What Works for Me

washington-dc-300a061009Before I focused on child welfare law, I spent about ten years in the Washington, DC, area, working for what the locals call, “Beltway Bandits.” These are the companies who live off federal contracts. Some were small, but most were large. Very large. Before I opened my own law practice, I worked for three different Fortune 100 corporations, everyone of them “leading edge,” in their respective field.

We were all on time to work, and willing to put in extra hours to get the job done. We adhered to the dress code, we sat where we were assigned to sit, and we observed the codes of conduct laid out in the employee handbooks.

washington white male boardsAnd we were about as inefficient and backward as it’s possible to be and still make a profit.

We know now, for example, that companies with diverse boards of directors are more profitable than companies that seat only white guys on their boards. The diverse companies tend to be better places to work, and to have a more flexible response to changing market conditions. It’s good business to diversify your board of directors, but we’re actually losing ground in this regard.

washington diverseWe also know that brainstorming, a mainstay of corporate problem-solving, is likely to produce fewer and less workable solutions to any given problem, than if people are tasked individually with devising solutions. Many of my traditionally published author friends report that their book titles are still the result of a group of people (who mostly haven’t read the book), sitting around a whiteboard, tossing out ideas in brainstorming sessions.

DC traffic jamsWe know that the contribution of women in mixed corporate groups is devalued compared to the contributions of men. An outspoken guy will be viewed as knowledgeable and helpful, an outspoken woman is pushy. And yet, most corporations insist that staff be available in one place during one set of hours because “meetings” are the lifeblood of corporate communication.

Tired colleaguesTurns out, the more meetings a company has, the less efficient it is. The more workers it has contributing from home, the MORE efficient it is, and the greater the job satisfaction of its workers.

My point is not that Corporate America is Dumb. It’s not. Some corporations are brilliant, others are high heelsvery backward. My point is this: Nobody was enjoying their commute in DC traffic all those years ago. Nobody gained IQ points because they put on a tie or high heels. Everybody sat in meeting after meeting, and thought, “I could be getting so much done at my desk…”

And yet, we suited up, schlepped the commute, and showed up for all those meetings–and still do. That’s the weight of organizational culture, and it’s just as heavy with churches, wild flowershomeowners’ associations, families, and cultural affiliations. The larger the organization, the more effectively it shuts down our own sense of what’s working and what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong.

This is part of why we vote all alone in a private booth, traditionally go to confession alone, and usually undertake therapy one on one or in very small groups–because there’s danger in numbers. When honesty, integrity and creativity matter (and when don’t they?) the large group is seldom the best option.

What’s the largest organization in your daily life, and where is it a bad fit for you?

To one commenter, I’ll send flowers.

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30 comments on “What Works for Me

  1. Work is the largest organization in my life. Corporations are a puzzle to me at times. Reorganizing, shifting responsibilities and not getting it quite right.
    I am on a committee which corrects issues to a company wide work flow center. If someone had asked the people who use this center what was needed to update or improve it– this committee would not have been needed. Fairly simple….ask the folks who need and use the material?
    There are positives to working for a large corporation….great health benefits, vacation time and education. I have enjoyed and benefited from all of the course work that I have taken at work. The benefits are great–health care, dental and insurance. Four weeks of vacation is awesome,too. 🙂

    • There are plenty of companies, not for profits, churches, and communities that get it right. One of my best employers ever was Continental Telecom (Contel), which was a HUGE outfit. They never lost sight of customer relations or the fact that the customer doesn’t deal with CONTEL, they deal with a Contel employee. One of my worst was at a small business owned by three guys who’d been disaffected with the corporate schlep elsewhere. I’ve never put in so many hours, for such low pay, and been so criticized for such trivial imperfections.

  2. In the process of thinking over where I fit in once again. I have a feeling we all do that more often these days, our generation and the younger ones. My Dad worked forever for a company. Never thought of leaving, they were like a parent to him. Took care of him, his family, his future. No longer the case from my perspective.

    Now, I search again for some insights. I worked for some great companies and the benefits were wonderful…then something shifted. We no longer offered things we should have… our bottom line was EVERYTHING. It shifted too much for my sensibilities. I am hoping in my quest to think things through, I process your words, and some other items on my life priority list and understand the pros and cons of all professional life.

    I will agree with this , the larger the team on a project I led? The harder to get any approvals and buy ins and the changes were legion…Too many stakeholders these days ….

    Very thoughtful post …

    Have a wonderful sunny day!

    • Hope, wish you a happy, safe landing with the re-positioning. One of the other things that happens with a larger group is that moral responsibility is diffused, so the impact of focusing on that bottom line only–unhealthy workers, lower product quality, higher stress all around–isn’t any one person’s fault. This might not be entirely a bad thing–some realities are NOT any one person’s responsibility–but it also leads to the infamous Mai Lai defense: “I was just following orders.”

  3. For me it is my parish church…as I get closer to retirement age (almost 63 & still working part time), I realize that tho’ I volunteer regularly in our large parish, I need to “pick & choose” those areas where I can serve the best using my accounting & people skills…I am a weekly collection counter (Monday Morning Money folks) & last year the Outreach Program wanted to provide free income tax prep for low income clients that use our food pantry on a regular basis…I attended a few meetings but we were too late in trying to set it up so it never took off…I am already committed to doing family & friends tax returns each year (plus I do a few “pro bono” for parish people…Tho’ I have the skills to help out in this program, I am not sure whether it is something I want to pursue…(BTW, I also worked in Corporate America when I graduated from college & took a job as a staff accountant with a then “Big 8” accounting firm…too much overtime, etc. so I went into private accounting for a large insurance company & traveled to do audits…) When I moved to upstate NY, I chose to work with smaller companies where I felt I was making a difference…

    • Ev, I commend your decision to step back, both at the parish level (whose liability if the return is challenged?), and when the Big 8 were danging their carrots before you. I worked at one outfit that was militarily brilliant at creating a sense of employee loyalty–we can’t do it without, we’re counting on you, the team, the team….–which resulted in most people not having a life outside the office, and the corporations making the profit, the profit.

      I read that list of the regrets of the dying again recently. Nobody wishes they’d put in more overtime. Nobody. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/03/top-5-regrets-of-the-dying_n_3640593.html

  4. Once again a timely, personally needed post. *Nothing* about large corporations / organizations suits me. The more people there are, the more anxious I get. The more rules there are, the more inadequate I feel when I break them. Accordingly, I’ve decided to employ myself fully as a contractor. In my chosen fields of education and acting, this means I may work with large groups, but I’m still independent within them. And they choose me for what I already have to offer – not what they can “get out of me.”

    It’s the scariest decision I’ve ever made. My childhood was highly unstable and I spent the first 18 years of adult employment seeking stability. But it’s just not me to work for one company forever and get a gold watch at the end. I’ve never stayed at a “good” job more than four years! So I’m making my quirks work for me. 🙂

    Thanks for the reminder that brass rings come in all sorts of forms.

    • That looking for stability stuff… I think it affects us all. I had been laid off twice, and was looking at, “Well, you can move to Houston or you can take a pink slip,” when I had a six month old baby, and a brand new mortgage, no savings, and no other wage earner in the household. I started down the usual road… looking at the help wanteds, buffing the resume, and then I realized: That road had NEVER offered me stability and never would. Moreover, I was spending a lot of time and money getting to jobs I hated.

      Into private practice I went, and there have been lean times, but it was the right decision for me. Wish I’d done it sooner.

      • I’m so very glad your path took you where it did. Your careers have blessed many, myself included. ❤

  5. I feel your pain. My last three major (“Real”) jobs have been with large corporations or state government, but not in the headquarters. I was a retail store manager and then a trainer with my direct supervisors over 300 miles away. Thank goodness it’s hard to micro-manage at those distances. My current job is as a service rep at a 300+ person call center. I’ve been lucky that all but one of my supervisors believes in leaving people alone to do their jobs and used the mandatory meetings to pass on important information. But, yeah, if it’s not a good fit, I’m grateful you have an alternative to Corporate America as it seems to be now.

    • The supervisor who knows how to supervise is a big part of anybody’s job satisfaction, and yet, we tend to promote the people who fit the corporate culture, not the ones with excellent management skills. I’ve watched this go on at one local agency, until there’s a phalanx of soft-spoken, non-confrontational people at one level of supervision, and the line workers are absolutely NOT getting the direction they need, so the good ones… leave. Like that’s good for business?

      When I left my last corporate job, my boss was more concerned with my bra size than the fact that I’d graduated first in my law school class. Buh-bye!

      • I was once brought to task for wearing open toed shoes in the office one week before their official “sandal season”. It was month end, crunch time and they wanted me to go home and change my shoes! Get your priorities straight. 40 and being told what to wear to an office that clients never visited.

  6. I’ve worked for large school districts and large churches…but not now. Benefits were good but the soul-sucking (for me) was not. Since I was a music teacher/choral conductor and since music is (and you’ll get this joke, Grace) *easy*, everyone (and I do mean everyone) felt it was well within their right to tell me how I should be doing my job. From repertoire to classroom management, everyone gave me their *advice*. It always struck me as funny to be told my class could be heard down the hall…and when your “class” is a choir and the kids are either warming up or SINGING, of course, they SHOULD be heard down the hall ! 🙂

    Right now, I have two organizations with which I work….my own chamber choir (of about 15 singers) and the arts management group that runs it. We get along great, they trust me and it’s a weekly “Love Fest.”

    The other group is a core committee of local arts organizations, a sub-committee of the local small business organization. We are trying to form an umbrella arts organization to promote ALL the arts organizations (music, visual arts, theater, museums and more)in our region. We have a name and have applied for 501c3 status and are still working the kinks out….but it seems like it’s taking FOREVER! The committee is made up of both artists and business folk and it is a great honor to work with these people…..we’re all so creative but *creative* has it’s own problems, I think. Wish we could just *do it* and get on with it! 🙂

    • I’m not so good at the collaborative process, unless my specific job is facilitator. I do know this: If you put in the time upfront on building consensus, developing relationships, and getting buy in, it pays off over the long haul. Not only do you have results everybody can live with (mostly), you’ve also built relationships and trust, and processes that will get you over the inevitable bumps along the way, and that’s GOLD.

      • We are very good collaborators and I think our group is on to something. I just wish it wasn’t taking so long. I hope you are right about it being GOLDEN eventually. Here’s hoping!

  7. I gave up corporate life as it was sucking the life out of me. I now own a jewelry business and work as an independent personal assistant/bookkeeper with a flexible schedule which includes telecommuting. For 20 years I tried to fit into the corporate life but stood out in my colorful suits among the sea of black pinstripes. My questioning of authority (nick named “Norma Rae” by a co-worker) and ideas that managing to my staff’s strengths was frowned upon. My ideas that my staff have a flexible schedule that allowed for a personal life would increase productivity was shoved aside for team building exercises, meeting after meeting to ensure we were all on the same page. Same page = clones. Gave it all up after my 3rd kid was born. It has been a hard road to creating a creative balanced life that pays my bills. Now about that HOA!

  8. I retired about 6 years ago and due to health reasons I’m not involved any big organizations any more.

    I spent about 40 years at the last company that I worked for. I was a secretary most of that time although most of my positions involved more varied duties than a regular secretary would have. In other words, I was a worker bee and I liked it just fine!

    Most of those years I didn’t have to attend too many meetings. I was told what had to be done – and I did it. I was fortunate that none of my bosses where the type that felt they had to micro manage what I did.

    But the last 10 years or so everything changed. Everybody had to be on a committee – some of us more that one. And you are right. I would sit there in the meeting thinking about all of the work not being done – and of the voice mails and e-mails I would be expected to respond to before the end of the day.

    Wore me out. I think I retired just in time. That little censor in your head – you know, the one that says “don’t say that out loud” wasn’t working so well anymore. I think if I had been working much longer my mouth would have gotten me in real trouble.

  9. Since I am now retired, my organization is all family-oriented. However, during my working days, I worked for large organizations, a couple Fortune 500 companies, and some small, family-owned companies and found that I was much more appreciated, and had my ideas listened to and acted upon within the smaller companies.

  10. I’m approaching the anniversary of leaving a 21-year career in teaching. I loved teaching and being around my teen-aged students, but the inservices, faculty meetings, negotiations, legislative sessions, etc. took a toll on my health. When the anxiety attacks crept into my classroom instead of “just” at meetings, I made my exit plan. I’m three years into a job at my local library! I get to teach, but oh, so differently now. My health is better! It took over a year for me to get called into my supervisor’s office without an anxiety attack. I feel, finally, like I’ve healed my life!

  11. I have never really worked for a big organization before but I do try to keep my house going and help Terry with his business and we just couldn’t work together outside the home and be married to so I went back to being a housewife and it was better for me and for us as a couple.

  12. You are speaking to the choir here Grace! I worked in the Corporate World for the last 40 years of my working life, and can tell you now, that the only reason I retired at 72, was because of the dishonesty, unethical dealings and the meaningless meetings that achieved nothing but frustration and stopped us from doing our work. In the last 11 years, my co-workers who I left behind, have become more and more frustrated, but because of their financial state, they are forced to bite their tongues and do what goes against their natures. I can’t see that things will change any time soon either. Such a pity though, as what we had was amazing.

  13. This! My husband and I have recently been talking about how in the future many professional workers will stop commuting and meeting and wearing heels and just work via contracts from home. If you do good work, you’ll get hired again and no one will care if you’re wearing PJs or what time you woke up. It’s going to be many years from now because old white men still rule the roost but I see that as the change that’s coming. And I currently still work a full time day job in cubelandia.

  14. my family is the largest “organization” in my life(about 30 all together). i have to agree that the more of us there are at any one time the less it seems each of our individual opinions matter(at that time). we do much better when it is just the immediate family(4 of us),as we each seem to be able to be “heard” in that kind of group. 🙂

    tammy ramey
    [email protected]

  15. i work for a large international industrial conglomerate, and have a horrible commute. After a long struggle, I’ve just won approval to work at home “several days a week.” That’s at least 3 waking hours added to my life by not having to sit in a car and pay attention to avoiding the dangerous and/or idiot drivers on the clogged freeway. I wish I could figure out a way to live the life I’d like and still honor my responsibilities. Fortunately, I work for a pretty good company.

    • Make that 5 hours or more a week added to my life. My commute has evolved to about 1.5+ hours per day, and getting longer every 6 months as traffic increases.

  16. One of my friends used to call meeting attendees “the water bottle and day planner brigade.” Nowadays, all of my work is done virtually from my home office. I am a Network Consulting Engineer for a huge technology company that is regularly ranked among the top places to work in the world. When I was recruited last year, I knew I found my tribe. As a woman in technology, I am recognized and paid for my efforts. I am mentoring younger women, which I love. That works in my life. However, I spend much of my time working for one client, another enormous corporation, which would be a bad fit if I were working directly for that behemoth. The attitudes of some of the men make me grit my teeth when I realize I am not being taken seriously because I am a “girl.” The ones whom I’ve crossed and won over respect me, but there seems to be a new crop every week.

  17. Grace. Same problem in education. Non-productive collaborative planning and mandatory facility meetings. Dress code eased up a while back so that teachers did not notice that they were not paid enough to dress to the code. I once worked with a principal who believed a Happy teacher is an effective teacher. Those were the most creative and successful years of my career.

  18. Hello, Grace. As well as enjoying your work, I’m an Occupational Psychologist. I wonder if you’ve come across the work of Deborah Tannen. In her book, Talking from 9 to 5, she describes how she studied speech patterns in meetings, wanting to understand things like, how air time and agendas are decided. She found that women use their interactions to collaborate, share information and ideas. Men on the other hand, view other people as being either one-up or one-down from them. They use a variety of devices to try to get into one-up positions (take control, in short), such as ignoring contributions on topics that they don’t want to talk about, or interrupting.

    By contrast, Jim Collins and his team studied US firms which achieved long term success… A very small number! In his book, Good to Great, he describes how he had expected to find these organisations led by loud “leaders”, but instead, he found they were led by humble, thoughtful people. These people had built teams of similar people around them, who were diverse, each valued for their knowledge and skill, and genuinely liking and respecting one another. I think if Dr Tannen had studied these teams, she would have found a different picture from the normal corporate meeting.

    In short: your thoughts about meetings are backed up by solid research. Once aware of this, it’s important not to stand for blokey-nonsense….

  19. Hmm… I think people have different working styles. I work in a traditional setting and I find structure is helpful for me. My husband works for himself out of the home. He stays home and spoils our two cats and that works better for him. I don’t think there is one way to work. I think it is important to find what works for you.