Get Up, Get Out: Exit the Rubber Room

IT’S TIME TO RISE from your sleep in the rubber room. Today, you open the door and cross the threshold. It’s a big day. You will launch your product and its marketing campaign begins. You have a superb product—you—but some members of your audience have been turned off in the past. We’ll use the word “audience,” but you can substitute customers, stakeholders, managers, politicians or the media; or any other group that you must win over to define campaign success.

Your first task is to define who your audience is. Some members are important and some are not. Don’t waste time and effort on those who cannot help you promote the product—but don’t hastily write-off influencers and champions whose support you will need down the road.

You’ve met several unhappy rubber roomers since you began reading this series. Here are two more.

Try not to make the same mistakes as my misguided friends.


My friend Lee has always maintained an adversarial relationship with his employer. He’s angry most of the time. Now he’s been RIFd. He thinks it’s like a vacation, and he’s using the time to write up his grievances with a fervor he never displayed on the job. Lee’s work-life has been an exchange of one rubber room for another.

Sometimes it’s tough to achieve, but a good attitude is one of the best investments you can make—using energy, effort and tenacity. It’s hard to maintain a good attitude while in a rubber room. Don’t let anger cloud your judgment.


Has Howard worked a day in his life? His permanent tan and windswept look says no. That’s part of the image problem that sent Howard to the Turkey Farm in the first place.

You can think of a Turkey Farm as a kind of free-range rubber room.


Howard is very good at building alliances. His principal activity is looking for work, drawing on his network of contacts.

But he is so insulated from reality—Howard’s on a farm and doesn’t know it. Among those who study such things, he’d be described as having “low insight.” Howard hasn’t made an accurate assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. To him, it’s a Howard-centric world.


Although his resiliency is admirable, Howard continues to interview for jobs he’s not qualified for. Influential friends make these interviews possible, but non-committal smiles and cordial handshakes are as much as he gets. Still, he remains upbeat and believes that the job of his dreams is right around the corner.


I’ve helped Howard over the years, editing his resume and trying to prepare him for interviews. What he’s written reveals that his thinking isn’t clear, his writing isn’t organized, and his strategies just don’t make sense. Those are qualities that any manager would be hard-pressed to overlook. And I am pessimistic about how he comes across in interviews. His friends get frustrated. We know that he’s smart, has good ideas and his charm can persuade nearly anybody. But because he doesn’t appreciate his genuine talents, Howard is just everybody’s pal and not taken seriously by his peers or upper managers.


Howard thinks that his current status is ideal—he’s paid and he gets to look for work at the same time. But his marketability erodes with every day of non-work, his career-enhancing experience is pushed further into the past and his technology skills get rustier.


We can’t give Howard a personality transplant. And we shouldn’t want to. He’s got a great personality—he’s the kind of guy you’d definitely want to have a beer with after work. But if Howard is to escape the turkey farm of his life, he has to discover for himself what capabilities he’s got under wraps. When he finally lets them shine, they’ll illuminate his talents.

#   #   #

And now let’s turn to you—an exciting new product soon to appear in the talent marketplace.



Your personal identity—dare I say brand identity—must be organic. (There will be an opportunity to talk about creating and managing your brand identity over the next several weeks. My brand identity is brand identity, so I’ll speak from experience.) For now, think about your identity as a well-constructed description of yourself and your strengths. You’re fresh out of a rubber room. Don’t package yourself yet. For example, don’t define yourself as a Webinar expert, or any kind of expert. Give a range of your abilities some time to take root and grow.


Are you brave enough to volunteer to be your department’s point person for the CFC? Taking on that onerous duty, bludgeoning co-workers for contributions, staying one millisecond ahead of the pressure from mid- and upper-level management to deliver great participation rates—bearing it all on your shoulders is nothing less than heroic.


I’m a big fan of “making something.” That’s because I like making things and make them in my job, like brochures or PowerPoint shows or writing strategy documents. That might not be right for you, but consider the idea for a moment. Can you create a work product that makes just one person’s job easier or one customer’s experience more positive? That might be a white paper, a desktop job aid, or a new way to display data that hasn’t been thought of before.

Don’t make a Lego house, but I do believe that there’s value in a 3-D object that can be displayed on a person’s desk or table. It’s nothing less than an advertisement for the new you, and a reminder that you’re available to be pressed into service when needed.

It can also say that you have a sense of humor—one that is low-key and appropriate to the work environment.

I know it sounds juvenile, but sometimes the simplest things work best—I would be thrilled if someone not too busy would create a sign with instructions for sending a fax. Who can remember what specific sequence of 9-1-area code and number and any other relevant keys are the right mix for local, 10-digit, and international faxing?

I have never mastered this. There is never anyone around who has broken the code for me to ask when I’m racing to send my document.

It seems almost beyond hope that someone would actually write this down information and post it in a permanent way in a location I can see?

It’s a very little touch that says that you have your office mates in mind.


If your job aid or other “product” makes even one person’s job easier, the way you are perceived will change. You will have begun the long-term task of establishing your value and growing it.


Ultimately, like any other product, you will be evaluated on the value you add to the business of the team, the department or the agency. Discover what’s unique about your combination of talents and what customer needs you can meet with them. Your positive image will become established. A productive member of society who contributes talent and energy won’t stay confined to a rubber room for very long.


Here’s a way to send a high-value message that will be remembered. It took a junior member of my team to teach me this lesson. I worked on the newsletter in our communications department. The job I considered beneath me was delivering the newsletters. I was a writer, not a delivery boy. When my young friend went with me on the delivery route, I discovered a whole family of “subscribers.” They become friends who were delighted to see me every week, and the boss no longer had to accommodate his troublesome prima donna.

Surely there will be readers in senior federal service who find such suggestions preposterous and lacking in dignity for someone of their eminence. But humility is an attractive trait. Dignified, confident humility, not obsequiousness, is the trait I’m describing.

Our SES managing director chose one weekend to clean out the supply closet and donned her flannel shirt and jeans for the occasion. As it happened, a scientist who had applied for a big job under her directorate was in the office that weekend as well. He offered to help. She accepted gladly, so there were two top government executives discussing strategy sitting cross-legged on the floor on either side of an open vertical file.

And, it would be unreasonable to suggest any causality, but that scientist did get the job. Whether directly or in the long run, it pays to be nice. And things are much more pleasant that way.


It’s so simple, and so rarely` done. Don’t forget to say “thanks” to the customers who helped you turn your image around. Saying “thanks” costs absolutely nothing, but adds tremendous value to the way you are perceived.


So many self-help books will encourage you to close your eyes and imagine a calm place—like a waterfall, or the ocean, or in the woods, and the technique does have its uses. I’m going to ask you to load a different kind of image into your mind’s eye. Take a picture of success. I can’t tell you what it will look like because it is uniquely yours. But take a little time with it, adjust the lighting and the focus, and then imprint it.

Call up that image whenever you wonder, “Why am I doing this?” You need to stay focused on your goals. At times, that can be very tough. A quick peak at your destination can give you a lot of strength.

I’m going to ask you to add one item to that image. A word. Or two. Or a few. Not too many. To give yourself a verbal touchstone, to work the way the image does.

Just store them there for a rainy day. They really will come in handy.


We owe it to ourselves to direct our own careers. Steering our own future makes for greater satisfaction in both the public and private sides of our lives.

Now, take a deep breath, get those key words together, recall the image of the new, successful you, and GET UP and GET OUT.

You’ll be great.

J.T. Kerwin is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply