Hitting The Books

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Over the years we all have a few life changing moments. One of mine came to me around the tenth year of quartering yet another frozen turkey. It was right after I finally came to the realization that they were never going to promote me to Head Meat Cutter no matter how many times our department came in first in the Zone in sales nor how many times I smiled as I sawed up those turkeys. But I can say that I never would have had the courage to go to college if my family had not pushed me to make that first uncomfortable move.  It started with just a few evening classes at the local technical school. I thought I would turn my love for math and managing by the numbers into a lucrative skill. Little did I know at the start that this would lead to a lifelong love for learning and a fascination with computers.

Two years flew by while attending night classes and working full-time still cutting up those turkeys, but now I was focused on funding my education. On graduation day I wore that cap and gown with pride as I receive my freshly minted Associates Degree in Accounting. I was ready to conquer the professional world! Much to my dismay the jobs for me with my new degree were few and far between and none of them could compare with the wages I was making as a part on the Union.  It would have been even more disappointing if I hadn’t taken that last computer class and discovered that I had a knack for programming – in COBOL – but hey it was still programming. I took exceptional pride in the fact that when I loaded my deck of punched cards into the hopper my code ran first time every time with no errors. It was with the memory of this that I decided to continue to invest in my education by attending a local college and getting a degree that would open doors for me to travel beyond the frozen turkey days. So again with my family’s support, I now start school during the day and switched to nights and week-ends for the turkey travails. Other than a full course load and many stops at school for lab after work, those days included doing the nightly clean-up of the Meat Room. I think I hold the record for the fastest time breaking down the slicer and the band saw and hosing the whole room down with disinfectant and yup you guessed it putting it all back together again just to quarter another frozen turkey. Did I mention that in between times I did my homework standing up in the meat room shifting from one foot to the next trying to stay warm in that 40° room.  Thanks to many cups of black coffee I never fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home.

The next two years went by in a blur, maybe some of that was from the steam in the Meat Room. Now I was really armed and ready to launch into a professional career. So long turkeys! I bought a suit and the requisite nylons and heels and started the interview rounds. After a few weeks I was faced with one of the biggest decisions of my life. Should I take the job at the CPA firm doing taxes? Or should I take the job at the business software startup where I would answer the phones and listen to customers complain? To this day my husband still can’t believe that I chose the latter. I remember him saying,” you hate to hear people complain, you hate the phone, and you really hate sitting all day, now tell me why you took that job again?” The answer was easy. I would have my very own bright and shiny new computer and I could play with software all day long.  Except for the complaints, the phone, and the sitting, it was a job made in heaven. Lucky for me and the customers, my management talent (or simply maturity since I was the oldest employee in the office) and my penchant for breaking the software made me the perfect candidate to start the companies first ever Quality Assurance Department. I’d love to say that was my brain child, but in reality it was due to a critical contract with IBM (the real IBM this time) that required having a QA group that led to my move into management.

It was also around this time that I decided that to really get ahead in the professional world I needed to have some initials after my name. During my senior year at college I had sat for but not passed all parts of the CPA exam. Never to be one to leave something unfinished, I kept on studying and passed all four parts on the second and third tries. One night, fueled I am sure my much black coffee, I applied for and was accepted into an Executive MBA program. It was back to night school I went for more black coffee and rubbing elbows with “C” level wanna be executives.  After a few years I now had CPA and MBA after my name. It doesn’t get any better than that!

So what might you ask did I learn from all of this hard work and study? Let me sum that up for you. It pays to have a loving and supportive family. It’s one thing to get an education but quite another to apply it well in the work environment. And lastly, doing it at light speed like I did, you have to be a little crazy and that comes from drinking too much black coffee!

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Think Free… Think Gray

This past week I’ve been reading a new book, The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership, by Steven Sample. After reading a few chapters I posted the think free think gray phrases on my white board. These were a personal reminder. Yesterday when a respected peer asked about what these phrases meant I told him that they were reminders to me to not jump to a conclusion or make a quick decision. Now that is so unlike me, that he just smiled and shook his head. Well one can hope that as I have read, leaders are made not just born, and that I can learn a few new habits. The habit I am working on first is “artful listening.”

More along the lines of thinking gray, artful listening, is listening attentively without rushing to judgement. This allows gathering a fresh perspective and not being bound by pre-conceived notions. I have been praised for being able to think and act quickly. While there is a place for that in “fight or flight” situations these are not often present in the software development world– while it might seem like it is when a customer calls with an urgent issue, it is still better to gather all of the facts before racing to make a decision.

However, thinking gray and thinking free are much more than just artful listening, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Given  my proclivity for rushing to resolve problems I think artful listening is enough for me to tackle initially.   Then after I think I have somewhat mastered this art I will move on to the next learning opportunity.

I am finding this book a wealth of thought-provoking information and encourage anyone in a leadership position or who wants to move into a leadership role to read this book and start to practice some of the principles prescribed by Mr. Sample. I’ve included an excerpt from a particularly well written summary of the book below.

“…If nothing else, Sample’s gift in this book is the notion that there is no tried and true formula for good leadership or for becoming an effective, let alone good, leader. Should we aspire to doing leader, as opposed to being leader (in which we like the trappings of office but don’t want to dirty our hands with the day-to-day, not-always-pleasant requirements of actually doing the job), we are encouraged to break out of conventional thinking, cultivate some tendencies that diverge from what we may have learned, and take responsibility for our own and others’ actions. As Sample says, if you’re not willing to do what it takes, stay out of the leadership business altogether.

A few Contrarian principles suggested in this book include:

  • Think gray: try not to form opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to. Sample calls this “seeing double,” and “the ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives.”
  • Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches. Too often we rush to judgment or give in to the naysayers who only focus on how or why something cannot or should not be done.
  • Listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully.
  • Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
  • Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can be reasonably put off to tomorrow. But then, Sample also says…
  • Shoot your own horse. Don’t make others do your dirty work.
  • Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes. You can only influence the future.
  • Reading Machiavelli can help make you a more moral leader.
  • Work for those who work for you. Hire people who are better than you and help them succeed.
  • You can’t really run your organization; you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization you nominally head.
  • You can’t copy your way to the top; true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches….”

Sample is also a huge proponent of something he calls “open communication with structured decision-making,” which allows the freedom to talk informally with anyone in the organization but doesn’t undercut the authority and responsibility of line administrators and managers.  I particularly like the example he has in the book that deals with a successful business leader who stopped by and had a chat with one of his engineers and asked a few questions. A few days later the engineers manager complained to the leader that he had redirected the work of the engineer. The leader felt terrible because all he did was ask a few questions. However, it wasn’t clear to the engineer that while there was open communication the decision-making really needed to follow the structure already in place.

If you really want to avoid micro-managing and if you truly want to empower those who work with and for you, this type of approach is critical. You might say it’s contrarian leadership at its best!