Thursday, August 2, 2018

Executives are people too

** I'm porting over some of my old posts.  Enjoy! **

My first conversation with an executive was one I will never forget.  I had risen to my position of Supervisor more quickly than usual, and my manager at the time was very supportive.  These facts made me a bit more comfortable with my position than was probably wise.

When I found out I had gotten the promotion, I ran out and got "desk supplies" so I would be ready for my first day.  That morning, the boss noticed I had a new pencil holder on my desk.  He inquired where I had gotten it.  Turns out the company would pay for such things if you request them through procurement.  (A new concept for me given my previous experiences hadn't included a desk, or even a stationary work space.)  For the rest of the day we made a running gag out of it.  "Oooo... nice bic pen, I need one of those!" ... "Can I interest you in a shiny new paperclip?"... etc.
That night, while surfing the web, I found the chair to end all chairs.  This thing rotated with the sun so you would never have screen glare, the entire station reclined as a single unit, and was designed such that the screen and keyboard were optimally place no matter what angle you sat at.  It had a soda cooler installed and had a specialized vent system to air condition your bum.  All of this for the low price of $5k.

Now, at this point I should let those of you who don't know me so well in on one of the worst kept secrets among those who do.  I'm a bit of a wiseguy.  So the next morning, I obtained a procurement form, and filled it out for one of these specialized, ergonomic chairs, and left it on my boss' desk for his signature.

Nearing the end of the day, I went to ask him about my "little request".  Without missing a beat, he informs me he approved it, and sent it on to the Director for signature since it exceeded his signatory limit.  The pit of my stomach clenched up, the world around his office swam just a bit, and I wanted to cry.  Having so recently (and quickly) been promoted to supervisor, it didn't take a genius to realize how bad this was likely to end.  The Directory was a very traditional man.  You didn't speak to him unless you were spoken to, or you were above a certain pay grade within the company kind of traditional.  Above all, no one ever saw him smile.  I was as good as fired.
I returned to my desk, and about 15 minutes before I usually left, I got the call.  The Director wanted to speak to me.  I stuffed a few key belongings in my pockets, and slowly walked across the building to his office.  I knocked, and received a curt "come" as my welcome.  I entered his office, and took the seat he waived me too.

The director sat in an office that was in my opinion more of a closet.  It was the smallest office in the building as far as I was aware.  The storage room was larger by a good 2 feet.  His desk took up almost the entire room, and you could only sidle sideways into a chair, of which there were only 3.  The walls were mostly bare, and the desk was neat and orderly.

In front of him was my request form.  My boss' signature blazoned across the bottom in Bic blue.  He looked down at the paper, and began the conversation by acknowledging the features of the chair, followed by the price.  He didn't sound particularly upset.  He then asked me what value purchasing this chair would bring the company, and then came the longest, most pregnant pause in a conversation I have ever taken part in.  There was no value in this chair.  It was a joke, and I had no idea how to tell this man, who at the time I was convinced made more in an hour then I would make in a lifetime, that the request was never meant to go this far.  Having been raised to take your lumps however, I eventually dove into my explanation to the very imposing man behind the desk that the request had been intended as a joke.  Grim faced, he rose, sidled over to the door, and opened it.  This was it, I was being let go.

On the other side of the door was my manager, red faced from his struggle to contain his laughter.  The director then explained that my boss had showed him the chair, and explaining our running gag.  The director it seems had decided to incorporate our little joke into his normal welcome to management talk.  We had a laugh, then sat back down, and got back to business.  After that, I was made to feel very welcome in my new position as a manager.

This worked largely because my manager recognized my sense of humor ran deep enough that I would take this as a welcoming gesture.  I don't know that I would ever recommend doing this to someone unless I was 110% sure they would share in the humor.  In the months that followed, both of these men checked in on me, and there were a few more practical jokes thrown in for good measure.  But that "little chat" really drove home for me that everyone, at the end of the day, are just humans.  The persona we see in our manager, or exec is not the entire person.  They are just trying to get through the same messy world as the rest of us, some even have a sense of humor about it.  Since then I have been less fearful of having conversations with someone at the top.  Some are still scary, and I still worry at making sure I'm prepared.  That's only common sense.  But I try to get a sense of the underlying person.

I wish more execs that I've met since had shown their human sides, even those who aren't pranksters.  I think doing so provides an approach-ability that so many of today's leaders lack.

Have you ever had an encounter that changed your perceptions?

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