Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sometimes you have to smile and step aside

Yesterday, Operations Manager Jeremiah stopped by my office. I knew right away that he must have had something important on his mind. Two reasons: 1. He’s not a chatty guy -- if he wants to talk about something, it’s because it’s important. 2. My office is up some stairs and down a relatively long hallway. That’s by design -- I’m not a chatty guy either. It takes a slight bit of effort to reach my Fortress of Solitude.

“I have never been more optimistic or hopeful about the future of this company than I am right now,” he said.

I waited.

“Really?” I finally said. “That’s it? No sarcasm?”

“I don’t do sarcasm,” he said. It’s true. I can’t think of a single time when he’s ever been sarcastic. I’ve known him for a little over two years.

“So what’s the ‘but’?” I said.

“No buts. I’m really optimistic about things.”

This threw me. No sarcasm, no qualifying remarks -- just unadulterated, pure positive sentiment. I honestly didn’t know what to say.

He noted how morale is up, the guys are optimistic and really buying in to what we’re trying to do here. To say I’m pleased would be an understatement. It’s very good news, particularly as we head into the slow season, a time of extreme financial challenge, among other things. Our mission is to serve people who wouldn’t normally use movers. That means relatively lower prices, which means we have to do a lot more jobs. Overhead doesn’t change much even if job volume goes down.

In years past, that created a certain “tension” at times. Guys tend to compare notes -- “How many hours are did you get?” So, it’s nice to see this circumstance as we go into our tough months.

It reinforces for me, once again, the awesome -- and often unpredictable power -- of a positive attitude. I’d like to say that the new attitude around here derives from some sort of plan I’ve concocted, or my naturally cheery disposition, but that can’t possibly be the case. Every time something goes wrong, I’m polishing my resume and considering getting legal representation. “We’re out of paper towels?!? That’s it, I’m outta here!”

It also reminds me of a time about two years ago when, in stressful, chaotic situations, I’d announce the new evolution of my managerial philosophy: “I don’t care.”

Oh, the Metro made you late? “I don’t care.”

Oh, you don’t like the distribution of jobs and hours? “I don’t care.”

Oh, you don’t like your crew leader? “I don’t care.”

Someone took me aside and frankly told me how destructive that was. I was being selfish. I’d always tried to be compassionate and empathetic, but I started to realize how much “mindshare” that was taking up. It was KILLING ME to “care” all the time when I was trying to comply with all the regs, put out personnel fires, and, of course, make money. Every single day I had 20 hours worth of things to do and about six real working hours to do it -- if I was lucky. My answer: evict all my psychological tenants.

“I don’t care.”

Fortunately, I was knocked out of that mindset when one of the Buddies showed me how that attitude was producing the exact opposite of the intended effect: lower morale, degraded productivity, and frustrated ambition.

It’s hard to say what, if anything, I did differently, but something seemed to work. I doubt I had a lot to do with it, actually, other than making some good hires, making some tough decisions about “subtracting” other team members, and setting some standards.

What’s really amazing me is how the culture of MTB has taken on a life of its own. For the last several months I’ve more or less been sidelined with my wife’s bed rest and the eventual birth of our fourth child. If I was REALLY lucky, I could get two or three hours of work time in. It was nearly impossible to be an influence of any kind on the business. Nonetheless, the guys took over, nurtured the seeds of the positive culture, and have apparently created the environment of opportunity and innovation I’ve been struggling to create for seven years or so. When I got back from “paternity leave,” I came back to an office buzzing with activity and much-improved efficiency, and I feel like I have almost nothing to do with it!

Heh. That’s probably an indictment of my managerial craptitude…

At any rate, as I’ve always said, our guys are our biggest asset, particularly in this, the tail end of our startup phase. Eventually we’ll be able to offer a much wider array of services. Until then, we have to rely solely on the superior character and attitude of our guys. Glad to see it’s working.

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