Confessions of a Public Service Manager
In my first supervisory position, I inherited a clerk who had been with the organization a long time, and who had passed his best before date. Everyone knew this, and told me it had been this way for years. But when I pulled his personnel file, I saw only a few scattered performance appraisals, years apart. And they ranged from mildly positive to effusive in their praise.
Being fresh, and not knowing that in the public service you weren’t supposed to address poor performance, I spoke with him and set the expectations. He responded well. His performance improved, and I realized what a great leader I was for having solved this problem. So I gave him a good performance appraisal. And, in no time at all, his work fell back into the old pattern.
I realized I had been played. None of our discussions were documented, as he had responded so well to my supervision I didn’t think it necessary. It took another two years of going about it the right way before he took early retirement to become a bar tender.
Next up was a caseworker, John. He was great at his job and could connect well with clients. But he also went on occasional benders and simply didn’t show up for work the next day. That created a problem, as I had to manage his appointments for the next day, not knowing when he would be in.
So I spoke with him, using the old positive sandwich: first something positive, then your concern, then a reinforcing positive. “We like your work, but you simply have to let us know when you won’t be in to work, and perhaps you should curb your drinking…and we very much look forward to your continued contribution to our organization.”
His performance improved. No missed shifts, no drinking binges. I realized I was a great manager and had successfully resolved the problem.
Then one night, at three in the morning, the phone rang. Insistently. This was pre-cellphones and I had only one phone at my home, in the kitchen. Knowing it had to be a disaster of some kind, a relative in hospital, a fire, a car accident, I stumbled downstairs and grabbed the phone. I could hardly hear the voice on the other end because of the noise – a loud, drunken party. It was John. “Per your instructions Paul, I am calling to tell you I won’t be in to work this morning.” He hung up, having followed my instructions to the letter, if not in spirit.
Years later I met some maritimers at a conference. For some reason we got into telling “drunk” stories. They shared one of a friend whose boyfriend would get drunk and serenade her at 3:00 in the morning under her university dorm window. I shared my story of John and the 3:00 a.m. phone call. “That sounds just like our John,” they said. And it was. The exact same guy, five years and 1,500 kilometers away. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Modesty has never been one of my flaws, but these two experiences that I mismanaged restored a bit of humility and caused me to think about my leadership style.
Feel free to share your “mismanage with me stories” on our blog, and the insights you gained from them.
Paul Crookall is editor emeritus of Canadian Government Executive.
He blew up the factory! Jack Welch, as CEO of General Electric for two decades, grew the company to be the biggest in the world (before Microsoft and Google) and was voted “CEO of the Century” by his peers in the year 2,000.
But when he was 25 and a young engineer at GE, he was experimenting with a new formula for plastics, and created an explosion that took the roof off the factory. “I was scared stiff when I went to the manager. But he was mainly curious as to why I had done what I had done and what I had learnt from it. That real encouragement to get it right, rather than a punishment, had a profound effect on me.” Once he became CEO, Welch said, “We celebrated mistakes at a management gathering with 1,000 people in the room. A manager would get up and say why the environmentally sensitive light bulb or whatever it was had failed. Then we’d give them $1,000 or a TV or something, depending on the scale of the thing. The point was to share the learning and get smarter as an organization.”
We’re not giving away TVs, but we are giving you an opportunity to share with your colleagues, about what has gone wrong, and what has been learned.
To get things started, here’s one of my many mistakes. I was assigned to Dorchester Penitentiary in 1987 to lead a change management project. Dorchester was the last prison in Canada to be operating on the old security philosophy and organizational design from pre-1950. The rest had switched to a newer model that made correctional officers (guards) responsible for both security and interacting with the inmates.
So we designed a three-week training program to both explain the “new” system (which had been in use elsewhere for decades) and modify some attitudes. Knowing a thing or two about change management, we hand-picked the 30 staff who attended the first course, and declared it a great success. We’d read John Kotter’s book on getting “early wins.” The second course, things weren’t going so well. It was like pulling teeth, my own, without the anesthetic. I guess the union had read Kotter as well, and their early win was to put 30 of their choices on the second course, to give us a rough time.
In frustration, several days into the course, I asked one of the correctional officers what the problem was. Guards are generally honest in their assessments. This solidly built 6’7” man stood up at the front of the class and said “We were told you were sent here as an ‘axe man’ to chop away at jobs, fire a bunch of us, and close the prison down.”
I immediately realized my mistake — I had not shared my intent, that we were there to modernize and improve the place, not close it down. How to recover? By a process which I still don’t understand, it occurred to me to pull up a chair and stand on it. At 5’3”, that put us about eye to eye. I said: “AXE MAN…look at me! The most I could ever be is a hatchet man.” The room dissolved in laughter, and then I went on to correct my mistake.
The rest of the course went well, the transition went well, and Dorchester remains a key part of the Correctional Service. It helped to have a little self-deprecatory humor, and a bit of learning from mistakes.
Watch this month for the “quote of the day.” They are reflections on making mistakes. Here’s one from Edward John Phelps, former controller of the U.S. Treasury, American Ambassador, and co-founder of the American Bar Association in the late 1800s: “The person who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.”
We invite you to share your mistakes, and your learning, via this blog.
Paul Crookall is editor emeritus of Canadian Government Executive.