Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Different Kind of Energy...

Still with us? Good... As they say in the movies, things are about to get interesting....

I joined MCI in late 1986. It was the Monday after the first RIF (Reduction in Force) in MCI's history, and their founder had just suffered a major heart attack, requiring a heart transplant. I walked in the door expecting a lot of negative emotion. While it was my first day on the job, many others had their last day at MCI just a few days earlier.

Things were quite odd that first day. There were a lot of tearful reunions as employees found friends that they thought had been laid off. But then it got stranger.

I went to lunch alone in the company cafeteria. After a few moments I found a few of my employees sitting together talking, and decided to join them. Surprisingly, they were talking business. Now, I had occasionally talked business at lunch in my old companies. But most of those discussions were about how bad things were, how bad the boss was, or how much we didn't like working there. These discussions were different. The employees were discussing a technical issue over lunch and brainstorming how to solve it. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. They were clearly struggling with the problem but were animated and laughing as they worked through the various ideas.

Frankly, I couldn't follow a word of what they were talking about. This was a whole new vocabulary for me.

After a few minutes they reached a conclusion and the topic changed. They turned to me and began to ask me questions. Questions about my background, my style of management, and what I thought of the layoffs. They asked me why I was hired when the prior week 2 managers had been laid off.

There questions weren't threatening, or malicious. Their questions were curious.

I don't remember exactly what I told them but it was a thoughtful discussion about managing and why companies did what they did. This discussion lasted most of the lunch hour and all of the employees sitting with me engaged in the discussion.

The second day I went to lunch in the cafeteria again. I saw a group of employees from my area sitting together again, but this time the group was larger. They had been joined by others from our sister departments. They waived me over and I joined them. The discussion quickly turned to management and leadership again and their questions continued. It was clear that they weren't challenging me. Instead they were trying to learn from me.

Too bad I really didn't know what to tell them.

Over the next few weeks the crowd grew somewhat and then stabilized. Each day we gathered together and had discussions about how to lead people and manage our processes. These were fun, engaging discussions among a group of people who were clearly excited to be working there (in spite of the RIF) and were anxious to do more.

We were in the midst of a big project when I joined and my team worked very hard over the next few months to complete it. At one point we broke into shifts and worked around the clock to move the program forward. It was clear these people enjoyed their job and were enjoying working for me But I really didn't know why. I certainly was not any technical help to them, and I was trying to navigate through a company that was many times larger than I was used to.

At the end of the project, I was promoted. My boss did not promote me. Her boss did not promote me. Instead, my promotion came from someone three levels above who liked what I had brought to the team. But with this promotion came a Performance Review. This review was written by my boss, a woman who I learned a tremendous amount from in a relatively short period of time. Her name was Stephanie Kohan and she gave me what was, up until that time, the most honest assessment of my career. In this review she discussed my strengths and what I had brought to the team. But she also identified 3 or 4 areas where I clearly needed development.

My reaction to this review was telling. I thought, "Your boss's boss just promoted me. I'm no longer your subordinate. I'm your equal. It's odd that you would be telling me where to improve."

But reading the review, I had to admit that she made good points. I had gotten results with this project, but I certainly had a lot to learn. And the funny thing was, she didn't seem to be pointing out my areas for development to make me feel bad. Instead, she seemed to be trying to help me.

Till next time.....

Dave Meyer

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