When shoes are of the wrong size or wrong shape, our feet hurt; we look for a better fit. But when jobs don’t fit, we seem to have little choice. Okay, that’s understandable; there just aren’t as many jobs available for us to choose from as there are shoes. Once we have a job, while we don’t want to be labeled, categorized, pigeon-holed, most of the job descriptions and job responsibilities restrict us anyway. So, not only cannot most of us find jobs that fit us well; even when we do, the jobs tend to constrain us.
My first big-time job was with a major Fortune 500 company. I indicated that I would like to be involved in marketing research — I had a master’s degree in communications – since I had a research background and enjoyed it. So, the company decided that I would be better off going into marketing communication, essentially advertising. I encountered wonderful people, from secretaries to supervisors, but I simply couldn’t muster enough energy to like my job. After more than a year, I quit when I felt that I had to lie about a specific product status, making it sound like #1 when it was clearly the #2 on the market. And I couldn’t exactly tell my colleagues why I quit because they had to stay on and do their jobs. I didn’t want to insult them, and most of them did have integrity. Each of us has to find our own paths. But that “real world” (as opposed to the “unreal” academic world) experience left an indelible impression on me.
I was young and naïve, wanting to learn and absorb as much as possible; I thought I was willing to bend in order to fit myself into whatever the situation was. But eventually I realized that I was unhappy. A seemingly simple problem that eventually took a complicated journey stretching over years to find the solutions for myself.
If only organizations would take the time and resources upfront to help people mold their jobs to better fit their core personality, interests, and working style, I am pretty sure it would save the organizations substantial resources and bring about higher productivity.
So here is a micro example:
Donna was a feisty woman who could see through the mirage of rules and regulations, cut through the chit-chat to make people understand what their responsibilities were, sense the timing with impeccable accuracy, and know her local organizational needs well. But she was underused in this giant organizational cauldron.
Doug was a project manager in the same giant cauldron, and was getting frustrated that people were behind schedule on a specific project that involved working with some sensitive materials. The nature of the materials meant that much of the work had to be coordinated with another unit (MAT) before the work could proceed. It was especially maddening because of the sequential nature of work. Any stop-and-restart would not only slow the work down, it would add additional cost that risked sabotaging the whole project. Doug often had to run around to make sure everyone was doing what s/he was supposed to do, even while waiting for MAT to send the personnel.
There is a saying: Why own a dog, if you have to do your own barking? Doug was essentially doing the barking.
Ken, the manager, whose unit owned the project, worked out a solution with Doug. Ken heard Donna had the knack of making people do their share of the project’s work and do it on time. Ken managed to transfer Donna into his unit. In a couple of days of Donna’s arrival, she figured out what needed to be done and on what schedule.
How? By incorporating a deployed MAT person directly into the work team. Ken hired a contractor for this purpose. Thanks to the previous manager’s foresight in setting aside some soft money, Ken was able to hire this additional person. But the contractor wasn’t needed full-time on the project; he was needed for portions of every day and his immediate presence was essential for the project to advance, but there was down time in between these portions. (If MAT realized that he’d have some down time, MAT would send him elsewhere to fill in the slack, but that meant that when Ken and Donna needed him, he would not be available right away, and the project would fall right back into its frustrating status.) Donna came up with an idea. There were old machines sitting around the unit that needed to be decommissioned. And no, you couldn’t just throw them out; inspections and paperwork had to be completed. So, if someone is in down time and wants to work, you give him the kind of work he likes to do anyway. Donna had the contractor work on decommissioning these old machines; he’s happy, MAT couldn’t take him away, and when the project needed him he was right there.
So, that particular project finished on time with no additional costs incurred. Later, Doug allocated more money to Ken’s unit for a different project, and once again, Donna was given the task of supervising the workflow.
Unfortunately, that devoted MAT contactor had since relocated for personal reasons. So Ken and Donna faced the same problem of not having a devoted MAT person again. But Ken did know how to reach the right person in charge of MAT; the conference call included Donna. When they went through the list of available personnel, Donna recognized one name because she had worked with this fellow before and they had worked well together. The deal was made and project began to hum.
According to “Team Dimensions” group exercise, some people are inclined to be “executors,” some “creators,” others “advancers,” and some “refiners.” Of course, like all labels and categories, we are likely to fit in more than one category. However, a strong inclination usually means that that role most closely matches our core personality, and is the role in which we are most comfortable. Many people object to such labeling for precisely that reason: it is seen as profiling, and as labeling that is limiting and restrictive. But others find such descriptions informative because they convey valuable information, and because of the complementarity of these categories. Ken, the “creator” and “advancer” knew that Donna would be an excellent “executor,” and hired her to set and keep the project on track. Either of them alone could have carried out the project, but it would have been a steep uphill climb against their personal inclinations. From my perspective, I too feel extremely uncomfortable with labels (and Ken and Donna probably do too), but it all depends on how we use them. A label can be binding, but can be enabling too, as in the case illustrated above. However, I also have known people, managers particularly, who get stuck with labels and categories and don’t know how to put them to enlightened use. An additional concern is that in this culture, we tend to put more value on creativity than on finishing a job; in other words, we tend to rank “creators” higher than “refiners” or “executors.” And our projects fail for want of people whose personalities drive them to finish projects.
Returning for a moment to domestic-animal metaphors, you may have seen the websites on “How to give your cat a pill.” It’s a prolonged battle already lost at the start. “How to give your dog a pill” however is as easy as wrapping the pill in bacon and tossing it in the air. So if the job you need done involves the taking of pills [advancing a project], it’s worth taking the time to get a dog [advancer]. Conversely, if the job you need done involves the catching of mice [executing a project], get yourself a cat [executor]. Right job, right talent, right-fitting shoes.
Now, where are we? I would probably come down on the side of learning as much as possible about how these labels and categories do or do not describe our people, and use them with great care according to the same principles I discussed in the post on “Diversity or Multiculturalism: It’s all about working with differences, posted on 1/30/2010” If and when I find myself using a label to describe someone, I would pause and ask myself if I am putting constraints on the person, and I would also check with the person about my assumptions. Easier said than done, I know. It’s especially pernicious in today’s work environment where people have barely enough time to finish their work, let alone time to nurture relationships. But nurture we must. (Here is the promised link.)
Until you find the shoes that fit well,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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