Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What kind of choices are you making?

There appears to be two types of managers. There are those whose key priority is to deliver outcomes right now and there are those who have a priority to build a sustainable future.

I would suspect, in both camps, there is an acknowledgment of the importance of the other priority, but when push comes to shove, some managers choose to produce, others to build for sustainability.

My guesstimate of the split is something like 90% production-focused, 10% future-focused.

I think there's another interesting breakdown. Of the production-focused managers, you can split them about down the middle in terms of their awareness of how critical sustainable practices are. Half don't see a bigger picture. Sure, they've heard of things like diversity and succession planning, but they legitimately think they're doing the best they can for the organization by focusing on the more immediate challenges. I think it's fair to say I disagree with their conclusion, but I appreciate that they're acting on their convictions.

The other half of these production-oriented managers, however, full-well know they are on a sinking ship, it's just that when pushed, they choose to deliver a product over making choices that are in a longer-term interest. You see, it may not save the company, but it keeps them "safe," today.

Whenever I experience this sort of tactic, I'm frustrated, disappointed and more than a little perturbed.

You mean you KNOW that we can't sustain what we're doing, what we've promised and what we've planned, but you're STILL going to go ahead and do it? Is your salary that good? What legitimizes that behaviour? Does "not my job" cover it? What happens when you fail your customers, your clients or your job disappears? Still not your fault?

Sorry. That's not really intended for you, directly. If you're reading this blog, I think you're either a knowledge worker that just categorized your boss or you're a boss trying to muster the courage to be part of the 10%... like me.

Reading that over, it's one big rant - here's the solution, as I see it - stare your fears in the eye. Play them out. What will really happen? Acknowledge you're not going to lose your job for speaking up. Find ways to make long-term choices and move the ship, bit by bit. You'll be surprised to find a large majority of colleagues appreciating (albeit quietly) your efforts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

TLC for my anxiety

I'm acutely aware that I've only got one chance of living a life that I'm proud of.

I've been in job interviews before where they asked me what motivates me. I don't know if that's a good interview question. I'll leave that up to someone else to decide. Here's my answer:

"I don't want to sound fixated on death, but I think I put more time and thought into what will be said at my eulogy than most people. I have a certain anxiety in my stomach every day that asks if I'm doing right and if I'm making a difference. This is pretty motivating. I want to make sure that, when I'm done, I've done something meaningful."

I'm serious about this. I feel it right now. In addition to feeling it, I'd like to point out that I'm starting to like that I feel it. I think I'm on to something. I have started to cultivate it. I ask myself questions like "What will I be remembered for?" and I read Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" or Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie." The anxiety grows.

It has become so strong that I feel compelled to act on it. It's real, not some theoretical I should sort of statement. There's those situations where honesty is required but it's uncomfortable and perhaps a bit awkward. I find myself saying the truth because I want to be remembered as honest. I'm more inclined to challenge the old way of doing things because I want to make sure we create results, though perhaps my boss and others just want to get the job done. I have also started asking and answering questions on a blog that will turn off 90% of the people I know and scare my parents.

It feels like a freight train slowly gathering speed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Unconventional plans for my new job

I am getting VERY excited about going over to my new position with the Saskatchewan Public Service Commission. I believe the PSC offers some enlightened management practices, a positive working culture and an important, meaningful mandate.

For all of its positive traits, I'm sort of anticipating that there's also a culture of "policy adherence" that has gone a bit overboard. What I mean is that HR functions are quite often the whipping boy in an organization, and staff tend to rely on policies and interpretation of policies to serve as a a form of protection (or backbone). I recognize this is also partly done out of respect for a collective bargaining agreement, though I do think there's a difference between respecting it and instantly capitulating to it.

I'm probably not going to be very accepting of policy adherence, if in fact I come across it. I'm toying with a work-specific mission statement, sort of a supplement to my still relevant personal mission statement.

Here's some language, though perhaps I'll call it draft. [If my new supervisor is reading this, feedback is definitely welcome.]

I am here to add value. To make a difference. Providing an unencumbered perspective and approach is an overlooked and misunderstood way to add value.

Boundaries and expectations need to be questioned.

This will make some colleagues uncomfortable. They'll come around... or they won't.

My job is to ask unflinching questions and be radically honest. I'll operate with the best intentions and without permission.

And the shorter version: Boundaries are the enemy. As gently as possible, blow the fucking lid off.

I just said that publicly. Gulp.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

lest anyone be confused...

I believe the "soft stuff" is the hard stuff.

Flowers and Innovation

I feel so lucky have a friend like Spencer that shares stuff like this. It's a story about Tony Hsieh, the legend behind Zappos.

It's a long read so be prepared. If you make it to the end and the flower story, I'd like for you to know my flower story.

I ordered flowers here once for a business partner. It wasn't this situation, but the purchase was entirely warranted and appropriate. I didn't ask for permission or approval for the purchase. Once the purchase hit the system, four different people told me I couldn't do it. "OK," I said, "but the cow is out of the barn. Reprimand me and pay me back." The answer? I should have known better. I should have checked. I should have gotten prior approval.

It ended up being an out-of-pocket expense for my boss. I told him I didn't want the money, I wanted him to fight it. He wouldn't. He preferred to pay, instead.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Naming some thoughts

So Jonathan over at the Illuminated Mind is shining a light on some concepts that were just barely a flicker in my brain.

I encourage you to go back to his The Liberation Manifesto post and then catch up to now, reading how his last few months have evolved. I think it's fascinating.

I'm personally circling around this concept of being unemployable, speaking with my true voice and being a Radical Truth Teller. Jonathan has named some namess worth spreading. Renting out my mind is on the top of my list of dislikes, the idea of getting paid to exist is at the top of the list for things I like. These aren't unreasonable ideas. They're quite natural. They are, however, unconventional.

Changing my behaviour and the way I feed my family away from a conventional model is a scary thought. Naming the dissonance I feel and the future I'm pursuing helps quell some of the fear.

I'm really comfortable right now... too comfortable. I need to build a clearer, more deliberate plan about how I'm going to let go of more and more of this false security blanket. It's the only way to get to the real victory, I think.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lessons from Chicken Little

We go through phases in our house where it's the same book for bedtime stories for my three-year old for a week or two. Right now, it's Chicken Little. If you read it every night, you'd over-analyze it too.

For those that don't know/can't remember, here's the version we're reading, abridged.

An acorn fell on Chicken Little's tail. Chicken Little announced her (his?) analysis: The sky was falling, and she was going to tell the king. Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky and Goosey Loosey all accepted C.L.'s conclusion and go along to tell the king. They all looked pretty foolish when the king plucked an acorn out of her tail feathers. They all laughed and went home.

Chicken Little did a poor job of thinking critically. Given limited information and other more plausible explanations, Chicken Little committed to a conclusion way too fast.

Every day at work, we're dealing with similar limited information problems. We're taking pieces of information, trying to get a better understanding and then, ultimately, making conclusions and recommendations about what to do next. Chicken Little's story is another version of the typical knowledge worker office.

It ticks me off that the king doesn't do anything to improve the advice he'll get next time because typically, neither does your boss.

Maybe in his fairytale world, he appreciates the interruption. At my work, the whole day is interruptions. It's what makes us so inefficient. What if the king helps C.L. unearth the reality by coaching her way through the analysis. "Chicken Little," he says, "what facts are you using to come to this conclusion? Are there other scenarios that could explain what happened? Have you done any research on what typically falls from above at this time of year? Have you considered what the composition of the sky is?"

"Oh, I see how that works," says Chicken Little, "if I pause and ask questions, I start to know more." The next panic may be avoided. We may move a tiny step closer to focusing on our priorities instead of being reactive. The king has to assume Chicken Little is teachable. Lucky for him, I haven't met anyone who isn't.

OK. Too much for three-year-old reading, but not too much for the office.

Our organizations are typically filled with power and fear. Solutions are not thoughtful and democratically generated, they're stamped with "draft" for fear of being overuled or they're laden with ego and personal perspective. People get more points for looking smart than they do for building a more efficient, sustainable organization.

We need to examine our styles. We're all afraid of coming off looking like Chicken Little, so we act like the king. It's not helpful in the long term unless you're putting on a show to justify your throne.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Trying to be Unemployable

I've just finished a job hunt. I've accepted a new position in the Saskatchewan public service. I thought I'd share some of the things I observed after not having been actively "in the market" for the better part of five years.

Your typical employer seeking to hire an employee these days seems to be working under the impression that employees are desperately seeking employment and are always on the cusp of yelling out "Yes! I'll take it!"

If you count my Mom and my wife, there are at least three people that think I would add value to your organization. If you want to hire me,
  • Understand you're being evaluated.
  • Have a clear picture of what you really need. Don't do a selection process without first thoughtfully establishing what skills and functions you need the candidate to be able to fulfill. If you're choosing to name a certain degree or a number of years of experience as a key criteria, it's an immediate flag that you're looking for an image, not a result.
  • Respect my time. Don't be late, unprepared or easily interrupted. I want you to be expressing how important this role is from the moment I meet you. If you don't respect what staff do for you, I self-select myself out.
  • Ask good, relevant questions that make me sweat. If you are interested in demonstrating that you're competent, that's how.
  • Don't hack on current employees. I'm trying to be one of those. I'm savvy enough to know I'll get the same treatment.
The employee version of these rules has always been a requirement for applicants to follow, but for the employer, they used to be optional. You used to be able to assume the power position and indicate that you could hardly be bothered with this process... you could do everything including saying, "I'm kind of a big deal." No longer.

Applicants, especially applicants with some skill and experience, can be way more selective.

Some things I've enjoyed being able to say to prospective employers during this process (and yes, it did take me a while).
"If you're concerned that I'm only going to work eight hours a day, I'll make it easy on you. Don't offer me a job."
"I didn't have the inclination to spend any more time on that exercise. It was very detail focused. You need someone who is looking at the bigger picture."
"I like to build the skills of my staff. This means, sometimes, we don't meet deadlines, but we get better in the long run. You [the supervisor] should be aware of this. I can be frustrating some times." (This one hired me.)

Let me be clear. I'm not being a prima donna. I'm not looking for a job where I get to lounge around a lot. I'm going to work and create value and focus on results. It's just that I have a lot of confidence that success requires a lot of change. From what I can tell in this process, I'm one of the few people bringing a challenge to the status quo. I don't want to work long hours, I want to do the work that's challenging.

If I had weighted "getting a well-paying job" higher than the expectations I had for myself to tell my truths, I think I could have wooed a prospective employer long before now. I also would have gotten a job under a pretense I would loathe and I would have missed the opportunity that finally came around.

On Twitter, @chrisguillebeau just recounted a conversation where @strongcraig called himself "unemployable." I've got a ways to go, but it seems like a good goal.