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Natalia Pollack Gets Things Done

September 12th, 2007

This article details the story of Natalia Pollack, a woman who worked in the telecommunications industry several years ago and managed to achieve a significant victory in becoming the manager of a new help desk project in an environment where almost everyone else simply wanted to “pass the buck”.


Part One – A Challenge

Several years and a career lifetime ago, I was a telecom analyst in an MIS department. The company I worked for was large, you’d recognize the name immediately if I told you, and the MIS department was mostly male territory. My boss assigned me to a project to look at how the calls got routed into MIS because of the number of complaints that seemed to be focused on getting sent to the wrong resource in MIS.

After reviewing the various technical configurations, the phone book, and then asking the complainers about the problem I discovered something entirely different from what the purview of my project covered. I discovered that no one wanted to take responsibility for the phone calls, and that’s why the “Users” were being sent round and round. The technical telecommunication system was fine, nothing wrong with it, not many options for “improving it” without further automation – which I knew from talking to the “Users” would infuriate them and frustrate them to an even higher level.

I had a choice to make. I could report back that the system was just fine. Or I could report back that the system was not the problem…the staff in MIS was the problem. If I chose the first, I’d be “part of the problem” but I wouldn’t be making waves for my co-workers – who already eyed me warily because I represented “change” to them. If I chose the second, my big challenge would be getting things done because I knew I would meet with a host of negatives and passive negatives from my coworkers.

You know I had to choose the second option. I had a real quandary on my hands with how to present my findings in a way that encouraged my boss to support me. I had to show him what was in it for him – which meant I had to figure out “what is important to him”. I decided not to simply report my findings, but to offer two or three solutions. Solutions that would address areas I knew were important to him. That translated into 1. Budget Savings; 2. Building his Reputation; and 3. Saving him from dealing with Problems.

Of the options I proposed, my boss chose the “One Stop Shopping” centralized “Help Desk”. That meant pulling together a staff from the existing MIS folks, who knew how to fix or troubleshoot problems or knew exactly who could It meant training them to speak to non-technical people and to deal with frustrations in a positive way. And it meant getting things done in a timely, courteous, efficient manner. He chose this option in August with an “Oh, by the way can you head this up and put it in place by Labor Day?” which was not so much a question as an edict. He added that the CIO had hand picked 4 people from the various departments to come into the new “Help Desk” and I needed to get the processes, procedures, training, telecom, and staff in place and ready for that September launch.

I panicked, screamed, shouted, laughed, and cried in the car on my commute home that night. How the heck was I supposed to make this happen in less than three weeks? How was I supposed to work with 4 guys who I knew would be surprised to be yanked from their positions and thrown in to work on a “Help Desk” for a Woman? Two of these guys were cited by “Users” as being hard to reach and never returning calls – just great! The other two were “marginal performers” and I think the hidden agenda was to outrage them into quitting because their current bosses couldn’t or wouldn’t fire them outright.

When I got home that night, I immediately listed out all the tasks that I needed to get done. It was going to be a bumpy ride for the next three weeks and looking at everything that needed to be done I was overwhelmed. I started another list of concerns and issues. I decided that I had better meet with each of the guys being transferred to work with me and try to start out on the right foot. It was hard to get to sleep that night.

Part Two – The Road Less Travelled

The next days were a flurry of activity. First I met with my boss to go through my task list and the issues/concerns. We negotiated a “safety net” when I had to deliver the reality break that I did not feel I could commit to getting this done in three weeks. We went back and forth, and I wound up with 6 weeks as the final timeframe. I was surprised at the respect that I seemed to gain simply by “pushing back” at that time, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Next, I met with the four men who were to be moving into the Help Desk. No surprises there – I was met with scorn, bitterness, surprise (one man had not yet been told by his boss that this was happening) and coldness. What I was surprised at was that while they were unhappy at this turn of events not one of them “pushed back” with their bosses. They accepted what was happening. I asked each one, face to face, for their support and patience. Grudgingly they each accepted my hand and shook on it. I shared with them my vision of the department, listened to their criticisms, and went away thinking “this is not going to work” but I had put myself into this situation and I was NOT going to be the first to cry “Uncle”.

I decided to keep them “in the loop”, start delegating pieces and to ACT like they were on board. It was the only thing I could think of to keep things moving. This was like being a little tugboat moving an aircraft carrier. It felt slow and I had to be always vigilant – I did not want to be the “lady in distress” or “the bitch queen”. I wanted to be the head of a new department – I suddenly realized! And I wanted it to be measurably successful. In spite of the enormous weight I felt in all this preparation I was getting things done.

There were many moments of passive sabotage, I had to pay attention to details that I would have liked to be able to trust people to handle. I never blamed or made a big deal out of these moments – I wanted to make it clear that the goal was what I had my sights on and that these little stumbles would just make us stronger in the long run. At one point I discovered that one of “my staff” had offered the same suggestion – to centralize and create a Help Desk, the year before I came to work there, and was “promised” that if that ever happened he’d be the manager. I went to talk to him and asked if that was true. “Yes” was the answer, and there was anger and defiance and a dare wrapped in that.

With that answer I asked him to come with me…we marched to my bosses’ office and I asked if he had time for something I considered extremely important. With Joe (name changed) in tow, I explained the situation to my boss and asked if the Company should consider making Joe the manager of the department when it was ready for launch, since this promise had been made. He said he’d look into it and get back to us.

Even though Joe did not get an immediate answer, he seemed to get “plugged in” and was focused on the tasks that were delegated to him, he was really getting things done. The other guys seemed to be doing their part, too. I think they heard about the visit to my boss, but I didn’t ask them and they didn’t volunteer anything.

We managed to carve space out of the Network Control Center after much negotiation. We managed to get the Automated Call Director (ACD) installed and tested. And we managed to get furniture, computers and phones set up. Now we needed to train and to “open shop” to the Users. I felt the shadow of doom dogging my steps. Even though the guys were doing their tasks, it felt as though it was in spite of me.

One week before the department was supposed to “go live” I found some nasty little presents anonymously left at my desk. A variety of tools in condoms, porn, and what looked like mayonnaise smeared on my phone receiver. There was no way to tell who was responsible…it could have been my staff or their peers in other departments. I shook and I went to the ladies room and I admit it – I cried.

In restrospect I would not do again what I did – I went to my boss, looking like I had been crying because I had. And I told him what had happened. I know he meant well when he suddenly transformed into “Daddy” and stormed down to confront the men of the department. But I knew at that moment that the doom that dogged me had just bit me. It would take me months, if ever, to regain any semblence of respect. I would have to prove that I could stand on my own, now. Everyone would expect Daddy to bail me out when I couldn’t handle it.

I went back to my desk and cleaned, threw away the objects and watched as Joe got off the elevator and headed to my bosses office. I thought ‘now he’ll go in for the position and he’ll probably get it’.

What happened next caught me so off guard that even as I write, I am amazed at the way things happen. My boss called me back into his office, Joe sitting there. Joe didn’t meet my eyes when I looked in his direction, so I thought ‘well this is it – after all the work I put into this, Joe will get to run the department’. I sat down. My boss looked at us both and then he said “I admit I seriously considered pulling you off this project and out of the department because of this”.

“Here it comes”, I thought.

“But Joe just said he thinks you should be given a chance to run what you built, and since he’s willing to work with you, I guess I will stick by my original plan and announce you as the official manager of the Help Desk”.

“What? Thank You” I stammered and stuttered. Joe and I left the office and I asked him why, when he had a clear shot at something I knew he really wanted, why would he step aside and throw in with me?

His answer? “Yeah I had the idea, and I was plenty pissed at how this came down. But when I took a good look at it all, I wasn’t good at one important thing. Getting things done. You made it all happen. You should run with it.” And we shook on it.

Afterword

Did it all run smoothly like a fairy tale? No.
Did I make a ton of mistakes in managing and in the technical aspects of my job? Yes.
Will I share with you so you have a chance of avoiding the mistakes I made? You bet!



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