I’m Speechless

I’ve got to warn you, I am about to do two things I told myself I never would.

First, I’m going to start by breaking the cardinal rule of blogging as a public servant: don’t ever talk about the particulars of your workplace.

Second, well, let’s just say if I explained it now, it would give too much away.

The Only Constant is Change

Some of you may question what is important enough to prompt me to speak to the specifics of my workplace. Last week, I got some bad news. Last week I learned that my boss is leaving.

If there is one thing I have learned in my time in the public service it is this: you cannot overstate the importance of good leadership.

The Team

The team I work in comprises only 8 people, including my boss.

She is a Director General (DG), we are her DGO (Director General’s Office); and unlike typical DGOs, we don’t have anyone reporting up into us. We are the closest thing in the public sector I have seen to a SWAT team:

  1. Lightweight (mobilize quickly)
  2. Proximate to senior leadership
  3. Experienced in our areas (unique skill sets and backgrounds)
  4. Clear on our responsibilities
  5. Able to think ahead and anticipate issues
  6. Surrounded by an enabling culture
  7. Results driven
  8. Handpicked by the boss

The worst part is that despite another few months under her leadership, the team is already starting to go its separate ways. I don’t expect the next iteration to look the same as the last.

It gets worse: we are being moved under a Director (read: getting heavier, losing proximity to senior leadership) who is yet to be determined (read: unclear responsibilities and culture) and Director General who is also yet to be determined (read: double jeopardy).

In short, the entire unit is imploding, and quite frankly I’m pretty upset about it. It affects me personally, but also I think this is a huge blow for the public sector in general.

We are losing the closest thing I have ever come to a results oriented workplace in the public sector.

We are losing the closest thing I have ever come to an innovation lab in the public sector.

We are losing proof that a small and flexible unit, properly managed, can be highly effective.

It’s Personal

When my boss told me she was leaving it was a complete system shock. I forced out the word “congratulations”, but inside a small part of me died.

She was an integral part of the work I was putting forward; she was one of the designated champions; she, at least in my opinion was the strongest voice at the table. Without her, the likelihood of success for the work I am about to undertake drops dramatically.

That drop makes me think twice about staying in my current role.

There, I just broke the second rule – the one I wasn’t going to tell you about at the beginning of this diatribe: self-doubt.

I doubt my ability to be successful in my current role because one of the most critical elements for success is being removed from the equation and replaced with an unknown.

Worst Conclusion Ever

I suppose I am supposed to conclude with something definitive, be it positive or negative about the future of my work, but I can’t.

For the first time in a long while, I am left speechless.

[image credit: TheGiantVermin]

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8 Comments

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Profile Photo Dr. Jane Bozarth

I feel your pain on this one. While bad bosses get so much press, good ones get very little. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have had several good managers (translation: they had my back, they trusted me, they didn’t overreact, they wanted everyone to succeed, they let me work). They’re hard to come by and I wish you luck with your new situation.

Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

The first thing I thought: Why don’t YOU vie for her position, Nick?

Sustain the team by becoming it’s leader!

And if you don’t feel ready, ask her what it would take to make you ready in the coming months.

Profile Photo Gary Berg-Cross

One of the consequences of the situation you describe in a learned helplessness which results from being trained to be locked into an organizational system/culture that resists innovation. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

Insitutional systems develop to meet needs and serve purposes. But as they evolve, they become increasingly organized around certain beliefs, perspectives, activities that serve upper management the continuation of the “system”. So wwareness of the original purpose can fade and organization start to harden and go on automatic pilot . The beliefs (and taboos) shift toward perpetuation and new people are acculturated to it.
The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.

Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies. The beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos shift in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, to ensure continuation. And those beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos are trained into the people that join the system.

Profile Photo Warren Master

My takeaway from your experience is the same silver lining my mother encouraged me to look for and find every day I hurtled out of bed. Count your blessings and pay it forward, Nico!

Profile Photo Sterling Whitehead

This is what happened with my agency in the 1950s. We were originally the Special Projects Office tasked with developed submarine launched nuclear missiles to beat the Soviets. Because we needed fast results, we operated outside the Navy and answered to only a few people. As the risks became more known, directors left, and times passed, we were integrated into the Navy and the Department of Defense. Bureaucracy takes hold: I believe this is both good and bad, but also natural.

Government firebrigades (read: your team and my organization in the 1950s) are created to deal with issues as they arise. Eventually, they are integrated into the existing power structure.

The same thing is happening to JIEDDO today.

Profile Photo Nicholas Charney

@Jane – thx for the well wishes.

@Andy – I wish it were that easy, but I actually can’t do her work, nor do I want to. I was quite happy with the work I was running point on (and will continue to run point on after she leaves) but she was THE champion par excellence. It is a significant blow IMO.

@Gary – I’m honestly not sure what to say as your comment was difficult to decipher in relation to my specific situation.

@Sterling – you were at your agency in the 1950s? Wow looking good brother, looking good. In all seriousness, our mission isn’t supposed to change, but our pull has been diminished significantly.

Profile Photo Bill Brantley

“Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome.” There is always setbacks on the road to innovation and many will be as crippling as you describe. As Machiavelli wrote:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

When you choose to do the extraordinary, you have picked the most difficult journey in life. But would you rather travel the journey of the ordinary?

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Nicholas
It can be so frustrating and disheartening to know you were creating value and making progress and then have something out of your control redirect you and possibly prevent you from continuing. The only think I can say is that these challenges can offer great opportunity for you to build your knowledge and skills.

From your participation online, I believe you are the type of person who will meet this challenge and use it to become a stronger professional with even greater insight and abilities. And as difficult as this period might be, you will end up using what you learn to help others faced with the same challenge.