Bored In Almost Heaven!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about entry to a new job without direction:

I started my new position as a project manager about a week ago with a small company. Nearly everything about it is wonderful, particularly when I have been in some really nasty, backbiting, political environments these last five years. People are so friendly and open at my current workplace; it’s a huge relief just to be among “nice” people again. There is only one problem: my boss has only ever managed one other employee, and he has barely interacted with me. He is a very nice guy, but I have had to seek him out and look for points of discussion!

As I came aboard, I was given no objectives, no projects, no development plan, and no direction. Heck, I wasn’t even taken to lunch my first day, which I thought was the general “welcome aboard” signal. I just decided they have their own way of doing things here, and I need to go with the flow. So now I’ve been sitting at my desk for 7 days with almost no input from anyone. I took some matters into my own hands. I read web sites about how to make a good start at a new job. I reviewed every piece of company marketing collateral I could find. I drafted some objectives for myself, based on the rudimentary job description I was given. I created some project management templates.

I shared the objectives and templates with him. I asked him not to be “too gentle” with me. I also suggested that during the first few weeks, perhaps we might want to meet regularly to ensure that I was becoming more contributory. I mentioned some basic things I could do as a start that wouldn’t require an in-depth knowledge of our operations. I called on one customer that our sales manager with whom put me in contact, but they weren’t ready to talk.

I finally had to send my boss an Outlook meeting invitation today so we could get together for some planning tomorrow. After that, I just gave up and spent the afternoon surfing the web (thank god I sit in a secluded spot). I couldn’t think of a single other darned thing to do.At this point, I already feel horribly bored and frustrated. I know he has a lot going on — I can hear the discussions in his office all day. At least I’m learning a few things that way. What more can I do to start becoming focused and productive? Am I just being over-eager, and I’ll get pulled into the flow in time? I think what he’s done with me so far is incredibly DUMB, in terms of team development. But I can’t afford to develop negative ideas so early! Help!!

Signed, Almost Heaven

Dear Almost Heaven:

You are bored because you are at Loose Ends! Right? You have been hired as project manager, but you have no projects. In short, you are not clear about what is the mission of your small company, what are its specific objectives, and what are the means to getting to those ends. And your boss has been of little help even after you have initiated outlining what you might do. So you have been left to surf the web. Is that when you met us? What more might you do than overhear what your boss is talking about in his office? Might you think of this loose time as an opportunity? Suppose you were brought in as an outside consultant to get the business moving. What would you do? Would you introduce yourself to everyone in the organization? Would you see how things are being done, what are the company’s products/services, suppliers, distributors, and customers? Would you think about what you would do if you were the owner?

Obviously a new hire should not be telling others what to do, but she/he could learn a lot by looking. Lacking a job description, you have an opportunity to shape your own. Might you ask your boss to assign you to introduce yourself to all employed, suppliers, customers–to use this time as a thorough learning period of what is needed to be a project manager for this workplace? Might you ask if he would like you to spell out a preliminary job description and actions you will take until one becomes clearer? What if he or your boss’s boss would assign you to work for a day or two or three as an assistant to other employees in different jobs?

Might that floating around help you empathize and later support those who are your internal customers? What if you were loaned out to your suppliers and/or end customers for that same purpose? Might that experience help you understand their needs and better partner with and/or deliver quality to them?

That spelling out first for yourself and then to candidly and professionally present these explicit proposals to your boss keeps him in the driver’s seat. He then will approve of or reject these WHAT, WHEN, and WHERES? Overlook the lack of welcome. Think positively. Appreciate these few days of honeymoon in heaven and keep us posted. Our readers and we will learn from you what it is like to be hired in heaven. I will share your question and my comments with Tina Rowe, another of our workplace doctors. She usually adds or modifies the advice I am sending. You will find no one wiser. Think WEGO.

Feedback: Wow, these are all great ideas! Thanks! I was getting “stuck.” I’d tried a few things but not really made much of a dent in the doldrums. I’d run out of ideas. I had already tried the “preliminary job description” tack. I emailed it to him, and he didn’t comment. (I sure do hope his boss didn’t hire me to address a skill gap in my boss! Well, even if he did, if I handle it right and don’t come off as critical or negative, it will be okay.)

I particularly like the idea of trying to “float” with different people in the organization, since my work will eventually touch every area. At least… I think so. This morning we are supposed to tackle a couple of things: define the information architecture of our “boilerplate” web portals, and take all our current projects and categorize them into a series of milestones I’ve defined. It’s a start. I’ve needed to find a way to get out of my corner without making my boss feel threatened or criticized.

It’s way too early for being a critic, but I see we definitely have a problem!I also can’t afford a “glass is half empty” mentally. I fell into a negative mindset in my last job, and it was the kiss of death. At least this place has enough key ingredients so I can find reasons for optimism. Yes, I found you while “surfing.” At least I used my downtime to ask, “What else can I be doing?” as opposed to sulking about being left to my own devices. I surely understand that both my new boss and I co-own this problem. And if I’m the only one doing anything about it… well, sometimes that’s just the way things go. My best friend and I have a simple motto for whenever life doesn’t seem exactly fair: “Rise above it.”

Second Opinion: Dr. Gorden forwarded your letter and his response to me, and he knew I would add something! He also likely knew I would start that something with, “This is like a situation I was once involved with………….” And it is! So, let me see if I can add some thoughts of value and how you could structure your time to Dr. Gorden’s great advice. The reason I can relate to this is that I would be like your manager! Likely his reasons and mine aren’t the same, so I’ll mention some other possibilities as well.

1. I once wrote in a journal, “Remember, nothing is as bad or as good as it seems the first week in a new job.” The busiest, most time-consuming assignment I ever had seemed boring to me the first few weeks. I even told someone that I regretted going there because I had nothing to do. Within a few weeks the busy cycle hit and I rarely had time to breathe after that! So, this may simply be the calm before the storm that allows you to get your computer files organized, make lists of contacts and all of the other things Dr. Gorden suggested.

2. You didn’t describe the exact table of organization, but that will be good for you to use as you think about your future there. Who, in addition to your boss will you be interacting with regularly? Ask them to join you for lunch or coffee or ask them for a brief meeting. Who is your boss’s boss? Get to know that person and support your boss to them. Learn the paths you will be taking to get your work done.

3. This is a great time to decide what you want people to say about you when you leave in a few years or whenever that will be! In fact, I highly recommend that as one way to spend an hour or two. Make a list of the things you want people to say when they sorrowfully say goodbye at your farewell luncheon attended by hundreds of admirers who think the company might as well close their doors since you are leaving. (Well, that may be a bit much, but you get the idea.) Then, keep that list near you and live according to it. Among the things you should want them to say:

*She was always a pleasure to talk to–never too much or too little communication. *She was neat, clean and well groomed. I never saw her looking anything but appropriate for a business office.

*She could develop and implement a plan and make it look easy. *She genuinely cared about people, without being over-board about it. *She always had a smile. *She was such a hard worker! What a dynamo!

*She was the most dependable person I ever met. *That woman had so much influence! People really wanted to link with her in a good way. *She never forgot a birthday. I got an email from her every year.

*She was never moody. You could always depend upon her to be courteous and professional.

*Her desk was always so organized looking. I wish I was like that!

*We’re really going to have a hard time replacing her!As someone once told me about his or her retirement party, “I felt like I was hearing my own eulogy!” But, it’s a good way to think about what kind of person you want to be right now. Remember the old adage: It takes 30 second to get a bad reputation and 30 years to live it down. My experience has been that you NEVER live it down!

4. You know your boss is busy, because you’ve heard the discussions. That may be the sole reason for the current situation. It may be that he didn’t really think your role was needed in the first place, and doesn’t have anything prepared to direct you. He may have preferred someone else for the job and is still disgruntled about that.

*There may be–as hard as this is to think about–something about you that makes him uncomfortable (Too much fragrance, too heavy make-up, clothing that seems not appropriate to him, breath issues, too much communicating or a general approach that isn’t what he would prefer. Yes, I know that’s not something any of us would want to think about, but still, it has to be considered.)

*Maybe he isn’t comfortable with taking someone to lunch or interacting more personally and had hoped other employees would do it. He may have had a bad experience with that in the past.

*It may be that he’s been accused of micromanaging in the past and is trying to avoid it with you.

*It may be that he thinks you’re so competent that you’ll figure everything out on your own and he wants to give you a few days to settled in before he gets involved directly. Or, it may even be that this is a test of sorts and he wants to see what you do without any help at all.

*OR, as was usually the situation with me, time flies and he simply hasn’t had a chance to do all the great things he thought about doing with you the first week. I always had great plans for the first week or so, but ended up having a quick conversation on day one, giving them a few things I knew were important for them to settle-in, and didn’t talk to them much for the next couple of weeks. I should note that this was only true at higher levels and when I had confidence in the person. The lower the level of employee, the more I interacted personally to show concern and support. With those who seemed capable and whom I knew would soon be immersed in something that we’d both work on, I’d see them or hear them in passing and if it looked like they were busy I was happy. I didn’t worry about what they were busy doing, because I knew eventually we’d get around to a project and in the meantime I figured anything they were doing was giving them time to acclimate themselves. I wasn’t so bad that I’d let someone be left alone with no one to talk to, but if I saw other employees conversing with him or her, I made the assumption that generally all was well. I knew that wasn’t optimal. It was just that often I didn’t have the time to mentor right at that moment. I usually didn’t even realize so much time had passed; one day just flew after another!In my own behalf, I know I did better as time went on, because every one of those people–most long retired or now working somewhere else–are still friends and we chat now and then. But those first couple of weeks were never the bonding times I had hoped for!

*Any or a combination of things may be why he has interacted so little with you during your time there. A challenge for you will be to put the best spin possible on whatever is the cause. Listening to his discussions will give you an idea if he is forceful or lacking in confidence, if he seems to be under pressure or if he simply has a volume of things to churn through every day, if he’s friendly to most people or if he’s taciturn with everyone. You also can see with whom he DOES interact personally with. Notice if those people seem to have a different style than you do. It could be that he simply hasn’t figured out how to deal with you yet.

5. I don’t advise you to gossip about him or criticize him, of course. But it isn’t criticism to talk with other employees about your hopes for the job and how you want to be a positive support for everyone. In that conversation you may have the opportunity to say frankly that you would like to know if there are specific land mines that you should avoid. Employees don’t need much more than that to discuss the boss! Just be sure to stop it short if it becomes very negative. You can say you appreciate their insight but you’d probably better not know any more at this point! Remember too, that anything you say may be quoted back to the boss, so make what you say quotable!

6. Don’t upwardly supervise your boss–and that’s a temptation. I think what you have done thus far seems fine, as far as asking for a meeting, sharing ideas with him as so forth. But in your efforts to get something going, be careful about pushing that too much. He may be very conscious of his lack in the area of indoctrination and doesn’t want to be reminded any further! He may genuinely want to get a strong team going with you, but simply doesn’t quite know how to do that and feels badly about it. Or, he may know, based on his experience, that soon the stuff will hit the fan and there’ll be plenty for you to do. Keep the “How can I help?” attitude, but avoid giving the impression that you think he is remiss or that he should be sharing more. Just go with the flow.

7. A final thought. You’ve only been there a very, very short amount of time–about 1/260ths of your time, if you are there for five years. You’ll have 259 more weeks to do the things you know you can do. That’s plenty of time, so you don’t need to jump in too quickly.You are doing the right thing to research, study, plan and get ready for what the future brings. You may never be close to this boss. But even if you are not, you can do your work and interact with him in a way that gains his support. That is ultimately what we all want.

Your situation is exactly why I tell people who write to us complaining about their bosses and what they perceive as meddling or micro-managing, that as long as the boss is decent and pleasant they should be grateful that he or she tries to do the right thing. We’re rarely in a totally perfect situation, but you’re right that your setting would be considered by many to really BE almost heaven! Please let us know how things develop if you wish to and have the time after work gets crazy!–Tina Lewis Rowe

Feedback: Hello Tina, Yes, more good thoughts. Perspective is everything –seek to understand, and then be understood. As far as the first impression thing, I do know to treat every day on my new job as a continuation of the interview process. I dress conservatively, but attractively, I maintain a friendly and open manner, and I NEVER, EVER say a negative word. Someone once told me, don’t say anything negative the first 6 month you are on the job. I couldn’t agree more. We had our longest meeting yet this morning, and I came away with one basic thing: I understand our general business direction, and I know better now what role our group will play in that.

My boss has been the one-man shop for a long time. He’s having a difficult time moving from worker to manager. My extremely difficult job is to become the information filter that brings requirements in and communicates the progress back out. Our roles will be sort of reversed for a while, until he gets the hang of it. And me — I have to have a lot of compassion and patience as we move along. Yes, it is awfully early in the “marriage” and it will take some time to learn how to effectively interact because our styles are very different!We have a lot to learn from each other. The way I present myself and start to make an impact will determine how that goes. Thanks for your time.

Feedback About A Month Later: Well, you told me to send you an update at some point. So here is the continuation of my saga in “Heaven.” 🙂 Hee hee.I took the path you suggested — I began to act as a low-profile internal consultant, going around to different members of our executive team, collecting information about our company’s biggest pains and opportunities. I really listened. Then I started converting those things into projects, as well as sorting out some hand off issues between Sales and Product Development. I began to get some traction in my new role.Things were going great! Everyone loved me! Members of the executive team began to consult me on various things and grew excited about what I might be able to do for them. I meanwhile kept a weather eye on my boss because I began to sense that there was tension between him and two of the other executive team members. However, since they were more strategically-focused and senior than he is, I didn’t sweat it too much. Besides, I was making everyone look good, right? And he never gave me any guidelines or objectives, right?

Uh oh… you can probably see where I’m headed with this.Well, then came the morning that I walked in as those two executives were going bonkers over a mock-up I’d done of an order management website. They were so happy! But I could feel the black mood that put my boss in — and yes, I had clearance to work on that particular task and yes, it was ranked in our list of highest priorities. He went into a sulk that they responded with such enthusiasm. Why? Well… politics? Insecurity? Immaturity? Who the hell knows? I just tried to pull my profile in a little tighter.

The real blow came when the President invited me to participate in an Executive Steering Board Meeting. I hadn’t asked to be invited, nor had I even really been terribly visible on the particular topic for discussion. But I thought, well, I’d better look sharp and talk as if I knew what I was doing — “My first Steering Board meeting, woweee.”

I just stepped right up to the plate, offered up some suggestions and observations about how to take particular goal to the next level. Everyone seemed really cool with it, except… yep, guess who? My boss. The longer we sat in that meeting, and the longer I interacted with everyone, the more his lower lip started to poke out. I tried holding back some, but they were asking me direct questions. What was I supposed to do? Stare into space and pick my nose?Oh, he was FURIOUS after that meeting. I mean MAD as a HORNET. He called me into the office the next morning and gave me a good smacking. He actually said that it wasn’t because I wasn’t right in the things I said. It was the way I was right (???) and the fact that I opened my mouth at all in front of his peers.

He told me to learn my place and go back to my desk and draw a diagram of how the communication flow between myself, him, and the Steering Board should look. Holy cow! First the jerk doesn’t give me any direction at all. Then when I find a way to make a little traction, he bites into me like a ravenous fox terrier. Well, I might be impulsive, but I’m not stupid. I immediately did a belly crawl worthy of a snail (“mea culpa, mea culpa”), then I went back to my desk and did his chart. The whole time I was completing it, I thought of it as the business equivalent of writing, “I will not talk out in class” 100 times.

Good grief! It would have been funny if it had happened to anyone else.So here’s my challenge now — continue to implement the processes I’m tasked to develop. These will be things that will touch on pretty much the whole organization! Meanwhile, I’ll have to manage up to a 33 year-old technical-expert-turned-manager who has never managed before, certainly not anyone with 20 years of corporate experience and an executive background.

I have to make myself and, more importantly, HIM look good in the process without looking too good.Today I overheard my boss discussing my suggestions from our morning staff meetings (which were also my idea) with other managers as if they were his own. Oy vey! Can I do tolerate it for the short term? ABSOLUTELY. It’s been since 1999 that I had a manager that A) had integrity B) understood how to manage C) could give me a needed course correction without taking my knees out from under me. I figure optimistically only about 10% of managers have a CLUE how to manage, and the rest of the time it is up to YOU to be a cunning and resourceful subordinate. Wherever you go, there you are. If I let myself, I could resent it that my boss’s boss has used me to drive home some development points with Mr. Junior Achiever.

For sure, I’m not the first person to run afoul of this hard-headed, self-absorbed twit. Why didn’t the Big Boss have the gonads to pin him to the mat and get him to listen to his more experienced peers about certain things? Why get me to echo them, so I have to take the brunt of the pain, not him or the other executives? What a bunch of chicken turds.The moral to the story is: “Rise above it,” or “Get over yourself.” That is always the moral of the story, of course. I have to have a good attitude and do my job. Otherwise, I might as well hang up my spurs and take up dumpster diving. The End.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.