Monday, June 09, 2008


In my entire life I don't believe I was ever described as being a 'failure.' Lord knows I have often felt that way given how Americans label people. I could live with not meeting expectations for beauty, social position, or relationships (being a single heterosexual female does have its drawbacks). But, I did pride myself on delivering what was expected of me.

True story:

When I was 6 my mother (pregnant I do believe) sent me on a hunt for my brother, age 5, who had not come home from kindergarten. Leaving aside the wisdom of a mother expecting a small child to search for another small child (it was 1959 and she was home alone with 2 other small children), I took on that assignment with determination.

We lived in a 2 family house (aka 2 flat) in Cleveland on the upper level. The lower level was occupied by Nicky (the landlord) and his roommates Romeo and Bill. All worked for the Fire Department and had the requisite Dalmation (Pepper) as a pet. It was a rainy day and I sat down on the steps in the back landing to put on my boots. Nicky came out of his unit, saw me and asked what was up. I told him and he said I should wait and he would come with me. Little did he know how single minded I am. Nicky did not come back out as quickly as I expected, so I marched off in search of my brother. I found him at the intersection of our street with a main drag. He had been held after school for some foolishness on his part. We started back across the main drag and there was Nicky's big yellow Ford coming down our street. He insisted we get in and, needless to say, he was quite put out with me. I, on the other hand, was not at all worried about his fussing since I had completed my mission and found my brother. My mother's approval, or reproach, was all I was concerned about.

So, keeping in mind that I have a lifetime commitment to delivering on a task, imagine how I felt today.

Today I attended yet another high level meeting for the project I am on. Our top-level fearless leader labeled us a "failure" because we cannot deliver on the original schedule. Never mind that the reason we can't deliver is outside our control and simply undoable. Never mind that delivering on schedule will break our organization. Nope. What matters is that we made a commitment to complete the project on date certain and we can't make the date. So we failed. Or did we?

According to our next level leader we failed because we can't make the date. The reasons don't matter. I am so angry and offended by that assessment I don't know where to begin. It is correct we cannot deliver on the original schedule, but if the choice is delivering the schedule or delivering the functionality, I'll take the functionality any day. Had we delivered on schedule we would most certainly have broken the organization. But instead of receiving some recognition for preventing a disaster we are castigated by the top executive for failing to meet a date that was somewhat arbitrary to begin with, and told by our division level executive that this is the "new culture" of the agency,so get used to it.

So, I end my government career labeled a failure. But am I? I don't think so. I think any leadership that is hung up on meeting a date, without consideration of all the variables involved, is the true failure. To be sure accountability and responsibility is important and I support those concepts. However, I believe you must consider the entire package before claiming victory or defeat. History, in the end, will exonerate us whether we are alive to see it or not. Yet it still hurts to be labeled a failure when you know you aren't.

Retirement is looking real good right now.


Toni said...

The high level leader seems more deadline driven than quality driven. That's one of the largest problems today. Just get it done no matter what, we'll fix the problems later attitude.

That isn't keeping the promise, it's half-assing. Remember this little word play the next time you think of him:

What is the root word of executive?


Don't let your spirit be executed.

The North Coast said...

It sounds as though your leader promised a deadline that he knew or should have known, was unrealistic to begin with, knowing he could pass the blame along to underlings if the project failed to make deadline.

"Fix the problems later" means find someone to scapegoat later for the inevitable failure.

I have seen this many times before. A company makes demands of its employees and does not supply the support or tech necessary to meet the demands, and then looks to cast blame.

And casting blame is what it's all about, not solving problems. Many leaders do not care about solving problems, but only want a convenient scapegoat.

You cannot let this destroy your self-esteem and ruin your life. Remember that for most people, including people in top management, working life is one long assault on their sense of self-worth. Mlost people in middle management feel pretty beat up by the time they arrive at retirement age, and older managers are especially brutalized by superiors who want them out the door so they can replace them with younger people working much more cheaply.

Kheris said...

The IRS had a "come to Jesus" moment in 1986 when they adopted COBOL as the main programming language. On the surface it wasn't a big deal until you started dealing with the issues attached to processing tax returns. It was a disaster, and I know a manager who was sent to Philadelphia and discovered tax returns in the ceiling. On the surface someone needed to die, and I am sure the executives found the requisite sacrificial lamb. At the same time we realized that Business As Usual (BAU) wasn't going to work.

So here we are, recognizing BAU won't work, and confronted by a top kick (military term) who is unable/unwilling to deal with the nuances of change.

I will say he showed up for a working session and satisfied himself that the team was not a doormat for the vendor support team. He needed to see it himself, our word wasn't enough. We'll see how it all turns out.