What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. System access. There’s a system at work that I nominally need access to in order to do my job. The last time I’ve had access to this system is on the 25th of November. A few help desk phone calls, a few opened and closed help tickets, and I’m still no closer to being able to use it. That’s fine, though. I suppose when Uncle wants me to be able to do that part of my job someone, somewhere, will figure out what’s supposed to happen. Until then, it’s shrugs and pursed lips all around when I mention it, so whatever, yo.

2. I told you so. There really aught to be a unmitigated right in every employee’s conditions of employment document that allows them to kick in the door of senior leaders and scream “I TOLD YOU SO!” while gesticulating wildly and pointing accusatory fingers whenever such a display is made appropriate. This would generally be because advice was ignored, actions were delayed, and “somehow” a nine month planning window suddenly condensed into three months. Maybe that’s too specific circumstance. Still, I’d like to “I told you so” a whole bunch of people right now, but no, that’s not “a professional attitude.” Bugger that. Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll see it here.

3. Scheduling. I’ve got a pretty substantial stretch of non-work days coming up. This week I’ve started laying out what I want to do against the amount of time available. Before the vacation has even started, I’ve got slightly more than half of the days accounted for by at least one appointment, task, or “to do” item. Some of those activities will be more entertaining than others, of course, but what’s really chaffing right now is how little of this long awaited down time is legitimately going to be restful or relaxing.

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.

Layers…

When all other practical solutions fail our response is to launch a reorganization and add an extra layer or two of management. Actually, we don’t even wait for other solutions to present themselves. Reorg-and-add is the default solution to most every situation. It’s become as regular an expected as the tides at this point.

I’ve been with my present organization a little over six years now. In that time I’ve had seven different first line supervisors, sat in five different cubes, and have had at least three wholesale changes in what my job is actually supposed to entail. It’s all the kind of churn you learn to live with as part of the big, faceless bureaucracy. The cogs in the machine aren’t precisely interchangeable, but that never stops someone who’s been visited by the Good Idea Fairy from trying to cram the pieces in anyway.

I met my newest boss briefly today. He mostly said hello in passing and didn’t stop to chat. I like that in a boss. The only question, really, is will he stick around long enough for it to matter whether he’s one of the good ones or one of the bad ones. Most come and go with such regularity that the difference between good and bad is negligible. Old boss, new boss, it doesn’t much matter anyway; just tell me what you want and I’ll get it done.

I’m already hearing the rumors that in a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months, we’ll be on the move again. If the rumor mill can be believed, the next move is back to the set of cubes I first occupied way back in summer 2011. If you’ve got just the right amount of cynicism in your system, there’s something poetic about riding through six years of churn and turbulence and finding yourself right back in the same place that you started.

I’m debating on whether or not it’s even worth unpacking my office boxes this time, because surely in six months the Good Idea Fairy will make a return appearance and we’ll be adding another layer and shuffling about again. Past performance is no guarantee of future behavior, but experience tells me it’s an awfully strong indicator of what to expect.​

On the virtue of low expectations…

I feel sure that somewhere in these pages I’ve told the story of a supervisor who worked in the same organization I did many years ago. One of her standard responses to things that were anything beyond easy to do was, “Well, don’t expect too much.” That was the better part of fifteen years ago, but I’m beginning to see the virtue of low expectations.

Today, for instance, a “hot” information requested landed on my desk around lunch time. That’s not unusual in and of itself. What gets problematic is when someone wants a complex issue distilled down and answers provided within 48 hours. As I tell anyone who will listen, I’m a facilitator, not a subject matter expert. My specialty is in putting people who need information together with the people who have the information. Doing that right takes time. It takes even more time when whatever answer they come up with needs to be approved back through four additional levels of the bureaucracy sometime within the next 36 hours.

Look, I’ll get you to the right answer. That’s what I do. It could just come sailing back through the ether with no problems. Stranger things have happened… but not often. I think the most important thing here is that you don’t expect too much. It’s the only sure way to avoid disappointment.

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.

The incredible shrinking staff…

For most of the last four years my little corner of the bureaucracy has held fairly steady at a total of eight people. Sure that’s a couple short of a full load, but close enough that the job got done without too much trouble. A year ago, one of our host moved on to other opportunities and we were down to seven. A few months ago another chose to go test the waters elsewhere and we were down to six. After that, keeping up got harder. Today, we assembled for the farewell lunch for the next to go out the door and by the end of the week our number will dwindle to five. Life will be harder yet when that work gets farmed out, but I’d be the last guy to condemn anyone for doing what’s in their best interest.

Only a fool would believe that we’ll hold at five for very long before the next departure and the next and the next. There’s a upward limit of doing more with less. There’s an equally fixed limit on even being able to to the same amount with less. Eventually you simply reach a tipping point where you accept less or you apply more resources to bring the scales back into some semblance of balance. At least that’s the way we learned it at my fancy online business school.

Now the discussion focuses on who’s covering what, who’s going to be out when, of needing to look closley scheduled leave, and how many balls we can collectively keep in the air at one time. Those are hard discussions and even harder decisions, but they’re decisions I have the advantage of not needing to make. Giving up my supervisor’s hat strikes me as a better and better decision every single day. I’m just a poor simple working drone, the part of the equation where the “equal and opposite reaction” takes place.

For me that means it’s time to start making my own hard decisions about what the future holds, what I’m willing to accept as a matter of course, and what I’m willing to push back against. Even if nothing comes of it, it’s probably well past time to start filling the options box back up. I can’t help but think that I’ve seen this movie before. I’d just hoped it would be a little longer before I got to see the replay.

Like a (acting) boss…

From time to time it’s good to be reminded about what you’re priorities in life are. Today’s reminder was about the complete and total lack of interest that I have in ever being a supervisor Lumburgagain. It’s not that today as chaotic or even busy, it’s more that I just don’t like having the “what if” factor hanging over my head. My historic experience with being “management” has been that 90% of the day is sitting around waiting for things to happen and/or wondering what happened and the other 10% actively trying to unscrew that which has been screwed up – generally to little or no effect.

Some people want to do it. Some of them even have a natural skill for it… and while I might have the skill, I most decidedly lack the interest. Watching the clock, hoping that nothing important explodes before the final whistle of the day blows is no way to spend your life. As for me, I’m perfectly happy heading to the house and not having to give a damn if the phone rings or not. I’m abundantly happy that my 8 hours in the hot seat is mission accomplished. Hopefully it’ll be a good long time before I get another “opportunity to excel.”

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.

When the cat’s away…

When the cat’s away, your office will inevitably be overseen by a overly officious colleague intoxicated by their temporary power. They’re going to do things like try to change procedures that have been in place in your office for as long as you’ve been there and tell you to do things that are patently incorrect. To fill the white space in their day, this individual will flit to whatever meetings they can find and generally try to make a nuisance of themselves on what should be a nice quiet day for getting caught up on those things you never seem to get to when the boss is around. It’s like turning over the office to that annoying kid you remember from elementary school that always had their hand up, always knew the answer, and always volunteered to make copies or keep the list of “bad” students when the teacher had to step out of the room. Since it only lasts for a day or two, you’re basically in Purgatory… assuming that Purgatory is run by a mentally deficient thirteen year old, since that’s basically the level of leadership you’ll be getting.

My advice in this situation? Smile and nod whenever possible. Avoid eye contact and if necessary feign digestive distress to minimize the amount of time you must spend in conversation with your tormenter. Absolutely nothing good with come from your engaging this pseudo-leader. At best, you’ll end up having to explain to your actual boss why you called this individual as useless as tits on a bull in front of several of your other colleagues. At worst, your boss may realize the error of his ways and leave you in charge next time he’s going to be away, which makes the cure far worse than the actual disease.

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.