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.”

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.