More Time For Rollerblading

Just over 11 years ago, I jumped off a bus in the middle of downtown Seattle. From there I walked the last few blocks to my office located in one of the older buildings surrounded by modern sky-scrapers. Honestly, my morning walk was the most interesting part of my day.

Would I catch the woman placing her wooden sign on the corner announcing to the neighborhood her flower shop was open for business? Of course, the coffee shops were bustling with suits desperate for their morning brew. The post office didn’t open till 9 am but patrons began lining up at 8:30.

These were the people that become part of my morning routine.

 mrSmiley

But this morning would be anything but routine. As I made my way up the well-worn stairs of the Skinner Building, I was met by our HR manager. I didn’t know her well. I joined the company during its infancy. A time when an HR manager was a luxury we could not afford.

“Don’t go easy on them” was all she said as I passed her. Don’t go easy on whom?

As I made my way down the hall, I noticed a group had gathered in our only conference room. What was going on? It wouldn’t take long to find out.

The company had run out of money. Nor could a suitor be found to keep us afloat. The president of the company announced that today would be our last day of work. The Seattle office would be shut down. The HR manager’s words now made sense: “Don’t go easy on them.”

Yet there was little that could be done. Today’s paycheck would be the last. Medical benefits would cease, and the company would not provide severance.  Only a few people asked questions. I stood there in a daze hoping my paycheck would clear before walking down the steps and back into the city.

My brother-in-law and I worked together for the last few months and decided to celebrate the company’s demise by Rollerblading at the park. As we made our way down the path leading out of Woodinville we chatted but said little about what had happened earlier that day.

But we both knew the day was coming. Our managers stopped coming by the office. The phones stopped ringing and there was constant talk that paychecks wouldn’t be cut on time.

So when the news hit, it’s hard to imagine many were surprised.

I compare that moment to what took place two weeks ago. This time in a conference room in Redmond with about 25 employees hearing their jobs with the company would shortly disappear.

But this time nobody saw it coming. Anger was replaced with shock. As I tried to comprehend how I’d explain the situation to my spouse, I looked around the room at the faces I know well, many of which I hired. And not only hired, but convinced to join our company with hopes of acquiring valuable technical skills and and the opportunity to see various parts of the world.

As I began my job search last week, I thought back to that care-free, Rollerblading spirit of years past and realized that break and chance to clear my mind is what I needed at the time. It helped me worked off the frustration and disappointment.

And even though I have four young children counting on me to support them financially, I feel at peace as I begin my search. I have no idea what I’ll do next. I have a few weeks to figure it out. Which leaves plenty of time to strap on my Rollerblades.

Searching For My First Real Job

This time of year I spend a good part of my day interviewing young men and women for full time technical positions within my group. Many have recently finished college, and this is their first real job with benefits. This is one of my favorite parts of the job.

I try to remember how I felt as a newly minted college graduate walking around Salt Lake City searching for someone who would recognize my potential. Looking back, I wasn’t prepared for the realities of post-college life. I’d spent a lot of money on books and tuition not to mention the Addams Family and Fun House pinball machines.

One afternoon I was browsing the job boards at the University of Utah and noticed a job posting seeking graduates of all disciplines. It wasn’t uncommon for recruiters to narrow their search to graduates with majors in marketing, finance or economics. Although I’d taken courses through the business school, I majored in German which locked me out from interviewing for a number of positions.

I saved up enough money to purchase a blue blazer to go with some dress slacks I already owned. The position was for an editor with a major publishing company with offices in downtown Salt Lake. Although I knew the downtown area well, I arrived an hour early for my interview.

When it was time, I met with the HR manager. She asked me the same basic questions I’d heard from dozen of campus recruiters. One fringe benefit of making it through college was that I became a professional interviewer.  I got to the point where I could predict the questions. Interviewing became second nature.

I interviewed with two women and one gentleman that day. Each of them seemed genuine, and I enjoyed discussing the position and asking questions of them. I felt good about the job and company when I left.  I returned home feeling optimistic. A few days later HR called and invited me back. This time I would meet the managing editor who would put me through a quiz of sorts.

I met the editor who had little to say. She handed me a newsletter and a red pencil and said, “You have 20 minutes to find the mistakes and circle them.”

Seemed simple enough. I went to work finding and circling misspelled words and awkward grammar. It wasn’t long before the editor returned and yelled, “STOP!”

I put my pencil on the table, looked up and handed her my work. She glanced over the first page, her eyes moving from side to side. I was anxious but confident. She moved on to the second, third and forth pages. So far so good.

Until she come to the fifth page. That’s when she grabbed the red pencil and drew a large “X” through the page.

In past blog posts, I’ve written that I’m not a fast reader. I comprehend well. But I don’t zip through books like Kim or my mother. That’s how I’ve always been, and it’s not due to lack of reading. I’m just a slower than normal reader but not to the point where I’d consider it a disability.

“You’re accurate but slow.”

Of course, I already knew that. But it stung coming from the woman who would decide if I’d get the job. As you can probably guess but now, I did not receive a job offer.

It’s been nearly 17 years since I put on my blue blazer and didn’t make it to page 5. But I’ve not forgotten how I felt as I watched the giant “X” was scrawled across the page. When I interview people today, I never want them to leave with the same feeling I left with that day no matter how their skills fit the position.

Committing to Less

“Yes” is a dangerous word. It sounds polite and helpful on the surface, and in many instances it is. But it can also lead one down the road to over-commitment and exhaustion.

It’s difficult to say “no” once you’re expected to say “yes” to every request, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.

Over the past few years and especially since we started a family, life has become more complex to the point where it’s difficult to keep track of responsibilities, commitments and schedules for six people. Kim and I discuss our coming week’s schedule on Sunday evening. And yet by Monday night I’m asking, “Now, what do we have going on tomorrow?”

This past year something changed.

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Kim picking blueberries in Auburn, WA

In an attempt to gain a modicum of control of my schedule and maintain my sanity, I began turning down requests for my time. This has not been an easy adjustment. I seldom remember my father saying no. He’d run from one assignment to the next. I have friends that are able to function with this level of chaos. I’m not one of them.

There are times when I feel bad saying no, but it’s better to be upfront and deal with a little discomfort than partially commit. That’s what I used to do. I’d say, “I’ll try to make it” and when I didn’t, it was a bigger disappointment than had I said no from the start.

This past year I’ve said no to some travel for work. I’ve taken on fewer projects at work and church. I’ve turned down opportunities to meet up with friends. We even cancelled our summer vacation to Utah because we felt overwhelmed at the time. We needed some time to catch our breath. So we picked blueberries and spent time doing absolutely nothing at the beach.

But I’d like to believe there’s much to gain by saying no and committing to less. For example, by committing to fewer projects at work, I’m able to give my full attention to the two or three projects that will provide the most value to my team. Picking a couple of projects forces me to weed out all the clutter and really focus on projects that will drive results. It’s actually much easier to complete a bunch of crap projects than one that’s difficult yet comes with a large payoff.

That reminds me of the first time I went through the review process at Microsoft. My manager had left the company so the job of reviewing our group fell to the VP over Office. I’d spent the past six months planning one event and was certain he’d dock me for not completing more tasks. But he surprised me when he said, “Your manager’s job is to overwhelm you with projects. Your job is to figure out the one or maybe two that must get done and ignore the rest.”

I’m not saying it’s a particularly smart move to ignore projects that come from your boss. But you can explain why completing fewer but more critical projects beats finishing a dozen of dubious value.

Committing to less allows me to carve out time with my spouse and children. That results in life balance that’s difficult to obtain when you say yes to everyone. Look for a manager who values results instead of sheer number of hours spent behind a desk. I’ll take the employee who spent two hours writing a script to manage the backups over the one who spends four hours each weekend doing it by hand. Find a manager who appreciates the first type of employee, because that’s probably you.

I still struggle finding that balance. But I’m able to recognize when I’ve let the pendulum swing out too far in one direction. Sometimes there’s very little I can do about it. But I know it’s there and I’m always striving for it.

Managing By Manual

During my last quarter of college, I applied for a job as the manager of a large chain of gift stores. As part of the application process I was asked to take a series of written tests. I was told these tests would “quantify my potential” to become a successful manager.

I didn’t question the test at the time. I was tired of living on Ramen Noodles and Campbell’s soup and couldn’t wait to earn a paycheck that would cover more than the bare necessities plus a few games of pinball.

Yet even then, “quantify my potential” didn’t sound right. How could any test quantify what I might become? Sounded like Tony Robbins speak.

There were no materials to help prepare for the test. The only instruction I was given was to answer each question honestly. I had as much time as I needed.

As I made my way through the multiple choice questions, I began to see the same question asked more than once. Some questions were asked four or five times with the only difference being that the answers were tweaked just slightly.

One question I recall went something like this:

If you confirmed that one of your employees was making long distance phone calls on the company’s line, would you:

a) Ask the assistant manager to deal with the problem.

b) Give the employee a verbal warning.

c) Consult the Manager’s Handbook

d) Fire the employee

With a few exceptions, each questions had at least one clearly wrong answer such as A in the above example, followed by two that sounded good and one confusing option, such as C.

About an hour into the test, I decided the whole process was a fraud. Some management consultant had convinced an HR manager with too big of budget that giving this test would weed out poor managers.

In most cases, I selected the answer that required some action and/or common sense. I would probably warn an employee who made long distance phone calls but I’d fire someone who took cash from the register. I finished the test and awaited the results.

A few days before graduation, I was offered the job. My first job out of college would end up challenging me in ways I never thought possible. I’d never been a manager before and wasn’t sure how to act. To showcase my newfound title, I wore a freaking tie on my first day of work which I promptly slammed into the cash register during my first hour of training.

I was shocked to find out that I was responsible for 15 people right out of the gate. I had no idea what I was doing.

So I winged it.

I hired students who loved to work with the public. I found a great assistant manager who enjoyed digging into the details of the business, which was not a strong skill of mine. We had pizza. We had parties. We worked late and supported each other. Basically, we had a lot of fun while selling a lot of cards and gifts.

Not once did I crack open the manager’s handbook. It sat there on my desk gathering dust like an outdated phonebook.

At my first manager retreat, I had dinner with the manager who gave me the employment test. She’d recently been promoted to regional manager and was kind in her words towards me. She complimented the performance of my store and my team. And then she said something that stunned me.

“I’m glad we hired you even though you failed the manager test”.

I didn’t know what to tell her. She went on to explain that my answers did not trend towards the corporate. My decision to select the answer that required action on part of the manager was the wrong strategy. To score high, I needed to select the answers that required the least amount of decision making and common sense. The best answers were of the “advise HR” and “consult the manager handbook” variety.

Since that time, I’ve come to appreciate the backing of a strong HR department when dealing with serious matters. Large companies love to create to large manuals. But manuals don’t make a good manager.

When it comes to managing people, I’ll trust my instincts over any manual.

Anyday.

Strength in Few

Left to their own devices, the kids will turn any room in the house into a blanket and cushion fort. I don’t mind it because it reminds me when I used to the do same thing with my parent’s brown and orange couch.

When it was time to pickup, I used to call the kids together to explain how they needed to work together to clean the room. But, over time, I found the kids spent more time debating who would fold blankets or arrange cushions than cleaning. Each task required a mini-meeting, and each child felt he/she got the worst job. A simple task that should have taken 10 minutes took 30. And nobody was happy.

Lately, I’ve changed my tactics. The goal remains a clean living room, but I’ve found a way to accomplish it in half the time:

Assign one child to the task.

For example, when I asked Lincoln to take down the latest fort, he didn’t spend the first five minutes telling Anna she was folding the blankets all wrong. Anna wasn’t around to drive the other two crazy by whistling the Smurf’s theme song. And Luca wasn’t able to sit on the couch and bark commands like a drill sergeant.

Lincoln was able to figure out the most efficient way to clean the living room with no distractions from his sisters. If he did a good job, he’d garner all the praise. No sisters stealing the spotlight. And that’s exactly what happened. Strength in numbers? Not in this case.

I’m convinced the same situation plays out every day in nearly every business. A job needs to get done so a committee is created, and more time is spent in meetings than solving the problem.

How many times have witnessed a  software projects drag on for months with little to show afterwards? I’ve seen this scenario play out at nearly every company I’ve worked for. The assumption that the more people you toss at the problem, the faster you’ll reach completion is false. The opposite is true. Each person you add will want to make his or her “mark” on the project. The more people you invite to a project, the longer it takes to reach consensus (if you ever reach it). More people = more meetings = less time spent doing actual work.

I spent years trying to create a team to create a company website. I recruited a number of talented people to help me. But it was impossible to get everyone together. No one felt like taking ownership. And why should they when any accolades they might receive would be diluted by the size of the group. There was always another project that was more important. So nothing got done for many years. It wasn’t until I convinced my boss that I could create the site with the help one friend that we finally made progress.

When a project comes in at work, I now intentionally figure out how many people I need and cut that number in half. It’s not easy to do because I’ve been taught that adding more resources will result in a shortened schedule. That’s usually not the case. Just because you can add more resources, does not mean you should.

Think back to the last time you created and finished a project that made you proud. Were you part of a large team? Were you part of a small group? Or was it only you?

Studying Ants

I spend a good chunk of time each month writing performance reviews. Last month our company installed a new online review process. But the old system was shut down for nearly four months. I ended up with a backlog of reviews I’d written in Word.

Well, I wasn’t happy when I found out I’d have to transfer the reviews I’d stapleralready written to the new system. This was a tedious process of cut and paste and pray the formatting wasn’t botched. I often ended up writing the entire review over.  

The group I’m responsible for consists of about 20 technicians, but I have another 20 who work part-time during various times of the year. I often feel like an HR manager given the mountains of paperwork I create for each employee. There’s nothing green about my job, that’s for certain.

On my way home from work last week I was thinking about all the time I spend completing paperwork. Every hour I spend pushing papers is one less hour I have to spend with my team. It means less time to train, encourage or just observe how they work together.

And then I flipped on my iPod and began listening to a talk given at the Ted Conference by a women who has spent her career studying ants. Not reading about ants or dissecting them in a lab. She goes to the desert and digs up colonies full of ants. She counts, marks, and teases them in order to learn about their behavior.

I’ll bet the ants gang up and bite her every chance they get. And who can blame them if she’s breaking into their living room each day. It’s only natural they’d be upset and exact revenge.

One fact I learned is half the ants in a colony stand around doing nothing. They are backup ants that seldom get called into service. Kind of like Matt Leinart.  The ants you see carrying leaves and crumbs are foragers. They are hard working colony contributors. But there are just as many lazy ants inside the hill just kicking back with a cold one watching Family Guy.

Suddenly all that paperwork doesn’t seem as tedious. And it’s only a few hours each week. My perspective changed over the course of ten minutes listening to this woman talk about freaking ants.

And so far, not one colleague has bit me.

Approachability

I’ve never had a job that required I wear a suit unless you count the two years I spent in Germany as a missionary. I had to wear a suit, white shirt and tie each day regardless of the weather.

I didn’t like the dress code back then and never got used to it. ties

By the time I was released, I was so tired of wearing a suit I vowed I’d never take a job that required I wear one each day.

So far so good.

My first job out of college had a firm business casual dress code. My current job has the same but is more flexible. I can occasionally wear jeans and mock turtlenecks without being sent home.

I think back to my days as a missionary and remember how much more approachable I was when I wasn’t wearing a suit, tie and name badge. When all decked out in dark suit, many Germans assumed I was selling something, and wouldn’t converse. But on our preparation day I wore jeans and a t-shirt and fit into the landscape. I was a lot more approachable which made sharing my message a lot easier. There were times when I taught more people on preparation day than the rest of the week days combined.

I know that serving a mission and working in an office are two entirely different activities. But I wonder if some of the same walls I built as a missionary show up in the office?

Why would any of my far more relaxed technicians want to talk to a guy sitting behind a desk wearing slacks and a tie? I know I wouldn’t.

I’m much more likely to hear from my crew if I spend time playing basketball with them as opposed to sitting in my office in nicely pressed business casual attire all day.

Does it matter how much time I spent polishing my shoes, ironing my shirts and pressing my pants if I don’t hear how my team is doing and connect with them on their terms?

How approachable are you?

Photo by Geekgirly