In the late 1980s, I was a still “wet-behind-the-ear” kid who found himself responsible for what was turning out to be one of the most heavily litigated environmental projects in Canadian history. There is no other way to state it, we were under siege. The project for which I was responsible would end up before every Canadian court of relevant jurisdiction as the environmental lobby hammered us through some 2 dozen law suits. Some of us working on the project would end up under criminal investigation by the RCMP (no charges were ever laid) as those opposed to the project attempted to have us charged with criminal offences. It was, as they say, character -building.
No secrets – Don’t accept a position or stay in one unless you have an understanding from your boss that you’re free to tell him/her what you think “with the bark off” and that you have the courage to do it.
Despite the best of intentions one’s career never turns out exactly as one expects. Very few people actually end up spending their entire careers doing what they thought they were going to do when they started out. If nothing else this reality should be factored into your thinking about your own career. Sometimes careers take precipitous turns for the most unexpected reasons. Such was the case for me when I was working in the Government of Saskatchewan. Much to my dismay a guy I came to realize was a real jerk was “air-mailed” in as my boss. I am pretty sure he thought I was a jerk too. Very early on I realized that this was not a relationship that was going to work. I started to look for places to go. Enter George Hill.
Don’t automatically fill vacant jobs. Leave some positions unfilled for six to eight months to see what happens. You will find you won’t need to fill some of them. Others you might need to hire three people to replace one
Vern Bridgman was definitely school of hard knocks. With a crew cut and ruddy dark complexion he was, physically, one of the toughest guys I had ever met. I grew up with his sons and he was the manager of the All Ontario Finalist midget hockey team on which I played when I was 15. Driving to road games Vern liked to tell stories and I liked to listen. Raised on a farm and a cattle drover by profession, Bridgman had a chunk of bone floating around under the skin on the back of his hand. He explained that it was part of his knuckle and it broke off when he punched a bull between the eyes when it had pinned him in a stall. Vern had multiple ribs broken from when he was walking a beam 30’ in the air while building a barn. The beam on which he was walking broke and he plummeted to the ground. “It hurt bad enough when I hit the ground, but I could have got up and kept going but when my brother Keith fell on top of me, now that really hurt.” Tough guy
Vern passed away last year and it has been 40 years since he told me this story but it is still a lesson I vividly remember. Bridgman worked after school at the feed mill in the town where I grew up. He started out sweeping floor. As time evolved and other people left the mill and no stranger to hard work (poor, smart and driven) he took on other tasks filling bins, loading and unloading trucks he became the proverbial jack-of-all-trades. As he described it, he figured out how to do things quickly and efficiently building on what he already knew about the place, cut unnecessary corners here, multi-task (as we would refer to it now) there. When he left the employ of the mill, virtually running the place or so it would seem, he had become so efficient at what he did that as he explained it the mill had to employ three people to replace him.
What does Bridgman’s experience tell us? It tells us that organizations are organic and they evolve over time. They are not static. When people leave one needs to keep in mind that there may well be Vern Bridgman’s behind them in the organization that are ready to take on their jobs or part of their jobs. It is folly to think that the automatic response must be to fill the position. Wait. It might be the case that the vacancy should be filled but it is worthwhile taking time to see how adaptive the organization is in terms of filling in behind them. If nothing else, the vacancy will create a temporary opportunity to assess the capacity of others within the organization, and give you the powerful opportunity to send the signal that you hire from within giving your people the opportunities for advancement.
In any job setting there is the bank of good will. You can make deposits and you can make withdrawals but like with all bank accounts it needs to be in balance. Here is what I mean: I once ran an organization that had a marketing and graphic design group in its midst. The people within this group were very creative. They would work weird hours – almost never early in the morning which I tend to like and frequently, when a deadline loomed, they would work from home. We worked an 08:30 am – 04:30 pm business day. There were instances when I would be headed to meetings at 09:30am and the marketing people would be arriving at work.
One day as I was walking to a meeting with a colleague we saw a couple of our graphic designers arriving mid-morning. My colleague made some kind of off-hand remark sotto voce about “banker’s hours” and then asked if I was upset at their apparent tardiness? My response was immediate and firm. No – could not have cared less. Why? Because they got their work done and it was on a very, very high level. This particular group won multiple peer-adjudicated awards for the quality of its work. Their work hours and where they did their work never was an issue and the fact that they were unionized never entered into my thinking. I treated them the same as everyone else, even those that were not in the union.
“Are you having any fun?” This is such a deceptive question – so innocuous on one level but yet penetrating on another. It is one of my favorites for people with whom I work. It is a question that I would be asked on numerous occasions by my boss, typically at the end of the day over a drink. We had difficult jobs, the hours were long and the rewards were few and far between. We liked to say to each other that we were living in the valley and the stuff was rolling downhill.
At first I thought the asking of the question of whether I was having any fun was most peculiar. Why would he care if I was having any fun? He was a very serious guy. What did fun have to do with what I was doing? As I reflected upon it, I came to realize that it was a most penetrating question and how one answered it revealed a great deal about one’s current perspective on what and how one was doing. I needed to think seriously about the answer. Rarely if ever do we think of intentionally having fun when it comes to work and a job and yet it is arguably an important consideration given that, as a rule, in full-time positions we spend at least 8 hours a day on the job.
The issue of whether you are having fun on the job should not be casually dismissed. While not every day will be enjoyable, on balance you need to have fun and enjoy what you are doing. When you do not enjoy what you are doing, you will suffer and so will the organization. When I walk the halls and talk to staff I often throw out the “are you having any fun question.” I have found that it is virtually impossible for anyone to hide their true feelings. If you get the sense that the people with whom you work are not having fun, you as manager have a problem.
In unanimity there may well be either cowardice or uncritical thinking.
Once a quarter, we would have meetings with all staff within the unit. In total there would be about 120 people in the room. The purpose of the meeting would be to review the quarterly results, to ensure that on organization-wide issues there was common understanding and as an accountability session by me to the employees. As the person responsible for the group, I would end the session by opening the floor to questions. One staff member in particular – Ann – would frequently pipe up and ask very aggressive questions. She was like the proverbial skunk at the garden party.
As the person that was the focus of her attention/queries, I would also be able to see the furtive looks from other members of the staff as she took on the boss. Other senior managers, off-line, expressed dismay at the temerity of her aggressive questioning. “Who did she think she was”, was how one person put it, I reassured them, there was value in what she was doing. I could never predict what she would ask. You never knew what good result might come from her line of inquiry.
I tried to always be respectful in how I handled such questioning. The staff also knew that their views may not prevail in the end and that once a decision with respect to the desired course of action had been taken, the time for debate and discussion was over. I took responsibility for all decisions and never threw anyone under the proverbial bus for a decision that I had taken or for which I was responsible.
To forge anything takes heat but as Harry Truman used to opine, “if you yourself can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen”. If you are engaged in something that has a high degree of difficulty attached to it and particularly if it is in the public domain, then it is likely that you yourself are going to be the subject of personal attack or personal heat. The sooner you recognize this and learn how to deal with it, the better off you will be. Keeping your cool and not losing your temper is always the best option. I think I have always known this but not always understood it. You can know this and you can read about this but experiencing this is the best way to appreciate it.
At various points in my career I have been forced into the limelight when dealing with issues. The result has been personal attacks. They have come in various ways and perhaps most significantly, one rarely knows when and where the attacks will occur. Here are some examples. When I was in my early thirties I was at a public meeting had a guy say about me in front of a rural Saskatchewan agriculture crowd, that “because I worked for the government at the time, that I did not have to tell the truth.” Not being particularly wise at that stage of my career, I responded by saying to the fellow that his comment was as “useful as someone saying that because he was a farmer he must be on the “teat” of the government.” Not surprisingly, news of my response made it back at warp-speed to my minister who immediately hauled me on the carpet and told me that the attacks were not aimed at me, that this was not personal and that if I could not handle it to tell him and that they would find someone who could.
I know a guy and he is the CEO of a successful oil and gas company. We were working on a deal and were exchanging contact information. Much to my amazement he had no cell phone and no email. He indicated that he communicated solely via land phone and fax. When I asked him the reason he said, “George, its simple, I get paid for thinking and cell phones and emails make that more difficult.. If you need to get a hold of me, you will.”
I thought about what he said and was intrigued by how someone in current times could make do without email and a cell phone let alone without an iPhone, Android or Blackberry. Typically the first order of business in my day was to log on and check my email. I’d then check my voice mail, I would do all this from home and then get ready to go to work. Not any more. The first thing I do is to make my list for the day. It includes everything I need to get done that day including messages I need to return, meetings I need to attend and desk time.
There are only 168 hours in a week and it is just a question of how you are going to spend them – The Peterson Doctrine
I was drowning. I was struggling with a turn-around in an organization that was operating in a sector with which I was not familiar. The learning curve was, as they say, steep – one might say it was not a curve at all, it was a completely vertical wall. I could not get a hold of my own schedule. It got so bad that my wife was calling the office to book time with me. My timetable was booked solid weeks in advance. I found that I did not have time to think or to follow up on important matters. The immediate took precedent over the important. Some days I barely had time to get to the bathroom between meetings.
Despite the fact that I had arguably the best office support staff in the entire organization I was my worst enemy as sometimes I am not the most disciplined in sticking to a time table. Meetings would be delayed and then whatever flex time that was built into my schedule would be used to get me back on time. I was exhausted and realized that while I was working very hard, I was not working very smart and that I needed to get control of this before I died of a stroke. I took a bulging brief case home every night as I was working in the evenings and on the weekends just to try and keep up.
1. Do what you love
2. Do good work and have fun
3. Try and make a living
If you do # 1 and then #2 you will never have to worry about #3
It is widely understood that most people will have multiple jobs throughout their careers and/or will work in multiple organizations. The day of working within the same organization for an entire career is largely a thing of the past. This can be both good and bad. Good in the sense that there will be multiple opportunities. Bad in the sense individuals will function more as independent contractors than as employees and this has implications for both employers and employees.
At a minimum this reality of the labour market presents the individual with a myriad of opportunities and choices. How do you sift through them? How does one decide what path to take at any given point in time? What is clear is that there are infinitely more options today that were present even 20 years ago. How do you know which ones to take and which ones to avoid?