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Preface: I hate the phone

I don’t do phones very well. I spent two years as the Readiness NCO for my National Guard company in 2009-2011, running things the other 28 days per month, and I like to think I did a fairly decent job of it, but I came to loathe the telephone (and a lot of other things and people not germane to today’s discussion).  In my current job, my cell stays in the car and the office has only two phones for about thirty people.  In short, I don’t talk on the phone for days or even weeks at a time.  My cell plan is a cheap prepaid one, with unlimited data and unlimited texting, but only 100 minutes per month; I have only used all of those twice in three years.

So believe it or not, I am literally out of practice in using the phone, such that a phone interview is not exactly playing to my strengths.  I had one a few weeks ago, and though I thought it went fairly well, there was one question in particular that has been bugging me.  I didn’t answer it terribly, but I could have done it better.

Which was the theme.  The gentleman on the other end asked me (paraphrasing a bit) to describe an occasion where I wish I’d handled something differently, and what I had learned from that.

What I said

I gave a perfectly legitimate but not very interesting example from Afghanistan.  It was your standard low-level drama of two people who loathed each other, forced to live in extremely close proximity under unpleasant (combat) conditions for 11 months.  Kind of like a sitcom when you describe it that way, except that there wasn’t much funny about it.  Fun fact: a significant portion of my journal was devoted to plots to murder my assistant team leader and dispose of the evidence.

I talked about how in retrospect I would have tried to be a great deal more patient and meet him more than halfway; getting the mission accomplished without fratricide was more important than what was fair.  It was clear we were never going to be friends, but I could have swallowed my pride a bit more and worked with him better despite it.  I’ve learned a great deal since 2006 about “managing” people placed over me, and I think I could do it a lot better now.  (I also have thought quite a bit since then about hiding bodies in a desert environment.)

The problem is that this anecdote is necessarily vague (not wanting to put anyone to sleep by providing the full context) and eight years (!) old now.  OEF VII has an immediacy for me that is hard to convey to a stranger over the phone; it still seems super relevant to my life, but probably not to someone who wasn’t with us.  It’s bugged me since then, because I have other examples which are much more recent and don’t even require talking around OPSEC considerations.

What I should have said

In retrospect, I should have used a much more recent example from my current work environment, albeit undoubtedly not in this much nauseating detail.

I’m on active duty with the Army National Guard, which is sort of like being a uniformed contractor.  Our program has comparatively stable funding, but our officers are constantly having to sell our program and convince the funding sources that we provide good bang for the buck.  (We provide excellent bang for the buck.)  If we lose the funding, we lose our jobs, so we have a performance imperative that you don’t often find in the Active Army.  We can let people go if they are not pulling their weight, rather than just commissioning them or sending them off to be trainers at TRADOC [inside Army zing!].

Aside from chasing every dollar, the ossifers are also constantly finding ways to do more with less and even convince other organizations to fund positions for us. The argument usually goes that this will get their people experience in what we do and will get their organization attached to our successes, which is helpful for their own budgetary struggles. Our work PowerPoints well.

For the purposes of this discussion, we write reports.  My function is to write reports, edit reports others have written, certify the release of those reports to the wider community, and teach (as adjunct faculty for an actual accredited school) the writing and releasing of these reports.  Reporting is what we do as an organization.

So once upon a time, say at the very beginning of 2012, we acquired a new noncommissioned officer (NCO) for our organization.  His unit had somehow wrangled funding for full-time orders for him for the fiscal year, but the mission fell through and he was at loose ends. Through machinations I don’t know about, he ended up working for us for “free.” (Frequently, the first time worker bees find out we’ve hired someone is when the new guy walks in the door to our secure facility.)

Aside: On the training of newbies

There is a serious productivity hit when you bring a new person on.  Mandatory training and getting the necessary accounts on various systems takes literally weeks.  Then he can start actually learning the job.  He sucks at it for a while and his report drafts bleed. Mean editors (e.g. me) spend time going over his errors and helping him use the available resources to learn the craft and get better.  Meanwhile, every hour an experienced person spends working with this person is an hour they are not producing anything. We aren’t wasting time; we are investing time in that person in the expectation that he will eventually add value to our team.

A good, diligent new person (and we’ve had quite a few over the years) is driven to get through this stage as fast as humanly possible so he can be a meaningful member of the team and not just a drain on resources.  He seeks out knowledge of his deficiencies so he can correct them, asks for help and feedback, and tries never to make the same mistake twice.

That’s a good new person.  That’s the person you want to join your team.  But instead we got Frank.

He was sort of the anti-Ryan

Frank was very intelligent, personable, capable–and utterly disinterested in writing reports.  Once he got past the initial getting-accounts-and-accesses stage, he started writing reports.  In theory.  In practice, he spent a great deal of time doing background research, making complicated charts, creating reference sheets, and talking.  Even the easy slow-ball reports we tossed him were taking quite a while to get done, perhaps two weeks, while the minimum expectation was to write at least one report per day.

The constant note-taking and reference-making wouldn’t bother me if he would actually refer to those things, but he had a certain intellectual laziness.  “Hey Ben,” he would say, pulling me out of my flow.  “How do I do [this thing that you just explained to me yesterday and sent me links about last week]?”  Didn’t we talk about that?  Do you know where to find the answer?  “Yeah, but it’s quicker just to ask you, ha ha.”  No.  Not ha ha.  Not at all.

We didn’t notice his lack of productivity right away.  He wasn’t working for me directly, and I was strongly encouraged to stay deeply in my lane, which was reporting and reporting standards and the production of reports and emphatically not direct supervision.  (I was and am supreme within my sphere, but it is small sphere.)

We all sort of sensed Frank was kind of lazy and slow, but didn’t realize the extent.  We brought our concerns up to the ossifers through our team leader, but the judgment was that free labor was still free labor, and any value we could get from him was value-added.  He was being paid out of someone else’s purse, and would be gone at the new fiscal year; it was a temporary problem.

If you want to tear apart team cohesion, this attitude is a pretty good way to do it.

To fully grok the impact, you must understand another of my (now former) team members.  Ryan was and is a ridiculously hard-working NCO.  He is a very straightforward, painfully direct and honest guy from Wyoming who has a truly insane work ethic.  You could be a serial killer and still be okay in Ryan’s book, provided that you were a productive, industrious serial killer.  (I knew within half an hour of starting at this job in 2011 that I had no hope of looking good so long as Ryan was my coworker; the best I could hope for in comparison was “not a dirtbag.”)  Ryan focuses with laser intensity on his job throughout the day, spends his evenings and weekends reading everything he can to better understand it, and comes back in on Mondays ready to kick ass and take names.  (I comfortably use present tense because I have no doubt that he took that ethic with him to his new job.)  It’s not a job to Ryan; it’s a crusade.

So long as Ryan kept his laser focus on his own work, he was unstoppable–and Frank was safe.  Once the issue became so obvious that even Ryan noticed, we had a problem.  It ate at Ryan like a cancer: the idea that Frank was just lollygagging, not really accomplishing anything, and we were carrying his weight just because it was easier than not doing so and because there was no direct financial cost to the organization.

Hurt feelings report

One crisp September morning (just a few weeks before Frank’s expected departure), Ryan and Frank find themselves the only ones on the team yet present.  By most accounts, Ryan turned around to Frank and went full knife hand on him: You are here to report. That’s your function. You will produce a report today.  Frank tried to deflect, but Ryan wasn’t having any of it: fulfill your obligations, sergeant.

Immediately upon my arrival, Frank took me aside to talk about how hurt his feelings were by this.  I ventured that Ryan had a point: “You’ve written what, 15 reports in the last ten months?  [Previous year’s new person] writes that many in a week.”

“Well, she is a lot better at it than I am.”

“She’s doesn’t write more reports because she’s better.  She is better because she writes more reports.  That’s how you get better.”  (And believe me, the early ones were all dreadful.  Now she edits and releases and trains the newbies, including Frank.)

After 20 minutes of talking about his hurt feelings, our team leader arrived and got a 20-minute conversation about hurt feelings.  And then the team leader had to talk with Ryan for 20 minutes.  This totals, by my calculations, 2.0 NCO-hours (a unit I just made up) spent on Frank’s feelings.  The end result was that Ryan fumed and ignored Frank for the rest of the year, and Frank would go on to vomit forth three or four more vague attempts at reports before the end of his orders, all of which had to be completely rewritten from scratch.  I’m still not sure whether he was intentionally tanking, or just still didn’t know what he was doing.

What went wrong

Though I personally found him super irritating, Frank was not a bad guy, but he tended to be lazy.  A big piece of leadership is motivating your people to accomplish your mission, but you have to hold them accountable for their actions (or inaction).  This was our big failure up front: there was an unspoken expectation that everyone (especially a mid-grade NCO) would pull their own weight, but we failed both to explicitly define what that meant and to check to see whether it was actually happening.

Once we became aware of the problem, leadership chose to wait it out.  This is sometimes a valid option, but in this case it was based on an erroneous assessment about the value of free labor.  To the leadership, anything at all that Frank did was added value, and his cost was zero.  To the team, Frank was a millstone around our necks, penalizing our productivity in a variety of ways while producing little or nothing.  His free labor didn’t directly cost the budget, but it cost us.

And we resented him for it.  How could we not?  How do I motivate a junior soldier to work harder, produce more, and do better when a higher paid NCO down the aisle produces nothing–and no one seems to care?   Accountability is about holding people to the standard.  Good leadership involves convincing your people to hold themselves to the standard, to raise the standard, and to own the standard as a point of pride.  We didn’t do that.  We failed our team.

Further, we failed Frank.  We did not set an explicit standard and we made it clear through our inaction that we didn’t particularly care whether he met it or not.  So he didn’t.  In the civilian job market, you can perhaps let those people go, but the Army excels at developing people to be what we need them to be (because we don’t usually have any other option).  We have doctrine, tools, and training for doing this, but we didn’t use them.

Finally, we failed the Guard. We may have dodged the bullet because he’s gone now, but he’s still someone’s problem.  We had an opportunity to motivate him to fix himself, and we didn’t take it, so we have also failed his future leaders and his future subordinates.  That is the aspect which weighs on me.  We’re in the Guard, and today we’re writing reports that no one will read.  But I wasn’t always sitting in front of a computer, and tomorrow we may again be doing very different things involving bullets and explosions and bleeding and so forth.  An NCO without initiative is a dangerous weakness in that environment.

Maybe he wouldn’t have fixed himself, but if he were still a failure at the end of his tenure with us, it should not have been because of our lack of effort.

What I should have done

It wasn’t my team to run.  I was explicitly not responsible for this person.  But he was on my team, and I take ownership in my team.  I saw things going south, but I made the fatal not-my-problem error, closing my eyes to it because I didn’t want to deal with him either.  I resented his presence, his interruptions, and part of me enjoyed looking down on him for being useless.  I’m not proud of that, but I acknowledge it.  In retrospect, I wish I had done more to nudge the people who were responsible, and that I’d found a diplomatic way to motivate him better.  I think I might have done it.  But I didn’t really try.

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