Too many chiefs

What is more challenging than a close-minded manager? When more than one decide to jump in and act as the manager who knew everything… This scenario happened to me while I was still an employee: it was post 9/11 in the aerospace business (yes, I know: the circumstances could have been less ironic). The company’s financial situation was logically fragile, and the usual 7-year cycle known in the industry had been cut in half, trying to survive through the ripple effects of a shaken economy. When waters are agitated, I swim however I can: it may not look great, if I want to get back to the shore, I do what I can to move to a safer place. When it is only me, it is (somewhat) simple. Then, it was slightly different.

In less than two years, I reported to five different managers, sometimes concurrently, sometimes sequentially, with some overlapping periods. Those were episodes of my professional life I was happy to leave behind. Until a recent event I contributed to, when other operations staff decided to give me instructions to follow, disregarding my initial responsibilities. I gathered they had an agenda, with cut-off times and objectives: I am familiar with that, project management is my field too. My first concern was the safety of the participants: theirs, apparently, was different. That is where and when it could have become… dangerous.

Unless some basic communication had been disseminated to all areas of this event, clearly defining what each of us was doing, and responsible for, the numerous radio and phone calls I received were disconcerting. It was time vs. participants’ safety: logistically rewarding, humanly irritating. In less than 9 hours, 5 additional people improvised themselves as a new leader, expecting me to follow their information and directions, directly conflicting with the ones before.

At first, I listened and ended up watching two of them debating over one detail that was momentarily putting my duties on hold. I did a lot of stop-and-go, and it reminded me of that aerospace time of mine. A few kilometers before the finish line, I received a last call, focusing on the final cut-off time: the last two competitors were still on the course, making me run 6 minutes behind (on a nine-hour event, making the success rate at 98.8%). For their safety (100%), I negotiated with my two new “managers” that it was their call as to which message they wanted to send with me taking off without the last two racing. These racers are the ones who won: they did not give up, in spite of how difficult the course was, and they were safe and sound at the finish line. To me, they were the chiefs of the day, and they were not too many.

Photo credit © OFL – “Chief’s edge”