In November 2010, my younger brother died suddenly but not expectedly. Around that time my Department was looking for a manager to be the co-champion of its middle managers network. For the fledgling network, I was a seemingly obvious choice to put my hand up based on my keen involvement in the network in its earliest days, but, after my brother died, as brilliantly described in the film, “A Single Man,” it hurt to get up in the morning.
So, I presented to work on autopilot for a few months and was laid even more low by my slow uptake of complex subject matter in a new position. It didn’t seem the right time to take on additional duties to my bread and butter work as a policy manager in a busy shop under a busy Minister who is rumored to take a day off a month.
The call out for a new manager came and went. None of the approximately 800 managers in the Department wanted the job. I eventually got up off the couch and was was acclaimed to the position.
I am currently on a period of personal leave from work and have decided that this would be a good time to take stock of what I learned in those two years. This is the first of two parts.
The first is that, I now understand that you have to present when you are ready to serve and there is a good chance the universe will wait for this to occur. In addition:
Embrace the contractions and do your best to run them up the middle: In the book The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin, explores our capacity as humans to hold opposing ideas in our minds and to find integrative solutions to both elements which are better than honoring one or the other.
For me, I had to embrace the contraction that I wanted to support a group that was both highly respected, highly committed to the mandate of the Department and its own development as managers while teetering on burnout. In addition, while our managers’ committee was a formally recognized in the Departmental reporting structure, it had a lingering volunteer or even extracurricular status.
We embraced these contradictions by hacking back our strategic plan to a minimal and manageable set of activities that we were able to deliver with whoever was available. The adage of asking a busy person to do something if you want it done proved true. A few key middle managers with lots on their busy plates, squeezed out another one or two activities in support of the committee. While our perceptions of having “junior” committee status may linger, our having received the participation of senior executives at many of our early events helped lift us a bit more.
Give it a minute. I attended a cooking class recently when the chef said that he wanted us to sear the tofu for a minute. He then went on to say that in his experience that the average person would start poking the darn thing at about 23 seconds. For me, the slow start-up of our committee was as if the second hand on the clock had gotten stuck in place, trying to move but unable to advance. For someone impatient by nature, this was my own private version of being waterboarded. But, taking the long view, the progress was not unreasonable by any means. We got a respectable number of activities executed over two years with the stalwart support of key players in our learning section and senior executive champion.
Perhaps most importantly on a personal level, I realized the need to stay a credible amount of time to try to get something off the ground. I have no formula for this, but for this enterprise, two years was reasonable. One year to get through an entire cycle of events and another year to figure out if worked by fluke the first time and if not, to do it again with lessons learned.