Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sing a New Song

1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.

2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.

3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
~~~ Psalm 40

A member of my personal Board of Directors (a persona we will have to call “Mrs. B,” because even after a bottle of wine and a thousand mosquito bites at the Sky Bar, we are unable to choose a satisfying blogonym) has assigned me this essay. That is to say, she assigned me the reflection; posting the essay about it was my own idea. She is a faithful reader.

Other faithful readers, who follow the Mill Update threads, know that this past year’s attitude adjustment was very much desired, just hard to come by. A few yards forward on a Thursday or Friday could come completely undone by Monday afternoon. The effort seemed so futile.
But slowly, the tide began to turn, and reflections of the company I had been promised 4 years ago began to emerge. There are still days where I will smugly remark, “thanks for coming to the table,” when someone expresses a suggestion or puts forward a design I worked on in 2004, but this is an improvement over wanting to slug them in the jaw.

And I guess this is beginning to show.

Mrs. B said, during a 1:1 lunch, that I seemed to be in a different place these days, and wondered if things were getting better. I said that I was able to put that first year on a shelf at last, and that what finally got me there was realizing that everyone (every…one) who had screwed me over was gone. I had outlasted them all. I can stop carrying around the anger, the spite, and the bitterness – number one, because they aren’t here to witness it, but number two, because that door really is finally closed.

And as maddening as it is sometimes to have people declare to me every observation I have been making for the past 3 years, I have the clarity to realize they share my opinion. “So that first year was some kind of Pledge Year I had to endure and now I am the last girl standing.”

The Boss is fond of correcting me with, “You didn’t ‘waste’ that time; you spent it in a way you didn’t expect.”

Similarly, Mrs. B challenged me to sing a new song – to stop speaking of that year as something that ‘happened’ to me, and to find the experience in it, both professional and personal, that prove it was not time wasted. This is a long prologue to
What I Learned During Plebe Year that Has Informed My Worldview.

I make a lot of assumptions.
And I had learned this before, so I can also include that I am as capable of forgetting important life lessons as I am learning them. I didn’t ask the right questions because I didn’t recognize that they needed asking, and because everyone on my team was new to the company and thought the same thing.

Nowadays when I meet-n-greet new employees, I close with “There are 2 assumptions you will make that will get you into a lot of trouble. When you hear yourself making them, stop and ask more questions.” I have a nicer way of wording them, but they are
1) your cross-functional team shares one goal and one order of priorities and
2) our systems are automated and integrated.

They are really the same misguided assumption – just one about people and one about machines.

Charisma is a draw, but not a guarantee
I came to the Mill to work for a man who in 2 interviews knocked me off my feet. He rejuvenated an enthusiasm my then-employer had killed, and I wanted nothing more than to show him what I was capable of. I wanted to excel for him, for our team to come bursting out of the locker room behind a spinning newspaper headline that read “Unknowns Wow the Crowd.” (The storyboards of these fantasies are heavily influenced by MGM.) But the sad truth is that he did not survive. When we shook hands on our deal, his Livestrong bracelet wobbled down over his wrist.
In less than a year, he had died.

I learned I would always prefer to work for a strong leader than to lead a strong team. I’m much more confident in that role. I know my time with The Boss has been/is precious, and I try not to squander it.

You can’t plan everything
That turn of events was personally shocking enough. What made it professionally unbearable was how vulnerable it left our little team. So much for our rousing Hoosier-like victory; we weren’t even allowed court time for practice. By budget renewal time, the CEO asked us to forecast the cost of shutting down. Marauders were taking our team members. Backroom deals were being made. In 12 months of planning, we hadn’t planned for that.

I have learned to remember those sand mandalas the Buddhist monks make. As part of their devotion, they will sweep it all away when it is completed. The serenity comes from carefully laying out each grain anyway.

You have to approach negotiations differently when you are an outsider
Honestly, I never knew this. I have been on The Fringe, but never truly on the Outside, in that West Wing “are you on the inside?” kind of way.
A girl from the Latin Club is never in a position of Power, but I had always been at the table when the decisions got made.

Life on the Outside required a different set of skills, most of which were new to me:

  • networking, using my closest inside connection to get to those in the room
  • influence, where Power is not mine to wield
  • compromise, getting only a fraction of what I lack the muscle to get in full
  • submitting, when my opposition’s Ego is much stronger than mine.

This might all be in Tzu’s Art of War. I just had to learn it the hard way.

Support comes from unexpected places
It is unfair for me to suggest that the entire company gave us the cold shoulder. It was only our division, our leadership, and the people who sold our product.

There was support from other camps – some of it scattered, and without much more status than we had – but genuine support nonetheless. If we hadn’t been forced to wander the desert looking for it, we might not have made those connections, and it was those connections that gave each of us refuge when the end came.

The young woman now fondly and respectfully known as The Boss took me aside on what I expected to be my last weekend and encouraged me to come work with her. Our put-upon tech writer was welcomed into training with open arms and gladly given the increased responsibility that allowed her to finally move up and out.

When the terrible news came, it wasn’t the CEO, or our VP’s peers, who came by to visit and express their condolences. It was these scattered supports who proved to be the real mensches. They are all gone now too, sad to say.

One executive was a source of some intimidation for me because she was forcefully demanding and her clients more so. I would get into trouble with my homebound VP, who thought I spent too much time on her needs and not enough on his. What I couldn’t explain to him was that she was there to answer to, and he wasn’t. Intimidation turned to mutual respect, then admiration, and eventually to friendship.

She is Mrs. B, of course. It is a corny and obvious ending, but it is also the truth.

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