The virtue of 4AM…

I’m an early riser by most people’s definition. Weekday, weekend doesn’t really matter. Unless I’m deathly ill, and usually even then, I’m awake a few minutes on either side of 5AM. Today was a rare exception that pushed the day’s start time to 4am. When you’re use to waking in the small hours of the morning one hour is pretty similar to the next. It’s dark, the world is quiet, and you don’t want to do anything so much as sit on the porch and enjoy another cup of coffee. Sadly, though, today wasn’t the day for that.

Without detail, suffice to say what had me up in the small hours was a patently ridiculous task that involved significant eye rolling and standing around a parking lot in the morning’s light drizzle for far longer than was strictly necessary.

That’s not to say that waking up at 4am is completely without virtue. Dragging yourself out of bed at 4AM and starting the clock on your work day by 6:00 delivers the undeniable benefit of then being able to punch out and head home by 2:30 in the afternoon. That part of the day felt good and right. Most people wouldn’t make that devil’s bargain, I’m sure, but if the powers that be would let me kick off every day at 6:00 and clock out at 2:30, I’d sign up for that schedule in a hot minute. Sadly I inhabit a world where I’ve been “invited” to meetings starting at 4:00, 5:00, 6:00, and 7:00PM. Those are hours I’m exceptionally uninterested in being in the office, but during which bosses seem to thrive.

Maybe that’s why I’m such a consistent fan of early mornings.

Nine bosses…

I started working in my little corner of this big, faceless bureaucracy almost seven years ago. In that time, I’ve had nine different direct line bosses. With a bit of rounding that means I can expect to see a new boss approving my leave requests and fussing over my use of passive voice every nine and one third months on average. Breaking in a new boss is something of a process. Personally, I strongly oppose asking anyone to do that consistently every nine months.

Because life in the bureaucracy resembles farce almost as much as it does tragedy, it’s not all bad news. The new boss that I found out about having this morning has been my new boss on three other separate occasions during these last seven years. At least he’s a known quantity to me and me to him. It smooths the rough edges of the transition a bit.

Still, when the powers that be are making a big pitch for “earning back the trust of the employees,” a surprise reorganization first thing on Monday morning doesn’t exactly instill confidence. With Communications with a Capital C right there in the name on the sign, you might think that would be a skill we’d try to practice from time to time.

You might think that, but you’d mostly be wrong.

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.

A matter of perspective…

Sometimes I go to lunch with some of the guys from the office. When they talk about leadership problems, playing favorites, and how hard it is to get promoted unless you’re part of the clique, I mostly lean back in my chair, cross my arms, and smile. I won’t go so far as saying I agree with every decision made around here, I know from firsthand experience how much worse it can be for a working stiff somewhere near the middle of the pack. I’ll nod at the appropriate intervals in feigned agreement, but on the inside I know that unless they have served in the Court of the The Boss Who Shall Not Be Named, even the worst of their stories falls somewhere inside the range of “eh, that’s not so bad.”

I didn’t realize it until quite recently, but my time in the Office of the Damned has completely recalibrated my sense of good and bad work experiences. What a normal person would call good is beyond my scale completely now. Bad falls somewhere in the range of what I think as acceptable. The entire bottom half of the scale is occupied by things I’ve only seen the TBWSNBN do. In almost ten months, even the worst days have never been close to dropping onto the bottom half of the scale. Destroying my ability to see “normal” bad situations as being actually bad might be the only good thing TBWSNBN did for me.

Sure, it’s warped my sense of reality probably beyond any hope of repair, but that’s a relatively small price to pay for not being the least bit bothered by what sends those around me into a red-eyed fury.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Hung…

There’s a long list of perks when it comes to not being the boss. One of the big ones is that you’re not the guy running interference and providing cover for a bunch of other people when things don’t go exactly according to plan. Keeping your people out of hot water comes with the territory; even when that means you have to take the body blows yourself. At least that’s how it was when I was a boss.

Look, I’ve been around this man’s Big Government Agency a long time and I know that occasionally a few shots are going to get through. It happens. But when it happens more often than not, I start getting nervous… and that’s when my very strong tendency towards self preservation kicks in because I’m not in the habit of letting myself get hung out to dry for anyone.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

There’s a difference between being friends and being friendly…

I like the people I work with well enough. By that I mean I don’t generally want to fold, spindle, or mutilate them by the end of the day. After some of the colleagues I’ve had in the past, I consider that a win. We spend eight hours a day with each other and for the most part manage to stay remarkably friendly with one another. That’s where the problem seems to start.

I’m perfectly willing to be friendly with everyone in the office, but I’m not particular interested in being their friend. I don’t want to come over to their homes for dinner. I don’t particularly want to hang out with them in any setting that’s something other than the office. They’re nice enough people mostly, but I’ve got my own friends already thanks. Adding them to the mix seems to blur the line a little too much between business and personal lives and I’m not cool with that at all. Maybe I’m the deviant in the group, but I’m just not interested in hanging out with my boss or the guy I spend 40-hours a week sitting next to. I see enough of them already.

I completely understand that the manager’s handbook says we have to do team building activities, but since it’s building the work team, how about we do it on work time, huh? Picking a random Wednesday and buying pizza for everyone would have been way better for my morale than royally jacking up one of the two days a week I actually get away from the office. Since I don’t detect any malicious intent here, I’m writing this one off as a strong concept hobbled by poor execution… but let’s try not to make the same mistake again.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

Closed door…

There’s a good chance that when I’m sitting in an office alone with the door closed I’m doing something important and I don’t want to be interrupted. The closed door should have been a dead giveaway. The shake of my head when you peered through the window could have been another good indication. The look of disbelief followed one of smoldering hatred when you walked in and started talking about getting your timesheet signed should probably have stopped you dead in your tracks. But no, despite the voices coming out of the speakerphone middle of the table, I actually had to tell you that I was on a teleconference and that no, this wasn’t a good time for us to discuss it. Actually, I think the exact phrase was “Christ on a crutch, I’m on a call here. Get the eff out.”

Fact is, I was doing a phone interview for a promotion with a different big government agency. If I don’t get the position, I know who I will forever blame for it. If my boss was sitting behind closed doors, wandering in just to discuss routine operational questions would be the furthest thing from my mind. The door’s closed for a reason. If it’s critical, I’ll make my own decision, leave a note, or send an email, but unless the fence line is about to be overrun by shotgun toting rednecks, I’m not taking it upon myself to decided whatever’s on my mind is more important than whatever the boss happens to be working on.
Good judgment, I suppose, isn’t something I should expect… but the ability of people to operate without me at my desk for 30 minutes seems like something they should be able to manage. Or not.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.