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“Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit”


This nontechnical riddle took me a while to figure out. This saying floats around in the halls and offices of every building. For me, it resounds on all occasions when I have met with management. Agencies’ management is whipsawed between necessary compromise to face budget cuts and changing priorities at the same time. Compromise, in a good way, is in the air as well.

On its face this riddle points to where in a building you sit and on what kind of chair. For managers, applied metaphorically, this means largely three things: (1) where they sit gives you a different perspective on how the organization works – both administratively and politically (2) their own personal relationships with other people change among subordinates, peers, or superiors who sit even higher – ultimately POTUS; (3) their own political values appear to change depending on what party is in power. This may be stressful to hang on to your own ideology, moral beliefs, mental health, or physical health. In spite of this, such compromises may be the only way to defend rational decision. Those changes affect staff too if they feel anxious and confused by managers’ behavior as well as the swings of political party leadership.

“Management by Walking Around”

In contrast to stationary sitting, another riddle is associated with moving. This is called “management by walking around.” The informality of walking around is supposed to counter the formality of sitting around. Walking around, doesn’t mean spying on people while they are working, not necessarily that is. The positive meaning is that management’s objective is to understand what staff and peers do and learn from them. Usually, this is confined to managers’ contact with their peers (if they get along personally). This is like social networking was in the old days before email, which was ages ago in the early 1990s. It is still always a better way to communicate than is by email or text. Since the 1990’s managers are tied more to chairs by email, web research, texts, and, even, phone calls, sometimes simultaneously. This is my situation even though I’m not a supervisor. Again, that applies to staff to the degree that being electronically tethered is assumed to be the expected pattern of work.

Managers who identify themselves as the “walking around” type usually say or imply that they are active and congenial. Such statements or promises to staff are usually regarded with trepidation or confidence. Managers’ walking around is supposed to be a sign of non-hierarchical communication and to other people. The staff who walk around are likely to create a network of knowledge which managers do not have.

Long Haul or Short Track

A career path can be analogous to long haul truck driving. That is, steady, routine, and relatively slow. Keeping various milestones in sight guides a career. In the 1970’s, the “long haul through the institutions” was thought to be a politically progressive personal sacrifice to improve administrative decision making. Primarily, a career based on the long haul leads to job security and a lengthy climb up the ladder to higher positions; not to mention a newer and more comfortable chairs or offices with windows. Over the long run, one’s accumulated expertise makes up the “institutional memory” about policy changes, procedural differences, and technology. That someone knows such history is invaluable even though that history may be dismissed and the person ignored. The “shock of the new” [another term from the humanities] even in administration captures the imagination, but hides valuable lessons learned from the past. Such a shock of new technology especially makes work seem more advanced even if it replicates failures from the past.

In contrast, short tract auto racing is exciting and fast but doesn’t go very far at one time. Short track racing has many races with uncertain chances to win. The short track in auto racing is fast paced and agile. This different approach is an exploration of one’s conscience, intellectual curiosity, and acceptance of risk. Exploration can be changing to work for a different office in the same agency or moving to a different agency. Either one leads to working on a new initiative, embarking on a detail or rotation, or being favorably reassigned to different tasks requiring different skills. Exploring gives you a broad experience to draw from, however, to other people this may seem erratic and a sign of inability to stick with a job.

I am an explorer. . I inadvertently took course for personal reasons was well as a desire to make administrative decisions better in numerous tracks. Growing up, I did not have role models of career minded professional parents. I started out being lucky to find migratory academic jobs, but I found volunteering at a homeless shelter was more fulfilling. I followed that feeling to DC and found a job at HUD, which I was told was impossible. More important to me, later, a friend inspired me who was pivotal to making eGovernment plausible and understandable. Interweaving all these career strategies, he began with 16 bit COBOL programming, created laser disks for information dissemination at USDA, founded Americans Communicating Electronically, shifted to organizing internet training and GIS for teens in rural areas, and participated in Congressional and White House conversations about valuable public uses of technology.

One’s mixed path may be intentional or inadvertent, but it is worth reflecting on sooner rather than later. Paths are not mutually exclusive, and one can try to braid them together. Good luck; knowing that your strengths, conscience, or just serendipity, will change your life they did mine. Expect the unexpected.

Dennis Crow 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.

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