Wednesday, May 15, 2013

When Presented With the Choice

Back at another company, years ago, I found I was about to get a new boss. I had liked my old boss and he had liked me. You might think of that as a plus. Ordinarily, when manager and subordinate are high-performing professionals and agree about goals and approaches and other things material to the work environment, it’s a good thing.

I thought so. I had moved to that difficult area from a job I had really liked, felt good about, and received awards many awards for.  Shortly after my old work group had done a group exercise with the official MBTI test, I found out something that did not surprise me, that I was a different Jungian personality type from the rest of my management team.

I had realized that and sought to make that difference the difference. After all, my type is called “results oriented.” To my mind, it was a good fit for a technology director focused on meeting the needs of business. I had a great team of programmers and managers who were tops at churning out projects that worked, that built on the future, that mattered in helping other technology teams meet their project goals. I liked my peers and our differences.

As it turns out, I was the only person on my management team who was comfortable with my results-oriented approach. I liked my job instead of groaning under the tremendous workload. I enjoyed the projects we worked on, enjoyed understanding them, enjoyed working with the programmers about them. I was happy. My team was, for the most part, happy.

My peers and boss in this group, however, were pretty sure I was the puzzle piece who didn’t fit. When it came time to shrink the group a bit, I was the one who was selected to move out. In the shuffle of the reorganization, a miscommunication occurred, however. My boss thought he had placed me in a “great” job in a group called “journaling” which was an accounting area. Unfortunately, the management of that group had placed someone else in that position and I was stuck momentarily without a chair. I was devastated and it was a measurable part of my performance not to show it.

Stripped of my team and without a new position, awkwardly I was asked to stay on as my VP’s special projects person, which is corporate speak for that deadly position indicating you should find another job immediately. I chugged away to create extensive documentation of my area for a quarter which impressed my non-results-oriented VP to no end and he gave me a high rating with shock and surprise, his.

An opening came up that looked good. Well, it looked like the only possibility of an opening in my company. I spent 45 minutes talking to Charlie and knew we were going to get along.

Charlie was from Texas and was about as un-San Franciscan as possible. Politics and the occasional thoughtless joke aside, he was a good, smart guy who would listen to reason and take a chance to develop employees. He sent me to an excellent technology intensive course and helped me learn the ropes. It wasn’t easy, but I latched onto it and gained the respect of people within the group.

I was starting to heal from being booted out of the department that I had helped create from scratch. I was deep into the new position, a nearly impossible job with too many customers who all thought they should be number one on my list and regularly were verbally abusive. One difference I made was not to pass this abuse along to my team, knowing that beating the horsie seldom makes her go faster when you’re using a sledge hammer.

That didn’t mean I didn’t have a standard of performance for the team. So, when one team member had an issue, which Charlie dealt with, fairly, I thought, I had respect for him. Charlie had explained what happened after it was complete without revealing too-personal details. I had agreed with his assessment and decision. We agreed, even on difficult topics. It was a good partnership.

I didn’t realize how important it was to understand how well-regarded your boss is in an organization. As it turns out, Charlie’s boss hated him, hated everything about him. I also had misjudged that she would project that hatred onto me because I worked well with him. She hated the decision he had made, assumed it was made with the wrong reasoning. She brought each person on the team into her office for interrogation about the issue. I gave my honest answer based on the facts as I knew them, allowing for the fact that I was not present at the time of the alleged incident but had spoken with both Charlie and the employee with the issue.

Honesty was not the best policy. Charlie’s boss easily spread her hatred of Charlie to me also and in an instant, although I was aware only of her displeasure at my report, my fate was sealed.

Charlie’s was sealed a lot sooner and within a month he had been fired for not getting along with his boss. And now, I was getting a new boss.

Naturally, with the upheavals I had had in the past three years, I was anxious to know more about my new boss. Following my own quipped advice that it is always best to learn from the mistakes of others, I called a friend who used to work for the new guy. She was an intelligent, outspoken woman and I thought perhaps my own experience might in some ways mirror hers.

“Now that you know him,” I asked her, “what would you do differently?”

She laughed. It was a laugh I came to understand was one of grateful escape.

“With him,” she said evenly, “you constantly must ask yourself with his every word, his every action, ‘Is he evil or stupid?’ In his case, always pick stupid.”

My spirits sunk low. It had been my experience that when presented with the choice in bosses between Evil and Stupid, always pick Evil.

I know it seems counter-intuitive. Evil can be appealed to on some level. You can accomplish great good while justifying your acts to the Evil Boss as something that will advance his position or otherwise appeal to his sense of greed. But, as I constantly warned my friends, the depths of Stupidity have never been plumbed.

I worked for the new guy for about six months. While he was geographically appealing to his boss, the one who fired Charlie, he was much more sexist, arbitrary, capricious, customer-negligent and the epitome of what business people fear in technology professionals: He wanted to spend their money to buy cool new toys, not to deliver business solutions. I did everything I could to remain professional, competent and customer-focused. He was openly skeptical of my abilities, my intelligence, my prospects and my gender.

When the next round of layoffs came, we talked the evening before. He finally loosened up talking to me, saying that he knew he had given me a hard time in the last six months and frankly he was pleased, so pleased with my performance, that the only flaw he could find with me was that I was “too nice.” He said he thought I had all the makings of a vice president, and he wanted to start work on that once all the layoff stuff was over.

I remembered what I knew of him from experience and from advice. I knew what I had read for myself. I told him that if he needed to tell me that I was laid off, please do me the favor of coming for me the very first thing in the morning. He was shocked that I thought that might happen. I smiled. We shook hands and parted.

The next morning at 7:15 am he came to my office, shame-faced and flustered. To this day, I honestly do not think he knew that the conversations he was having with his boss would result in my being let go.

In the Tarot, “stupid” might be represented by The Fool and “evil,” The Devil. If those are your choices, I urge you to draw another card! Neither one makes a good boss. Just don’t be convinced that those are the only two cards in the deck.

Best wishes.

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