The best-laid plans of mice and men sometimes go astray. When I posted the first time about my new job, it was after a pretty extensive internal process for me personally — reflecting extensively on what I had liked about previous jobs, what I was looking for in a new job — and a formal job search across multiple areas.
As I finished that search and said yes to the dress, so to speak, I went with a stakeholder relations job for disability pensions. I liked the way it was framed, there was a formal set of mechanisms in place, not building SR from the ground up, and there was a Round Table that met three times a year that would drive the work cycle.
The interview with the DG had been great, I was excited about the files, and I had touched on things that were important to me in the job search…a chance to innovate, an open management environment, good people to work with, and a solid working relationship with my management team.
On the last two points, he noted two issues that I would face in taking the job. First, there were what we would come to refer to as legacy HR issues in the team. Second, we didn’t know who the director would be as the position was empty, and he was in the process of looking for someone (there were competitions, etc., already underway). We talked about my own career aspirations and I confirmed I wasn’t looking for a promotion — I like my level, and while I’m willing to act when needed, I wasn’t looking to bump up anytime soon, if ever — so this wasn’t a “stepping stone” to something else.
I took the job
Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had hoped.
I’m going to start with the environment. I didn’t know anyone in the area before I started so it was hard to do much of a reference check on what it was like working there. The initial environment was borderline toxic in some ways. The directorate was undergoing a change in philosophy, albeit perhaps a needed one, and many of the long-serving members were not happy with the new direction. A reorganization had been pre-announced, i.e. “something was coming”, but for a variety of factors, the file wasn’t moving, and the staff felt they were in limbo for too long. Disengagement, resentment, even open negativity from some members. While I could reassure my team that our work direction was generally the same and that we wouldn’t see much change in our files, I was also an acting director with another team where it was going downhill. From their perspective, it felt like they had poured their life into a file only to be now told their contributions and approaches were no longer what was needed. There were also legacy HR issues. Grievances, misaligned file responsibilities, people having shifted files every six months, little stability or ownership of their own files, fear of innovation in some cases, and fear in general of what was coming.
But you know what? The issues I was seeing were not insurmountable. I’ve worked through them before, I have ways to counteract and mitigate those influences, and I knew the structural re-org was coming which would give us a great “turning point” moment to build around.
Regardless, though, put bluntly, it was not the happiest place on earth.
When it came to the management culture, the openness I sought seemed almost non-existent. The DG seemed to be saying all the right words, but generally speaking, people hardly spoke up at the meetings, and few if anyone volunteered anything beyond what we were already doing. I’m a pretty candid manager, and equally so when I’m acting director. I do NOT need for my view to win the day, but I will make sure the view is heard, and preferably in an environment where it is welcome. I also like to believe, somewhat naively, that you can create that atmosphere from below, it doesn’t have to be driven by the chair. But it wasn’t happening.
On the innovation front, I probably should have poked harder on this one in the interview. One of my strengths at Foreign Affairs, CIDA including the DM’s office, and during my time managing the planning files previously, was the ability to streamline some of the processes, to take out the brain farts and nice-to-haves and focus on getting the job done with as informal of processes as the situations allowed. There were a bunch of pedestrian examples in my time in the job, but I kept hearing the same phrase: “Just do it the same way as last time.” Sorry, that’s not a rallying cry for me when I see things that can be improved within my span of control.
On the file side, I actually liked the stakeholder files I was managing. A good round table with some potential to improve for the future, a chance to expand another two files, and to potentially grow a fourth. I had ideas, people on the team had ideas, we had some options. I wasn’t sure how fast we could get to them with some legacy plus new HR issues, but it would work itself out in time as we got the rhythm going. Or so I thought.
The final challenge was the who factor. As I mentioned above, I didn’t know the team when I started, but I got to know them and work with them, and I was upbeat for the future. I could see some ways to work with them, and I did my normal mentoring / coaching option on HR and competitive processes. Lots of candid conversations. A good basis for the future, I hoped.
Two other managers left, and I was disappointed to lose them. But with the reorg, I would get to work with a third who looked like a good partner to work with in the management realm. Call that one a draw.
The challenge in the end was the director position. As I mentioned above, the DG noted that I would be taking the job blind, since he didn’t know who the director would be. I said I wasn’t too worried about it, since in a mitigation consideration of worst-case possibilities, I had worked for some difficult people in the past and found a way to make it work.
As we got closer to the reorg announcement, there was another director position that was being eliminated and replaced at the manager level, so we would have an “extra” director and an “empty” director box. The math was easy to do for everyone in the Directorate, but when I asked the DG about it, he said no, that wasn’t the plan. Even eight days before the announcement, he reconfirmed that wasn’t the plan. Reconfirmed again a couple of days before. And then announced it was her. Maybe there’s a story in there somewhere, one I didn’t need to know or care about, but it wasn’t a very open management process. Whatever, we keep rolling, cuz that’s the job.
The new director and I never found our rhythm. We both tried, we both failed. In the end, it was clear that neither our management approaches nor communication styles mesh well.
For communications, I tried an early visioning approach, then a work planning approach, followed up with a table of contents for a policy piece, and finally started just giving her the pieces to react to at the end. None of them were what she wanted, but we couldn’t seem to agree on “what” she did want. After a particularly chaotic interchange, she sent me a strongly worded email about something not being what she wanted. Unfortunately, I found the tone completely unacceptable, and so much so that I obsessed about it all weekend. Way beyond the norm. We had a “come to Jesus” conversation on the Monday to discuss it, all very cordial and frank, and the atmosphere improved, but the comms side did not. We were both trying, but it wasn’t working. Four months in and we hadn’t found a solution.
But for me, the problem wasn’t just the miscommunication. I wasn’t comfortable with the environment or the tone either. I reached out to our Employee Assistance Program to talk through my reactions, because I couldn’t quite figure out why I had reacted so strongly. I felt anger, apathy, frustration, sure, but that wouldn’t normally be sufficient to cause me to obsess. The harshness of the feedback I was getting, combined with the organizational uncertainty and some stress, and the frustration that I wasn’t able to solve this conundrum on my own, was producing a different emotion in me. Fear.
Fear that I couldn’t fix it. Fear that the challenges were outside of my control. Fear that I was in the hands of someone else, someone who I didn’t communicate well with, and perhaps I was also fearful that I was out of practice for managing upward since I had been in a “flying solo” role for so long with people who loved my work that it had been a while since I had to sell someone on my approach or my abilities. The EAP counsellor’s advice was crystal clear — find a new job immediately. I wasn’t quite so convinced. Move on, most definitely if we couldn’t work through it, but immediately? I had some files to deliver on before that point. I figured I would work through it, maybe look for something come the summer or fall.
But then, as our comms issues became more evident, our management styles started to clash as well. Questions of accountability and even procedural fairness in our dealing with staff were starting to unravel as we got closer to some deadlines. And while I was considering the ramifications of one of them for my timeline (it was a big enough dealbreaker to accelerate my departure), the decision was accelerated for me — my boss asked me if I was the right fit for my job (I am, but I’m definitely not the right fit with her). Once your boss asks you that, there’s no saving the relationship. You just leave. So I did.
Starting my job search
Since I had drastically under-estimated the “who” factor in my previous job search, I started my job search looking almost exclusively at the people with whom I would be working. I aimed for one group in particular, and added another as I went. The first was to reach out to a DG who had offered me something the year before. I worked for him previously for four years and found him downright awesome. Since last year, he has filled out his management team with two EXs that I like and respect, and for the job in question, another co-manager with whom I’ve worked well in the past. Four bodies in the management hierarchy that I’ve worked with in the past, and it’s all positive. A pretty rich target to acquire, if something worked out.
Then, the overall Budget came down, and there was a small announcement that Treasury Board would be leading a “horizontal skills review” of government programming. It wasn’t clear initially what that would look like, but the day after the Budget, I emailed two DGs most likely to know anything about it to see if there was any sort of team being put together, who would lead internally, etc. One responded with some info, I stopped by his office to chat later that day, and got the low-down. It looked like it might be all done at TBS, but we’d see. I reached out to someone at TBS to find out some info on that side, and got some basic info and some referrals.
Fast-forward another week, and it looked like something would click with the first DG. Except then the details for the skills review were decided upon, and the DG I had chatted with informally was now the Departmental lead for it. And he would need a small team. With my name on his list of likely people. I don’t want to simply brag that I finagled that in advance by being proactive (true!), because I want to equally brag that I was a no-brainer for someone to suggest anyway (equally true!). 🙂
Based on my earlier work on similar corporate exercises, and my 9 years doing corporate stuff in the same Branch, there are only about five people with the branch-related background to do it, another five in the Department who would show up in a broader search, and maybe another 15 who would pop up in an open casting call. Call it 25 people across the department with a combination of skills, knowledge and previous experience. In my case, I have all three. Three other DGs told me when they heard the news, “Well, that makes perfect sense, it’s like the job is tailor-made for you.” And it’s one of the options I was looking for a year ago, but the timing was off by a year.
Now comes the bad part — the skills review would be a short duration project, maybe up to a year, but likely six months. No permanent job, just an assignment maybe. But I knew I wanted out of my current situation and into a permanent home. The DG with the great management team was offering me that permanent home, so I had two great options. One temporary, one permanent.
And so I did what no one should do in these situations. I tried to have my cake and eat it too. Or an extra sundae.
And it worked. My permanent home is set, they’re finalizing paperwork, and I’m moving to the division with the great management team. Like a sundae with ice cream (good files) and whipped cream (good managers).
Then the chocolate sauce was added that I asked about — they’re going to LOAN me to the skills review team for the project. Ka-ching! I get to do both!
Or as my wife pointed out, “It’s pretty impressive that you’re getting everything you asked for.”
Some pointed out I was getting Karmic rewards, but I don’t think that’s true. First, I don’t believe that is the way Karma works; second, the situation I was in wasn’t “bad”. The people weren’t horrible, no good, very bad people. We just had completely different communication and management styles. It happens. And with seven years to go to retirement, I’m not willing to stick around to try and work through that angst. Nor, apparently, was my now-previous boss.
I much prefer to have an ice cream sundae with whipping cream and chocolate drizzle. There may even be a chance at a cherry on top, but maybe I’ve pushed enough for one week.