26 October 2007

Life off the fast track: A developing strategy for sauntering through work

A while back, perhaps 8 or 10 years ago, I thought I'd discovered the fast track to propel me through a dizzying bureaucracy toward some undetermined higher place where influence, power and salary would confirm upon me a measure of significance. It wasn't so much that I aspired to fame and fortune, but stature, insight and influence.

Like the series of moving walkways in the airport where you hop on and hop off to reach the next terminal quickly, I hopped off the fast track for just a moment, and when I looked back up those fast-tracking walkways had disappeared. An opportunity a year or so ago to jump sideways into a position that might've had me moving forward again, fell apart in a system of bureaucratic burdens and boundaries, and perhaps even personalities and silent agendas. Now that track is gone too, and I'm purt near certain it's long out of sight.

Yet instead of staring wistfully at the horizon, I'm exploring a simpler place - a satisfying and flexible place where I am comfortable simply being who I am. It's a longer term, bigger picture way of seeing my career I hope. No longer am I accelerating forward to something organizationally grander. These days it's more about settling in to a routine that permits me to do what is truly important: being a good dad, a good husband, a good kids' coach, an avid reader and aspiring writer, still earn a satisfactory salary, and, if all aligns properly, contribute in some small way to the experience visitors have in our parks. Influence wielded casually, comfortably, for a few hours a day, and hopefully in harmony with the others around me.

These days my tasks are mostly organizing the efforts of others. I endeavour to keep things running smoothly and ensure that this park is populated with happy, healthy, knowledgeable ranger types to meet, greet, and explore the many wonders of these special places. If I can do that through creating and maintaining an environment that is positive and fun, and we keep the work we do in perspective with our real lives, then I'm quietly satisfied. Perhaps that doesn't look or sound like "work" to some, but that's where my brain puts its energy on the small portion of the day for which I gratefully accept your guv'mint's compensation.

So, herewith follows - far from complete, and a long way from worded well enough to publish as the next great leadership tome stocked in the Staples check-out line next to the ergonomic pink highlighters and laser pointer keychains - a few key work and leadership principles I've developed for myself.

3 or 4 hours of work is a good days' effort. That's generally enough to keep things running and keep you out of trouble. You're reaction to this principle, of course, will depend highly on how you define "work". Real work, for me, is all the daily crap: the meetings, the paperwork, the scheduling, the phone calls and emails, and perhaps some of the heavier-duty thinking and writing and creating that must be done. In my job as a middling middle-level somethingorother, hanging out at a moderately busy Visitor Center talking with a couple hundred people about some glorious places, or walking a redwood trail or a strolling a misty beach, while necessary and part of the job, don't really count as "work"....even though I'm paid to do it. (This feels a lot less true in the crush of summer when we're dealing with a building full of people nearly all day long without time to breathe between questions.) The rest of my 8 hours? Walk around and talk with folks. Keep up with what's going on. Learn. Live.

Treat people like the adults they are. Most of us recognize good work when we do it. We don't need to be told what good work is, or even, in most cases, how to do it. We don't need to be led by the hand through simple steps, or watched over and critiqued constantly. Let 'em know what needs to be done, then stand back and let 'em do it with a minimum of interference. Give 'em opportunities, expectations, and the freedom to solve problems and be creative, and they'll do it well.

Put a minimal organizational system in place and allow it to adjust to the people, not the other way 'round. Avoid tight, inflexible structures that squeeze out opportunities, limit flexibility, and create bottlenecks for conflict. If there's a problem in the system, the folks working within it can usually find the way out better than the boss trying to oversee it from an office down the road.

Good customer service is a helluva lot better than a long list of accomplishments. Ok, perhaps a bit specific to what we do, but in my feeble mind, smiles and thank you's from visitors matter more than numbers and hours and long list of checked-off boxes at the end of a fiscal year.

Creativity beats accountability every time.

Rules are guidelines. More importantly, do what's right...for the visitors and for the park.

Work is what you do, not who you are. A person's life after their 9-5 workin' day is way more important than what they do at the office. Respect your coworkers by respecting their real lives. Don't let work interfere with what matters most to them.

Do only what has to be done to feed the bureaucratic beast. Enter the dark, blood-stained chambers of the monstrous bureaucracy cautiously and only as much as necessary to feed it the numbers, reports, forms, and meeting attendance it requires. It has to be done or the beast will convulse and scream and spit and annoy the livin' bejesus out of everyone. But do it quickly, get it done, and move on with life and the enjoyable stuff.

Keep learning. That's where the fun is. The joy of this profession comes in understanding the world around us. Take - and allow - the time to read, walk, cogitate, chat with others, know, touch and feel these amazing places. Thrilling stories abound. Find 'em and share 'em. (Or keep 'em to yourself and thrill in knowing what others don't.)

This is sounding more like self-serving justification as I write. For now, I'm done. Time for lunch and an afternoon hanging out with the waning September crowds of people and pelicans.

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