Personal

54

Every New Year’s Day I announce a theme, usually a single word, that represents the way I want to grow. As I turn 54 today, I want to reflect on this year’s theme, which is congruence — that is, to live a life true to my values and needs, to be honest with my yes and my no.

I’ve leaned into this year’s theme harder than any year’s theme before. I’ve really worked on advocating for myself.

The timing could not have been better. Shortly into the new year I took a new job as Director of Engineering in a software company. Unexpectedly, I’ve found myself needing to set strong boundaries with a particular VP. His function and mine are interrelated; we work fairly closely together. Sometimes he oversteps.

At first, I wasn’t sure of the fellow’s intentions. Did he think I was incapable of my job? Was he trying to take over territory? In time, I came to see that he is acting in good faith. He just has a command-and-control kind of personality, and tends to direct anything that doesn’t seem in order. Fortunately, every time I’ve set a boundary with him, he’s honored it. I’ve even given him critical feedback a time or two, and he’s received it well and tried to act on it. I believe that in time he will trust me and my team and I won’t have to draw lines with him anymore.

Also unexpectedly, in June I had to have a very blunt conversation with my boss. When he hired me he agreed to let me hire a layer of managers to directly lead the engineers — all 21 of them. That’s a lot of direct reports, far too many for me to do a good job of managing them and also do the other duties of my job. But then the money to make those hires kept not coming and kept not coming. And then my company took a very large outside investment, which created a lot of activity, and my already full schedule became double and triple booked. I had barely been keeping up with everything, but not anymore. I went on the fast track to burnout.

My mistake was waiting. I should have held my boss to his promise from day one. I kick myself now. I try to give myself a pass because I could not have seen coming the large investment and the performance pressure it has placed on us. But even without that, I wasn’t doing every aspect of my job well enough because there was simply more than I could do.

At home, I’ve started several conversations with my wife about what we want out of our marriage and our home. The crazy family challenges we’ve lived through have tended to put us in constant go mode. There’s been emergency after emergency. It’s left little time for us to talk about and work out what we want our home and our life together to be. Except where I personally take care of things at home, this home life isn’t what I want it to be. But as we’ve talked about what we want, we’ve both tried hard to honor it, and be honest about when we can’t.

This has been hard. I have not enjoyed it. At my core, I want harmony to simply exist, so I can live placidly within it. I’ve always known that’s not realistic, that you have to work at building and maintaining alignment, but I’ve generally put off doing anything about it unless I was backed against a wall. I hope that as I keep practicing this, it will become a normal part of my behavior.

I don’t expect to be perfect. It’s just that where I’ve had unhappiness and dissatisfaction in my life — and I’ve had considerable helpings of both — at the root, I didn’t live true to my values and needs.

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33 thoughts on “54

  1. The fact you are so mindful of what you want your life to be and willing to work for it puts you at an advantage over most people. I hope you get everything you wish for in life and on this day. Happy Birthday!

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    As a person who has managed large departments in corporations in the second half of my career, I appreciate your trepidation. Twice I managed departments that contained 18 people and 21 people. While not totally impossible, it was impossible with the amount of personal work they wanted out of me as well. I had successes at both places with changing process and improving performance, but inevitably had to leave both, one with burn-out issues, the second not of my own volition, but in a corporate cut-back that eventually ended up with 50% of the company being “laid off”. Both situations were not close to the best working environments I had ever been in. BTW, management is a job unto itself, not an “add-on” to other responsibilities that you have. I have enough of a business education to have rejected any job offers that dictated that I actually DO the job, while managing the people next to me doing the job as well. This is a management 101 No-no, but for some reason, always promoted by companies here in the fly-over. (I rarely saw this when I worked on the east coast).

    Classic business management structure from the “olden days” (i.e. pre-Arab Oil Embargo of the mid-70’s) dictates that it’s almost impossible to manage more than 5-7 people. Since the AOE, most companies (and I would posit all companies in the fly-over) have gone through huge compressions of management layers and additions of responsibilities on every level. Back in the 90’s, we used to say if they had initially offered you the job you’re actually doing after a year at the company, you would have never taken it! It’s not unusual at all that your boss did not “make good” on your initial conversations, for that person, it could have been all “blue-sky” talking, and never intended to come to fruition in the near future, but something that may or may not be developed over time. In fact, your boss may have walked out of your interview thinking “…well, we aren’t gonna be doing that…”, but they wanted your for your experience and had no problem glossing over the truth.

    The problem with modern tech-based businesses is that everyone is an amateur business person or manager! No one actually knows what they’re doing, and may not even have seen a decent run place in their career! Just because a person writes code well, doesn’t mean they can manage personality interaction, or even order pencils correctly!

    Happy Birthday Jim, and I know I always use my birthdays for reflection. One of the things to reflect upon is do you actually see a positive work environment for you, in your field? Does it actually exist? Are you looking for the unattainable? I know if my field, I saw good environments early in my career which kept me going, and virtually none in the last ten years, all disappeared. It’s one of the reasons when I’m mentoring kids, I never tell them to get into my field, especially if they plan to stay in the fly-over. Good luck with parsing those problems.

    • I’ve had positive, even great, work environments in my field before. 1989-94, 1997-2000, and 2009-2013. I’ve had some work environments that at least didn’t hurt in 1994-5, 2013-4, 2015-18, 2019.

      You’re right, my world is full of amateur managers. I’m a pro, but only because I’ve come up through the school of management hard knocks and have been intentional about becoming good at it.

      When I worked for Anthem, the big health insurer, the rule was a team couldn’t have its own manager until it grew to 8 or more people! I managed 16 there.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Wow…you know when I learned management, a lot of what was taught was learned over 60-70 years of trial, error, and developing philosophies by people like W. Edwards Deming. I’m pretty sure that Anthem’s management position was developed by nothing but the idea of maximizing profit! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen over the last 20 years the idea that error can be tolerated if it’s cheaper than doing something “correctly”, and keeps the profit margin high, even if it maddens the intelligent workers you have and makes them leave.

        • I’ve read Deming, Good stuff. The other thing that happens in companies is the amount of work shoved through is more than the team can do well, and either the team does crap work within a 40 hour week or good work in 60+ hours. Either one sucks and leads to people leaving. But where do they go that isn’t like that?

  3. Happy birthday, sir! After reflecting on your efforts to improve yourself, you deserve to take the rest of the day off and do some fun stuff. I mean c’mon, how much better can you get? :)

  4. First of all, Happy Birthday, Jim. I beat you to 54 by just a few months. I’ve recently started a new job in a different district than where I’ve spent the last 19 years. I need to figure out some leadership styles and establish some credibility with my bosses and co-workers. Things are shifting for me, but I intentionally made this move to get me out of my comfort zone. So, I kind of get needing to adjust to a new culture and new expectations. And it sounds like you’re addressing some things at home that need attention as well. Coming back to your core values and living up to them is a challenge but can be essential to getting the most of life. Best wishes to you on all of that.

    • I’ve changed jobs 5 times in the last 6 years so I know all about figuring out leadership styles! I hope the new job lasts for 5+ years. Yep, living true to your values does lead to getting the most from life.

  5. DougD says:

    Happy birthday Jim, 54 is a good sounding number.
    I only managed people for a year or two, and my main lesson was that I hated it. I don’t think the people I managed enjoyed it either!

  6. Happy Birthday!

    I think it is great that you try to live a congruent life. This already puts you ahead. It is hard and tough sometimes but honestly it is the only way. And it sure clashes with a desire for harmony. I can see that at home where my wife is much more oriented towards harmony and I am myself more likely to engage in (good faith) conflict to solve issues or potential issues before they grow out of control.

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