A few weeks ago, one of my many dozens of bosses peered over my cubicle wall and asked:
‘What is it you DO around here, exactly, anyway?‘
Sadly, I didn’t have a quick answer handy. I’m not sure it would have mattered, frankly. I DO lots of things around the office — occasionally even a few in the ballpark of my job description. But bosses don’t want details in these situations; they’re looking for a bite-sized morsel to chew on. ‘What do you do?‘ is the ‘How’s it going?‘ of workplace interaction, the amuse bouche of overseer-peon conversation. It’s not quite rhetorical, but nobody wants an honest answer, either. It’s a delicate path to navigate.
“It’s hard to think on your feet when all you can taste is fear and CAPSLOCK.”
It’s more delicate when you’ve just been startled awake from an afternoon siesta on your keyboard. It’s hard to think on your feet when all you can taste is fear and CAPSLOCK.
As I struggled through an explanation of the finer points of my functional duties, I could see I was losing him. His eyes started to wander in that peculiar executive “too long; didn’t listen” sort of way, and as he glazed over, I realized with horror that he was gradually coming to a decision. A few seconds later, he put up a hand to pause me and said:
‘Say, why don’t you present all this at our next group meeting? Give everyone a chance to hear it.‘
And that’s how not having a three-second answer to ‘What do you do here?‘ got me roped into giving a huge talk this week. For the record, next time anyone asks I’m going to say, ‘I’m the copy boy.‘
I might get sent to the Xerox machine a few times. But it’s worth the hassle. And if I clear out enough stock, I can probably catch a few winks in the paper supply cabinet. Much more comfy.
Meanwhile, the presentation. The ‘tell us everything you do, and we’ll decide which bits to laugh and point at‘ soiree. That was on Tuesday morning. And having given the talk, I thought I might share some of the lessons I learned. The ‘dos and don’ts’, if you will, of sharing your responsibilities with the coworkers around you. So if you’re ever asked to give such a talk — and you don’t do the sane thing and run screaming through a plate glass window to escape — at least you won’t make the same mistakes I did. To wit:
I decided to make my presentation a ‘whiteboard talk’. This was mostly because I didn’t want to be bothered with taking four stupid hours to make PowerPoint slides.
Instead, I spent five stupid hours drawing everything on the whiteboard. Because our meetings are an hour long. And if you go over time, someone will fashion a shiv out of a bit of chalk or a laser pointer or the guy next to them and cut you to get the hell out of the room. Which I not only understand — I condone. So I had to pre-draw everything I wanted to cover, unless I wanted to take one between the ribs when the clock struck 11:01am.
In other words, avoid the whiteboard. It takes longer, smells funny, and by the time you finish you’ll have hand cramps and marker dust all over your body. If humans were meant to write longhand that way, our fingers wouldn’t fit so neatly on the keys of a keyboard. Think about it. And make the damned slides.
(This is doubly true if your meeting is first thing after a long weekend, and you decide to prep your talk the Friday before. I spent most of my ‘holiday’ worried out of my skull that some numbnuts would ignore my ‘FOR THE LOVE OF ALL HUMANITY, DO NOT ERASE THIS BOARD!!!!‘ signs and I’d walk into the meeting to find doodled cartoon fireworks or some ridiculous shit.
I didn’t. But in every dream for three solid nights, I did. Next time, I’m writing in permanent Sharpie. Just for the peace of mind.)
There were lessons to be learned from the talk itself, as well. I mentioned earlier how details — particularly minute, esoteric and especially technical details — can cause a boss type of person to completely tune out. This happens with coworkers, as well. The really nitty-gritty on-the-ground minutiae of what you do in your daily job is of no practical interest to anyone else in the room. You need to remember that.
Because you can totally USE it. I ran out of real stuff maybe twenty minutes in. But all I had to do was blather on for a few seconds about second-order database normalization or model-view-controller system architecture, and it’s like the whole room was in a trance. I ran out of steam and sang two verses of “I’m a Little Teapot” in the middle, and nobody blinked an eye. It was beautiful.
Finally, I can’t stress enough the importance of taking feedback after a talk like this. Any old schmuck can stand up there and tell you what he or she does. But what they really want to hear out of you is, “What exactly is it that you want me to do?”
I’m not suggesting that you DO it, necessarily. Just let them all voice an opinion, and they’ll feel as though they’re part of the process and leave you alone for a while. It’s the same reason we encourage people to vote and we let grooms recite wedding vows — to feel as though they’re participating. Good stuff.
On the other hand, you have to be a bit diplomatic about the feedback you solicit. If someone asks why you’re doing one of the things on your list, and your answer is ‘Because some crack-addled jackbag told me to‘, then it’s best if said crack-addled jackbag is not in the room at the time.
Failing that, you should at least make sure it’s not the crack-addled jackbag who’s asking the question. Trust me on this one. Even if they’re questioning their own dubious logic — and forgetting that it spawned from them in the first place — you’ll still wind up the ‘bad guy’. It’s what they do. These people know spin. Be afraid.
The good news is, I still have a job. And since giving the talk, no one’s asked me what it is I do around the place. I’m not sure it’s because they know, now. But I think they know that they no longer want to know. And that’s just as good, in everyone’s book. Just pretend I’m the copy boy, and we’ll make it work somehow. Just as soon as the next siesta wraps up.Permalink | No Comments