Finding a way, or making it

One of my goals coming into this year was to be ‘more humble’. It’s a worthy goal, but I can already see where and how it doesn’t work for me.

I’m an enterprising character. Put me in the right job and I have energy, drive and am full of ideas. I’m not and never can be someone quietly working away in the corner ticking things off. My inclination is to get the job done as efficiently and simply as possible, and then to look beyond that. To some degree that’s a result of how I think. I’m curious and like to know how things work and where they lead. It’s natural for me to conduct some kind of root cause analysis in the back of my mind approaching just about everything I do. At the same time I like looking forward: what are the consequences of this? And the opportunities? Where do the dominoes fall, and what does it mean? And I’ll follow.

None of this is consistent with truly being humble. If I was humble I’d be content with doing the job to the letter of the law. Get things done, move on. By nature I’m just too creative and curious to stop there. And too hungry – I want to know what’s over the next hill. And I want to conquer it.

It’s a mindset that suits very well the profession I chose for myself, roughly speaking business process and management consulting. It’s probably the thing that elevated me to a position whereby I could take on those things: I was once a humble clerk. That was not enough for me, and the extra I offered was recognised and gratefully exploited. I rose through the ranks above better-credentialled colleagues because I was hungry and capable. I had something to offer, and I was truly committed. Committed because I wanted to know.

I find myself in a similar situation today. I’ve fallen back into old ways very smoothly. I find I am little changed. My mind is just as eager, I’m just as driven and keen to make a positive difference. Taking on the job I very quickly realised that notions of being humble were inconsistent with the role as I saw it, and more fundamentally with the character I am. I’m ambitious, not just for me, but for the role also, and what can be achieved. Humility stops me at the border, but ambition takes me beyond it.

The aim now is to be humble in my conduct while being true to the objective. Once upon a time, I might have been accused of being cocky and arrogant. Many a time I thought myself the smartest man in the room, and occasionally acted it. I still think it sometimes, but I rein it in. It’s not what I want to believe, nor how I want to act, and most importantly, it doesn’t help much.

I’ve had issues with the role and the organisation, and to some degree they continue. There are obstacles at every turn. It’s frustrating, but must be dealt with.

My ascension to the role as been well received by my peers and superiors. I feel as if some of the things I’ve done have been revelatory, but the reality of it is that the things I’ve done only measure up to the standard I know and believe in. This is the way things should be done, and at many organisations it’s the de facto standard. Here it seems something more because there has been no real standard, and no conception seemingly of how it could be.

I’ve been lauded publicly and privately. It’s nice, but I take it with a shrug of the shoulders – I’m only doing it how it should be done. While I have been frustrated at the roadblocks put before me, the things I’ve achieved so far have gone very well. That’s given me credit in the bank. At one point I thought it might make me front-runner for the role when my manager eventually leaves off. I’m no longer sure of that.

My manager has taken on a new role since I began while retaining the old. She devotes about 95% of her time to the new role. It makes substantial sense. It’s new so she has to put extra time into it. Plus really it’s what she knows best, and what she enjoys. It’s her sweet spot, and what she’s expert at. On top of that we self-manage ok.

She’s a lovely and very intelligent woman. She’s very willing and supportive. What she doesn’t have is the innate knowledge or understanding of the role I fill any more than I do hers. Not many do. I think she knows this, and now leans heavily upon me to progress the function. There was an occasion last week when I was describing to her the challenges we were facing with a particular situation. I told her what the problems were one by one, then told her what the solutions needed to be – none of which were technical. It was all about structure and ownership. As I spoke she scribbled down notes, interjecting now and then to clarify a point. At some point after the things I told her would be presented to others.

This is a part of my frustration. It’s not so much that others can pass off my words as their own. I’ve never been possessive like that. It’s more practical. I tell her things she tells others. Others tell her things she tells me. In the process things are lost or misconstrued. The Chinese whispers change the message, and there is little opportunity for nuance and none for feedback. It’s inefficient and potentially dangerous.

My preference by far would be to deal directly. It’s my nature, but it’s also much cleaner and effective to get it from the horse’s mouth than it is via his second cousin.

That would be the logical way forward, but I doubt it will happen. Right now there is some question whether there is the budget to fill the manager’s role. And I have come to understand that their general practice is to fill these roles internally by well-established figures, regardless of pertinent experience. They may not have the appropriate attributes, but at least they know how to negotiate the labyrinthine politics of the place. I’m not a part of that club, and though the incumbent may recommend me I suspect ultimately they’d prefer to keep me as a pointy tool hacking a way forward.

That is, in fact, the other issue. I’ve walked into the role and been smothered with work to be done. Some are things that were started and then stopped months before, with my job to pick up the scattered pieces and put it back together again. Others are jobs that pop up seemingly out of nowhere after a chance encounter or conversation. Two such came my way last week (to my frustration – I believe in systematic processes), one of which has been promised to be resolved within a fortnight by someone who would have no idea.

I’d forge ahead with these jobs anyway, but necessity means that I have to push hard. In doing that I think I’ve ruffled some feathers in areas outside of my own when inquiring after information or asking for jobs to be done. To be clear, this is not an organisation where things ‘get done’. On the contrary, I get no response to most of my queries, the few responses I receive have been in the negative, and the general tenor being if possible it might be in a few months time. There is no agility or urgency. They’re both things I bring to the table, and so there is bound to be conflict. I pretty much agree with Hannibal when he said: “We will either find a way, or make one.” If one way won’t work, I’ll try another – I don’t give up.

My immediate superiors are very supportive, certainly sympathetic (the issues are widely known), and glad that they have me to force a way. They have now been called to a meeting though to discuss some of the initiatives I’ve put forward with the external areas I’m trying to work with. ‘We’ – our area, my manager – suspect ‘they’ will dig their heels in and resort to bureaucratic interference. They will question my qualifications for some of the things I propose, and seek to take ownership of them with a proprietary air. The result of that may be a compromise by which they move, but within their process, and at a more ponderous pace.

I don’t know which way it will go. I made a point a little while ago that the role I had been given did not have the authority entailed in it required to properly get it done. In the end, I chose to ignore that and do what was needed, and what was true to me. Despite that, I’ve already had half my projects grind to halt waiting for someone to do their bit – sometime in April. If a similar result comes from this meeting then another 30% of my jobs are effectively suspended pending their response. That leaves me with fuck-all.

I’m preparing briefing notes and am hopeful that my managers will push back hard. My qualifications are as good as any (I suspect they’ll be greatly surprised), and my managers feel the same dissatisfaction I do with the lack of cooperation.

For me, it’s pretty critical. I’m definitely looking for another role, but it becomes pressing if I’m left twiddling my thumbs. One thing I have had re-affirmed to me this short period is that I am as hungry as I ever was. I like doing things. I like doing them well. I’m not content with filling a role. Life is short, make it count. Urgency matters. Achievement fuels the soul.

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