Was having lunch with a group of current and former employees of the large corporation I used to work for. Its a nice way to stay in touch with people. A couple of them told me how many times my name keeps coming up in discussions.
I should probably issue a little disclaimer here. Even though I’m not actively looking, I am going through the process of creating a new resume. I mean it might take a perfect opportunity to get me to give up my new found freedom but you never know. The whole process is about marketing yourself and your skills which is something I’ve never been comfortable with. So a lot of this is just some free form stuff about my experiences and trying to speak to what I see as what I brought to the job since I eventually have to be able to talk about this stuff if I ever want another job.
I’ve said this before but I was never interested in climbing higher than my front line manager position. Position and power never really interested me and there were too many consequences to moving up. My old boss pushed a couple of times and I always said no. Something about being closer to the action because the people doing the work tend to be more real than those who look to gain power and prestige. Not always but in general.
So, clearly, I’m never going to be in position to write about how to be successful in the corporate world because success is usually defined as calling attention to yourself and getting promoted over and over again. And, you need people in those positions, although you often end up with the wrong ones. But I read a book once about another group of corporate types which fit me better. More the behind the scenes types (although I had plenty of visibility in certain scenarios).
Some of it was knowledge. I mean you work for a place for a lot of years, you ought to pick up a thing or two. Mostly it was about experiences on previous projects and what went wrong and what went right so you could maybe learn something and apply it to the next project.
But knowledge means nothing if you don’t share it and I usually had no problems expressing my opinions at meetings. I know that it a bit strange and paradoxical for a committed introvert but it is true. A lot of times I would play facilitator – play back what someone said to see if we all understood it. I mean you’d be shocked how often two people are arguing because they didn’t really hear what the other person said. Well, maybe you wouldn’t be shocked. Anyway, for a whole lot of reasons, I became a de facto expert on a lot of subjects and people would seek out my opinions on things.
The problem was that I never actively sought credit for things I accomplished. Normally, when a problem was solved, I just looked for the next thing to take care of. Now some people would know I was involved and would know what I had done but that was never widely shared. When they did the reorg before mine (Class of 2017), they got rid of a lot of the people who were aware of things I had done and replaced them with people who didn’t know. That’s part of the reason I was vulnerable but it also means that my departure did create a giant knowledge hole that people are struggling to fill.
And I don’t think it was that I was hoarding knowledge – at least not intentionally. I talked about everything with my team (and then they got rid of most of them as well). When people would ask, I would always explain the “why” behind any decision or previous actions. I think that in part people may have a tendency to get lazy. If you can ask X for help and you always get an answer, then you don’t have to do any work to find an answer. Problem is when the answer man walks out the door.
Now I’m not egotistical enough to say I’m irreplaceable. In a large corporation, we are all replaceable parts. They’ll figure things out. What I do take from it is that I left a larger footprint than I might have thought.
One of the other things that I was talking with the resume person about was being a manager. Because I had a mostly high functioning team, it was fun to be a part of the action getting stuff done. That is something that would interest me in the future. But I hadn’t put a lot down about strengths related to that area because a lot of that is “soft skills” and it is harder to talk about those than technical knowledge. The technical part is easy. Convincing someone that I have certain soft skills is difficult because I don’t really think of myself that way.
But I clearly have some skills in this area. I mean if I were a horrible person, then the team would have cut me out of their lives when we were dismissed and that hasn’t happened. I get hugs from them when I saw them today (it is now officially safe to do that since they don’t work for me). And a number of them have either told me directly or in other ways said that I was a great boss. I don’t exactly know what that means since it is specific to the individual but it means I did something right.
I strongly suspect though that a part of it was my attitude towards work/life balance which is something a lot of companies talk about but never really want to implement. By balance, they mean that when the company has an emergency, they expect you to put your life on hold to help them out. Meeting a project deadline is more important than attending a kid’s event.
Of course, there’s lots of opinions on work/life balance and there are a lot who will say it can’t exist. And there is a part of that which is true. If you make the decision to be a workaholic and/or want to get into a position of high power, then the demands on your time are going to be greater. Its a package deal. The problem comes when those who have those attitudes expect everyone else to have that type of mentality.
The people on my team were as dedicated as anyone else. They cared deeply about the products we were testing and wanted to make sure they were the best. But the majority of them were absolutely happy in a technical job and had zero interest in a managerial position or in moving up the corporate ladder. All of them had a life outside of work. And that required giving them all a certain amount of flexibility. Focus on the work getting done not the hours they were sitting there. Trust people to make up time if they needed to be gone for an hour or two to go attend some event at their kid’s school.
We always faced tight timelines but I also knew that the corporate way was that even if we finished early, there would be delays in other parts of the process. Accountability was not spread equally. So we worked hard and I never demanded overtime. And when you trust people and treat them like adults, when the situation demanded it, they would volunteer. I did keep those situations to a minimum and I would fight back against the unreasonable demands. Again, probably not the thing that most corporations are looking for. I always felt my first priority was to my team and if I took away obstacles and made it easier for them to deal with life problems, that the work would just take care of itself.
Anyway, sorry for rambling on there. I bring this up because one of my former team members got a job within the company. I had encouraged her to look outside because I suspected we didn’t have a long future and she had reasons for needing to work. She’s been in the new job for about a month and I can tell it isn’t exactly a great fit. This is another little secret about corporate life. While a corporation has a culture, what becomes important is the culture and team dynamics of your work group. If the corporation says “we believe in blah, blah, blah” but the director of a group says “nah, that’s crazy I don’t buy it” and there is no accountability, then the nice sounding corporation words mean nothing.
I’m still stuck with how much credit I deserve for this but I do think she’s going through a little adjustment period because the attitude in that area is much different than our group. It sounds like we were more cooperative and collaborative and I tried what I could to reduce the pressure. I told her at lunch just to make sure she doesn’t stay just for the money because a job that leaves you dead inside is not worth any salary. OK, it isn’t that bad yet and I think she’ll find good parts over time but she clearly misses our old group (and me) which again means I was doing something right.
Well that’s about all of this I can take. Actually, I should bring up one other solid data point that I do have. The company took surveys of employee attitudes over the years. I know that among R&D, my group consistently gave higher marks to me than other areas were getting. Again, I was doing something right. So I should be able to take credit for that without sounding like I’m boasting, right?
I’ll just end with another random thought. I think most people who get into management positions think they are good leaders. I think they often point to how much their teams get done as the main measuring stick. I think the measure of a leader should also include how they get it done and those who use and burn out people really aren’t good leaders even if they do meet all their deadlines.
Now I’m wondering why I’m even looking for another job. I don’t know if there are any places that actually think this way. You can find hundreds of books and quotes about servant leadership but are there any companies that consistently practice it and, more importantly, hold leaders accountable when they aren’t practicing it. My sample size is limited but somehow I doubt there are many. I think most places ultimately regard most employees as replaceable parts. There are a shining few who get sucked up the ladder but the rest are just there until the higher ups decide they are no longer needed. (Gosh, that’s cynical)
OK, I’m definitely ending this now. But I’ve actually convinced myself that it is still worth continuing the resume building process. I may never find a place that actually practices what I want but I can afford to be choosy.