty good system. Believe me, I will get to your message, even if I don’t consider it as much of a crisis as you do.

3. Millennials who bitch about the stock market. If you have 20, 30, or more years before you plan to retire, a down market is the very least of your worries. In fact, it’s kind of a gift. You’re getting the opportunity to by your shares at crazy deep discount price compared to what you would have paid a year ago. It must be hard to believe, but more shares bought cheap compounded out over the next 30 years is in all likelihood a thing of financial beauty. Sure, it looks like you’re taking a beating on paper right now, but you’re supposed to be playing the long game here. No one loses actual money until the cash out their chips and make the loss “real.” That’s not you, kids. Let your parents bitch about that down market because they’re the ones who are getting taken to the woodshed if they planned on retiring any time soon. For you, my millennial friends, this whole thing could shape up to be a once in a decade or once in a generation buying opportunity, so play your hands accordingly.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Hate speech. Here’s a fun fact, just because you happen to disagree with something someone says, that doesn’t make it “hate speech.” If that were the hight of the bar it needed to cross, damned near everyone I talk to on a daily basis would have to be considered a hate-spewing douchcanoe. As it is, these people generally just happen to have opinions with which I disagree. I suspect the key difference is being able to tell the difference between getting your little feelings hurt and someone who actually says something threatening. Many can’t seem to make the distinction, or maybe they’re too deep entrenched in their “safe space” hiding from the scary words to be able to tell the difference.

2. The new, new boss. I’ve only just formally met the new boss a few hours ago. He seems like a decent enough human being. He’s the third boss our office has had inside the last 12 months. I have no idea if that says more about us or them, not that it matters. It’s just another dash of mayhem in the day while he learns our names and we learn how he likes his PowerPoint charts and whether he wants one space or two after a period in written communication.

3. Ash and trash. The problem with relying on the media to give you information is that regardless of your source, it’s almost always going to be slanted by bias either intentionally or unintentionally. Like when you see Huffington blazing forth with the headline “The Middle Class is Dying.” While that makes a fine headline and all, they don’t dwell much on the actual meat of the Pew survey they’re referencing. What almost none of the stories I read based on that survey tell you is that while the percentage of middle income earners is decreasing, more of that decrease (as a percentage) is attributable to people moving into the ranks of higher income earners than because they are dropping into the range of lower income earners. You actually have to look at the Pew report to see that “Notably, the 7 percentage point increase in the share at the top is nearly double the 4 percentage point increase at the bottom.” Since that factoid doesn’t fit nicely into the narrative the media wants to sell, you don’t see it unless you dig a bit deeper. Sadly that’s just another example of why we need to be our own fact checkers when it comes to the ash and trash slung out by professional “news” sources.

4. The unmitigated asshat who decided rush hour was a good time to try taking his two-lane wide load across a two-lane wide bridge. Believe me when I tell you that it should not take 40 minutes to navigate the 4.6 miles between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, but it did tonight thanks to one misguided driver and the parade of state and local police who forced him to see the error of his ways. If I wanted to deal with that kind of traffic buffoonery I would have taken the job at Ft. McNair when I had the chance.

It counts for a lot…

It’s that time of year again when officially sanctioned near-mandatory fun events lurk around every corner. The annual office Non-Denominational Holiday Luncheon, a team building pot luck lunch, the rush to decorate the door in a manner to acknowledge the holiday season but also ensure that there’s no way anyone might accidentally be offended by anything on it. They’re all on my mind as we rush headlong into December. There isn’t one of these things that sounds like either a good idea or something I’d enjoy. Those two categories are not mutually exclusive, of course, knowing full well that there are plenty of things that are a bad idea, but that I find perfectly delightful.

That being said, I know I can’t stop anyone from making me attend town hall meetings or award ceremonies. I know full well that I can’t waive off just because of my fundamental distrust of anyone who calls a meeting that isn’t absolutely necessary. I also know that there’s no requirement that I cook or otherwise prepare food for my colleagues. I can’t be mandated to attend the Non-Denominational Holiday Luncheon and pretend to be rapt by small talk with strangers and feigning an interest in the ugly sweater contest. As a former boss of mine so eloquently put it on so many occasions, “Look Jeff, I can be friendly, but that doesn’t mean I have to be your friend.”

Some people would surely find that offensive. I found it refreshing. Maybe some people come to the office to get their social fix. Maybe their life outside cube farm walls is devoid of other human interaction. Me? Well, I’ve got a Facebook, a blog, and unlimited text messages so there’s 90% of whatever interaction I’m looking for most days. There’s also the same bunch of friends I’ve had largely for the last 15 or 20 years… and they never ask me to pay $20 to pretend to enjoy a lukewarm lunch while surrounded by people I don’t know… and that counts for a lot.