Saturday, March 06, 2010

Thirty Years of My Life

Yesterday I retired from AT&T after over 30 years of service. 

I started with Pacific Telephone in Southern California on July 17, 1979. I remember chatting with a co-worker on my first day. We both said that we’d work as there for a year or so, then move on to something else.

I did, indeed, move on, but all my work was with the same company. One of the benefits of working for a very large company was that I had the opportunity to work in different parts of the company and perform different assignments.
For the last ten years I’ve led teams working in very different areas of AT&T’s billing organization.

While I’d never seen myself as a “leader” that’s where I ended up. As I look back on my last few assignments, I realize I’ve learned some helpful things and I’m sharing them in case you find yourself in a group setting – and, face it, most of life is a group setting!
  • Every group has the same people in it. This sounds counter-intuitive. Of course everyone you meet will be a unique individual. But each group will have certain types of people: the workaholic who can’t let things go, the insecure person who may just need a little push to become a star, and so forth. As you begin to recognize these “types” you can recall what helped you work with their predecessors. This is the foundation of the wisdom that’s your payoff for age.
  • Other people aren’t like you. What motivates you, what makes you happy, what annoys you may be very different from what your work-mates prefer. If you’re a hiring manager it can be tempting to hire other people just like you. Resist this temptation. You will create a comfortable workplace, but you’re likely to lack the dynamic (if sometimes frustrating) atmosphere that makes the strongest teams. And coach your people to be tolerant of one-another.
  • When you’re in a work situation, you’re on stage. All eyes are on you. You know how a two-year old will fall and look at you to see how to react? Adults aren’t much different in this respect. A good part of your job will involve keeping people calm and focused, in evaluating problems and keeping people on track to solve them, and in learning from errors so you don’t repeat them. Keep your cool. A single event when you lose your temper can send years of calm, professional behavior down the drain.
  • Don’t micromanage. If you have to check up on every whip-stich, in essence doing or re-doing your people’s jobs, you don’t need them and you won’t have time to do your own work. Surround yourself with people you trust. Within reason work progresses best if each of us tends to our own knitting and trusts our team members to cover their own responsibilities.
  • Deal with problems promptly. Nothing kills morale faster than a team member who’s not pulling her own weight, and whom the boss doesn’t handle. On the occasions I’ve wussed out and decided to “wait and see” I’ve betrayed my good workers and the consequences were more grave than if I’d acted promptly.
  • Be decisive and be flexible. This may sound like a contradiction; it’s the tightrope you walk. Sometimes the time comes when a decision is needed, when discussion and fact-finding have reached a point of diminishing returns. Sometimes you have to put a stake in the ground. Just know that most of the decisions you make will not be moral, ethical or legal decisions – they will be business decisions. Often there’s not one right way, but you must chose A right way. Do it, and be willing to make adjustments or even abandon the plan later if it doesn’t work just so.
  • Take the blame. Blame is like mercury. It’s easy for it to get spread around and impossible to recover. If someone’s made an error, deal with him. But in the end, it’s your shop, so own it.
  • Spread praise liberally. If a member of your team had the good idea, make sure everyone knows it. Never pretend you’re standing on your own. It’s your team that makes you look good. You’ll never lose by making sure your people get credit for their good work.
These were some of the principles that I developed over the last ten years or so of my career.

What can you share about how you work in groups?

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