Look, no one is more aware that a lot of the things landing on my desk aren’t big, shiny, attention grabbing projects than I am. Some people might even be inclined to say I’ve made a career of taking these decidedly unsexy projects in my teeth and bulldoging them through to the end. Most of the time they’re something that needs doing and I’m more than capable of being the one to get them there without needing too much adult supervision enroute from Point A to Point B. Part of the charm of these “ugly” projects is how little attention or supervision they attract.
There are going to be times – maybe 30 or 60 minutes out of three months – when having a little overwatch would be beneficial. Show the flag. Give the illusion that there’s a renewed sense of interest. You know, basically do a bit of lip service to the idea that it’s something worth spending time on and that someone outside the immediate group is actually paying attention.
If it’s legitimately something that the bosses can’t be bothered to take even a passing interest in, I’m going to wonder why for the love of all things good and holy we’re spending inordinate amounts of time fiddling around with it at all. Fortunately, I long ago gave up tying personal pride or self worth to this sort of work, but it’s awfully hard for me not to notice professional disinterest when I see it. If I can spot it while trying hard not to, you can bet everyone else sitting around the table picked up on it… and that’s going to make them even harder to convince to come to the table next time some turd of a project comes down the pipe.
1. The two weeks of Christmas. I was sitting in a meeting this week where the great and the good were calling for all manner of things to happen in the next two weeks. It’s cute when they’re optimistic like that. Experience tells me that even the most dedicated senior leader is going to find it hard to get jack-all done when 75% of his or her workforce is sitting snug in their homes or on the road for the week before and after Christmas. It’s good to be ambitious. It’s good to have goals. It’s also important to know your limitations, especially when you’re working with a skeleton crew just barely large enough to keep the lights on. Reason 7,471 I have no interest in bossing ever again.
2. Not knowing when to STFU. There is a time and a place for raising new topics or for asking every question. When the guy sitting at the head of the table is trying to close things out and the meeting has already run twenty minutes past its scheduled ending, though, is neither the time nor the place. That’s when you should have been a bureaucrat long enough to know that it’s time to sit there and shut the fuck up.
3. Emergency slide flipping. If there’s anything worse than being stuck in your own meeting, it’s being unceremoniously suck into someone else’s meeting because their computer crapped out and getting it fixed takes days. Look, a) It’s not my program; b) I actually have my own work to do; and c) If we keep finding work arounds to the shit tech support we get it will never have a reason to improve. Being a slide clicker on your own material is bad enough, but the number of times I’ve been yanked away from whatever it was I was doing to flip slides for someone else is astounding. It’s like no one in this place has heard of opportunity cost or return on investment. There are days when I’m entirely convinced I’m the best paid clerk/typist in the whole damned country.
I have a fairly simple philosophy when it comes to whatever oddball projects hit my desk: Just get them done and move them off my desk as expeditiously as possible. Most projects don’t come with a lot of fanfare (and they come with even less recognition, especially when they’re going along without much trouble). The thing is when someone tells me they need me to do Task A, Task B, and Tasks F-N, I generally just focus in and get those knocked out as quickly as possible or in accordance with whatever overarching project timeline the Great Project Manager in the Sky set.
It seems so easy and straightforward, but in my experience as the nominal leader of various projects it’s anything but. On my very best days as a supervisor I had what can be described as a largely “hands off” philosophy. That is to say besides a periodic check on progress I’m perfectly happy to let members of the team go off and solve problems and get shit done in the way that most makes sense for them. The last thing I ever had any interest in being was the kind of boss who spent all his time skulking around looking over people’s shoulder. It wasn’t my style as a supervisor and it’s certainly not my style as a “coordinator.”
The downside, of course, of my particular style and workplace methodology is that it relies on other people doing what they were supposed to do both on time and to standard. That, friends, is almost always where your average project will start to fall off the rails. As it turns out there is a large and growing number of people who can’t do much of anything without close adult supervision. I can only speculate that they’re nice enough human beings, but getting things done just isn’t their particular forte. That’s where we have a decided clash in philosophies.
If you’re looking for the guy who is going to double and triple check everyone’s work, sooth their nerves, and pin their mittens to their coats before sending them out in the cold, I’m so not the one you want to put in charge of the effort. You’re going to be disappointed in the results. It’s not so much that I don’t care about reaching the desired outcomes as it is that I refuse to hand hold or spoon feed professionals who have been at their jobs as long or longer than I have. Do you job. Don’t do your job. I won’t worry and hand wring either way, but you can bet your sweet ass I’ll chunk you under the bus at the first available opportunity.
In my long and storied career, I’ve learned one singularly important lesson about leadership and management:
I don’t want to be a supervisor.
Sure, most of these “leadership” lists include many, many wonderful ideas, but mine is simplicity itself. It’s honed by my short stint as a working supervisor and many occasional reminders from being dumped temporarily back into the job in an “acting” capacity. With a third of a career at my back, one of the few things I can say with absolute certainty is that I have no interest in supervising other people’s work. It’s unappealing in an almost visceral level. The way some people react to seeing a snake – that’s basically the way I react to even the suggestion that I should be a supervisor.
There are some very good reasons why people want to get into supervision – helping to set the agenda, mentoring new employees or future leaders, or exercising broader responsibilities. What I know about myself is none of those aspects of the job motivates me. I like getting an assignment, churning through it, and then moving on to the next thing. I’d much rather be turning the proverbial wrench than be the one making sure all the wrenches are being turned.
I’ve got the education and training to do the job. It’s not a lack of technical ability. What it is, however, is a fundamental lack of desire. If there’s any bit of accrued wisdom I would impart to the next generation of line employees, it’s to be damned good and sure being a supervisor is what you want to spend your time doing before you let anyone saddle you with the job. As much as you think you’re going to spend your days leading the office into a brave new world, what you’re really going to be doing is signing leave requests, approving timesheets, soothing ruffled feathers, running interference between your own bosses and the people you supervise, and generally dealing with three hours of administrative minutia for every hour you get to spend doing the “real” job you thought you’d signed on to do.
Some people excel at it. They have a natural affinity for the work. Every time the dark shade of that past life passes over me, I’m reminded of why it’s not for everyone… and especially why it’s not for me.
It’s an open secret that for the last six months I’ve been casting around looking for a new gig. Although I was focused on staying under Uncle’s umbrella, it felt like time to branch out into other opportunities. The environment had gotten a little too toxic for my liking and all-in-all, my career path was looking like something of a dead end if I stayed put.
I launched out a fair number of resumes. Had a few interviews. Got a few call backs. But there really wasn’t anything that clicked – either for me or the people responsible for hiring, it seems.
A few weeks ago I threw my hat in the ring for a temporary promotion (back to my old grade without the enormous hassle of supervising anyone) with my current office. Last week I interviewed for the position. A few days ago the HR office called to extended a tentative offer. This past Thursday I accepted. At some point in the next couple of pay cycles I’ll pick up a few extra bucks for a little extra work. Feels like a fair trade and it sets me up for possible options in the future that don’t involve another round of packing and unpacking household goods.
I didn’t start this process looking to stay where I was, but if I’m fair and balanced I’ll admit the bosses are taking legitimate steps to improve on a number of the sore points of the past. I’m willing to stick around for a while and give them the chance to prove it’s a real change for the better and not just a change until the heat’s off. The proof is in the pudding, but I’m happy enough taking their money while the proof sorts itself out.
Now it’s just a matter of the final paperwork coming through. Somehow I feel like I’ve done all this before.
As I sat down at my laptop this morning at 6:15, it occurred to me that if telework were a thing we could do on a regular basis, I’d be at work by now rather than just sitting here waiting for the body shop to open at 8AM. I could have worked for two hours, taken an early lunch to deal with the truck, and still gotten in a full 8 hours before my usual quitting time. Instead, I’ll do a little writing, drop of the truck, take a few hours of vacation time, and work about half as much as I would on a normal day.
As a former supervisor, I’m well acquainted with the challenges of working with people spread out all over the countryside. It’s tough, but with the right people it’s eminently doable – where there’s the will to make the extra effort. Of course where there isn’t the will, you end up with a lot of arcane rules that make telework something you have to beg for once a year rather than a regular part of your workweek… and I’m sure you can all guess how I feel about begging for anything, let alone begging for something that would make me a better, more productive employee. I’ll lead the horse to water, but it’s going to have to decide to drink all on it’s own.
I’m usually a fan of doing things online whenever possible. The internet frees us from the bounds of 9-5 and lets people engage when and as their schedule permits. With that said, how you “do” something online needs to be considered before the powers that be decide to make the leap from real world to electrons. It’s been my experience that unless an online class is really very well designed and engaging, it quickly becomes an exercise in clicking the “next” button until the machine rewards you with a certificate of completion. In many things this is good enough in that at least people will know where to go get information even if they don’t know exactly what information they need. That’s well and good most of the time.
When it comes to training the next generation of supervisors, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that a week-long class on the dos and don’ts of labor law, equal employment opportunity, and dealing with unions can be quite so nicely condensed. Training the people who are supposed to enforce the standards by letting them click through a set of slides on their own is a terrible idea. There are enough piss poor supervisors already and we really, really need to get this one right. Expecting the new guy to “learn on the fly” is pretty much your standard recipe for disaster. Look, I know funds are tight, but this is a pay me now or pay me later situation. By doing it right from the beginning, how much cost avoidance will you realize by preventing the inevitable increase in EEO, prohibited personnel practice, and fair labor standards settlements?
Can we please, just this once, look more than 15 feet down the road when deciding how to save budget dollars?
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.