The People Rowing the Boat
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
I stared at the back of the white office door, the one I would have to pass through again, soon in fact. But I didn’t want to, didn’t feel like I could. Trembling, I desperately wanted to stay right where I was, locked away from the outside world. I could feel the flush in my face, feeling hotter and sweatier than the cool weather dictated, my hands clammy. When I woke up earlier that morning, a day of excitement, personal satisfaction and adventure had beckoned. Over the course of the past hour my hopes for happiness had diminished to the point where now I felt abject, miserable, and scared. I had no idea what to do next.
The dream team, not even launched, was about to flame out and it was my fault.
This was supposed to have been a celebratory event, although the official agenda said otherwise. But let’s look back to see why I was here in the first place.
A couple of months ago I’d been asked to throw my name in the hat for the role of operations manager. From the perspectives of size of the group I’d be managing, the diversity of the job and impact to the company operations, it was undoubtedly a step up from the role that was my current day job. It came with the responsibility for about 100 employees, lots of vehicles, overseeing both operations and construction teams as well as keeping our electricity consuming customers happy. It was a lot to tackle, and apart from feeling that I had just taken over the world I felt honoured to even be asked, since I had a ton of respect for the two senior managers that had suggested the move. Side note: my respect has only grown through the ensuing years and they are still active as industry leaders – you know who you are and thank you.
Even before the official announcement was made, I had been pouring over organizational charts and thinking about how I would lead this team to great heights; images of George Washington crossing the Delaware River and Bill Gates gazing across his digital empire flooded my mind. I would lead them to the promised land, delivering satisfaction on all fronts. It would be magical, the kind of thing that would be recorded in the annals of history.
And I hadn’t even started yet.
The first official day of my tenure was slated to be early in the year 2000. We had all breathed a collective sigh of relief having made it through the Y2K apocalypse, watching the clock strike midnight on New Year’s Eve and being thrilled when airplanes didn’t fall from the sky and the burgeoning internet society remained intact. We had gathered all of the employees in one region for a couple of days of training prior to the annual workload getting underway, and the end of day one coincided with the company announcement that I was to be elevated to lead this team. Assembled in a large meeting room in one of the operations headquarters, I stepped to the front of the room and addressed the crowd. My remarks focused mainly on whether they thought the day was valuable for them, but secretly I waited for the inevitable applause and accolades that would undoubtedly flow from the group once I’d finished the few words I had prepared.
I knew that the notice of my ascension had been posted on the bulletin board and sent via email earlier that afternoon, so it went to reason that it was not a secret. My official comments of the day completed, I paused, waiting for the backslaps and “Well done, Keith!” congratulatory cheers from the 50 or so people that surrounded me. Because that’s the expected response when a person gets a new job, right?
Silence. I waited, every second feeling like an hour. It was a terribly daunting feeling, not only having dozens of people stare at you but feeling their gaze in the same instant you realize the adoring crowds won’t be showing up and have instead been replaced by an angry mob. The first trickle of sweat rolled down my back, and I stood motionless, unsure of what to say or do. Finally, a voice from the back rang out. “So, I hear you’re our new boss!”
Looking for the owner of the remark, I located him and replied “Oh, yes, you saw the notice. Yeah, I’m the new guy”. I attempted to be nonchalant with a “hey guys nice to meet you” demeanour even though I had gotten to know most of the people in the room over the last few years. My heart leapt, thinking for a moment that the praise was merely delayed, not altogether absent. But the short lived optimism was abruptly shattered when another person blurted out “Can we go now?”
“Oh, sure, of course, we’re done for the day”, I stammered and managed to offer a “see you tomorrow” while everyone streamed out of the room, talking amongst themselves but not to me. In a few minutes, the room was empty. Taking a moment to process the idea that my sermon from the mount moment would have to wait for another day, I retreated to a nearby office, slumped into the chair and lost myself in a soup of disappointment and sorrow.
It didn’t take long before a new emotion stormed into my mind. Fear took over the room, effortlessly tossing disappointment and sadness out the window. “What do I do now?”, I pondered. “How do I face these people tomorrow? What do I say to this seemingly hostile and distant group that I was supposed to be inspiring and motivating?” I felt hot, dizzy, out of options. And at some point I’ve have to walk out of the room in which I’d taken refuge.
Dozens of thoughts, doubts and uncertainties flooded my mind as I sat drooping in the chair. There was no obvious next move. I had no relevant credentials to find some sort of allegiance, to leverage the camaraderie. I wasn’t a power linemen, not an electrician, not an engineer, nor a mechanic. In my previous role I was professionally trained to deal with it – now I was an outsider.
Fortunately, and as most often is the case with me, another entrant to my internal conversation strode confidently into the room. It was the optimistic, pragmatic part of me that demanded attention. The voice was clear and concise, albeit lacking specifics. “Well, Keith, you can’t stay in this room forever. You’d better think of something”. Quickly I flipped to contemplating my options. What could I do to gain their support and at least get to a point where we could plan what the future of the group looked like? I had given up thinking about their trust and respect – right now I’d settle for them not walking out of the room.
Finally, a useful idea emerged from the mist. Everyone has problems, I thought. Things that frustrate them, people they don’t get along with, family issues, lack of money and a thousand other things. It struck me that perhaps I could help my new group of companions with some of theirs. And the first step was finding out which things at work they didn’t like or caused them difficulty. It might take the wisdom of Yoda, the strength of Hercules and the charisma of Elvis to fix the problems, but I didn’t need any special skills to ask questions about what they were. I breathed deep, settling my mind. I had a plan. It was loose and vague as plans go, but at least I had one. I took another breath, stood up and opened the door.
Over the next few weeks I spent time with the crew supervisors that were part of my team, asking how their world operated and if there was anything I could help with - and it turned out there was. Nothing big at first; annoyances more than anything. One had issues with a couple of the trucks in their fleet and wondered if they could get something better suited for the work they did. Another had concerns with a corporate policy related to monthly reports. Mundane stuff in the grand scheme of things but important to them. So I made it my priority to help get those problems solved, and over the course of time, a remarkable thing happened. We learned how to help one another.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d been part of plenty of teams in the past. Numerous sports teams, work teams, committees and the like. But this was somehow different. We were a disparate group, each with vastly different personalities, likes and interests. And when it came to getting our jobs done, none of that mattered. If I had a technical question, and I had plenty, I felt comfortable picking up the phone and asking them to leverage their experience, to share their knowledge. When they had a regulatory or safety or corporate issue to deal with, I helped as I could. Somewhere along the way the whole idea of an army general being the only or best kind of leader sort of fell out of my pocket of thoughts and was left by the roadside. I hadn’t become a master of anything, I just knew that what we were doing seemed to work… and I felt one other critically important thing. I knew I wasn’t alone. We could and in fact had to rely on each other.
About two years later Celeste (again, not her real name), one of our meter readers, came into the office. Appearing tentative, she looked at me with a brave face. “I’m going to be in trouble and I want you to know about it and see what you think I should do”. She was nervous so I asked her to sit, then proceeded to probe the situation. “What happened?” I queried.
“I was dispatched to cut someone’s power off today. I do it a lot and trust me I’ve heard every story in the book. It was a trailer, so I knocked on the door, prepping to give the same bad news I’ve given many times. The door opened and there was a toddler, maybe two years old, a little boy. He just looked up at me, his clothes dirty, a smile on his face. He was holding a hot dog in one hand. A dog shows up and starts licking the boy’s hand, then tries to take a bite of the hot dog. All of a sudden a woman comes sprinting to the door, her clothes just as scruffy as the little boy’s, yelling ‘Don’t let the dog get the wiener, it’s our supper!’”
She grabs the hot dog just before the dog eats it, then stands up and looks at me, wipes her hair out of her eyes, smiles and says ‘Can I help you?’ Then she sees my shirt with the company logo and knows why I’m there, and she looked like she just wanted to die, just melt away.” She stopped talking for a moment, staring at the ground. “Jeez Keith”, she continued, her voice cracking. “That stupid hot dog was all they had to eat”. She looked drained, like she might start to cry at any moment. “So I just said ‘Don’t worry about it, have a good day.’ And I walked away. I just couldn’t do it. I told dispatch that I didn’t cut the power and they were pretty pissed at me. But I just couldn’t”. Finished her story, she let out a sigh.
I looked at her, a legitimately caring person, the kind that represented in that moment the best of all things human. “You did the right thing Celeste”, I offered. “You aren’t in trouble and thanks for telling me this. I’ll take care of it and she can keep the power on, at least for a while.” She smiled at me, the look one of complete sincerity, then simply said a quiet “thanks” and left the office.
The team just got bigger.
Today, I’m comfortable with the realization that many people have experience and skills I’ll never possess. The world is a big, diverse, complicated, complex place and there are so many things I will never figure out. Nuclear fission? Nope. The history of French impressionism? Forget it. The rules of cricket? Couldn’t tell you one of them. I also know that we are all in the same boat; there are many things you don’t know either. But I do understand this. You’ll be far better off by getting to know other people and harnessing their talents and knowledge, asking them questions, caring about how they feel, working with them to figure out what needs to happen next. When someone seems to have an answer to everything, be wary. No one has all the answers, especially those that think they do. Appreciate that we need everyone’s input, not just our own.
One last thought. When I first saw the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware in 1776, I focused on him. Now when I look at it, I see all the people rowing the boat.