Competent, with direction

Lately, I have been feeling like it would be excellent to work for an organization that is both highly competent and structured to help people reach their potential: somewhere where management was good at identifying what each person was capable of doing, putting them to it, and then coordinating those efforts into the achievement of important outcomes. While I certainly admire people who have the self-direction necessary to make the most of their talents and skills, I don’t think I am really ready to do that myself. I think that was indicated by the relative weakness of my M.Phil thesis, which was the least successful part of my time in Oxford. Indeed, the largely undirected character of doctoral programs is one of the things that makes me most hesitant about undertaking one.

Most of my non-career jobs have been at places that generally struck me as non-competent. They muddled through and achieved success in their basic goals, but they didn’t do notable things or make the best use of the resources they had available. A few didn’t even meet that bar, and were clearly on track to eventually fail. In academic institutions and career-type jobs, I have certainly seen a lot more competence (though there are patches of incompetence everywhere). What exists less there is direction, and a willingness to try and cater tasks and an environment to what each person can do.

Perhaps there aren’t any places that strike the balance I am looking for, where each person is placed within the portion of the spectrum between direction and independence, and where the purposes being served are important and effectively met. Maybe it is just too thought- and labour-intensive to set things up in a way that makes the most of people. Alternatively, perhaps managers don’t generally have the incentive to do so. Also, there are certainly situations in which well-managed groups of people simply aren’t placed to achieve things that would be personally rewarding to those inside them – perhaps because the group is embedded in a larger organization with clashing goals.

All that said, it does seem sensible to try and seek out such a place, especially at a time in my life when I remain free of major financial or interpersonal obligations.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

24 thoughts on “Competent, with direction”

  1. “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

    -Joan Robinson

  2. Apparently, Robinson was talking about agricultural workers who would have been more productive as industrial workers, but I think her quote applies at least as much to many civil service positions.

  3. “Among the implicit promises made to this generation of twentysomethings was that they would have work that was engaging and creatively fulfilling. A 27-year-old freelance graphic designer with a graduate degree who is struggling to find work, Prescott says “You could always say the whole premise of education is that if you study, get good grades, acquire skills, you will have more options in a ‘career and life’ point of view. If you get a degree, you don’t have to work in a factory or have to work in a farm. That’s proving to be a huge lie, because you have people coming out of school and there are just no jobs, especially in ‘middle-class’ fields.” The dissonance between a twentysomething’s pre-career expectations and the dissatisfaction they feel as part of the working world can be hugely defeating. As Kimmel says, “They don’t have much of a life plan about how to move from Point A to Point B. What happens very often is they have very big ambitions, [but] there is a mismatch between their planning for their lives and their ambitions.” He also says that the conflict is made more difficult because 25-year-olds are living “in an economic environment which is the most inhospitable in our history.” David J. Rosen, the author of What’s that Job and How the Hell Do I Get It, a career guide based on interviews with young professionals with “cool” jobs across a variety of professions, says “Generally, being happy at work is huge part of having a happy life, and a cool and interesting job is one that leaves you fulfilled, not bitter, or not with that existential career angst that you were meant for ‘more than this.’”

  4. “Apparently, Robinson was talking about agricultural workers who would have been more productive as industrial workers,”

    What is the connection between misery and productivity? If one works out of one’s own needs and interests, will not one be more fulfilled than if one works out of someone else’s needs and interests, yet more productively? If not, what is wrong with Abraham Lincoln’s reasoning for preferring wage labour over slave labour: wage labour affords the possibility of moving towards some form of self (or self directed) employment.

  5. It is miserable to work at a place that makes no use of your talents. Government jobs definitely involve that risk.

  6. ‘Productivity’ is a bit of a strange metric: the value of a person’s work per unit time. As such, when your productivity rises, your share of the wealth you are creating necessarily falls, since you are increasing revenue faster than your wage is increasing. That is good for your employer, but not necessarily good for you.

  7. When Smart People Make Bad Employees

    Writing for Forbes, CS-grad-turned-big-time-VC Ben Horowitz gives three examples of how the smartest people in a company can also be the worst employees: 1. The Heretic, who convincingly builds a case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons; 2. The Flake, who is brilliant but totally unreliable; 3. The Jerk, who is so belligerent in his communication style that people just stop talking when he is in the room. So, can an employee who fits one of these poisonous descriptions, but nonetheless can make a massive positive contribution to a company, ever be tolerated? Quoting John Madden’s take on Terrell Owens, Horowitz gives a cautious yes: ‘If you hold the bus for everyone on the team, then you’ll be so late that you’ll miss the game, so you can’t do that. The bus must leave on time. However, sometimes you’ll have a player that’s so good that you hold the bus for him, but only him.’ Ever work with a person who’s so good that he/she gets his/her own set of rules? Ever been that person yourself?”

  8. The Army needs to shift from a garrison peacetime force that’s preparing for a possible head-on armored clash against a foe of comparable strength to a mobile force that’s fighting actual “asymmetric” wars against rogue states and insurgents. The Air Force needs to pull back from its traditional obsession with high-tech air-to-air combat and focus more on joint operations—surveillance, precise air strikes, cargo transport, and rapid rescue—that help the troops on the ground. The Navy needs to focus less on aircraft carriers and more on vessels that can maneuver in coastal waters.

    In short, as he put it in these most recent speeches, the “defense bureaucracy,” with its “parochial tendencies” and “institutional constipation,” must abandon its “nostalgia” for Cold War ways and adapt to the modern, messy world. The Pentagon has to learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and incorporate those lessons into its culture.

    Gates has spent much of these past two years force-feeding these lessons to the Pentagon bureaucracy, and his big worry is that—once he’s gone and, especially, once the current wars wind down and thus the urgency dissipates—things will revert to form. The bureaucrats will heave a sigh of relief and go back to doing what they’ve long thought a “normal” Army, Air Force, and Navy should be doing.

    His still bigger fear is that, as the restoration sets in, the most creative and capable junior officers will leave the military out of frustration and boredom. These officers have led men and women in multiple combat tours, charted the boldest innovations, taken the most extraordinary risks, accepted the responsibilities and rewards. Yet when they’re rotated into a staff job, often in the prime of their professional lives, they find themselves trapped in a cubicle, reformatting PowerPoint slides and preparing quarterly readiness reports. “The consequences of this terrify me,” Gates said in his West Point speech.

  9. Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones of the London Business School point out that today’s most productive companies are dominated by what they call “clevers”, who are the devil to manage. They hate being told what to do by managers, whom they regard as dullards. They refuse to submit to performance reviews. In short, they are prima donnas. The arts world has centuries of experience in managing such difficult people. Publishers coax books out of tardy authors. Directors persuade actresses to lock lips with actors they hate. Their tips might be worth hearing.

    Studying the art world might even hold out the biggest prize of all—helping business become more innovative. Companies are scouring the world for new ideas (Procter and Gamble, for example, uses “crowdsourcing” to collect ideas from the general public). They are also trying to encourage their workers to become less risk averse (unless they are banks, of course). In their quest for creativity, they surely have something to learn from the creative industries. Look at how modern artists adapted to the arrival of photography, a technology that could have made them redundant, or how William Golding (the author of “Lord of the Flies”) and J.K. Rowling (the creator of Harry Potter) kept trying even when publishers rejected their novels.

  10. One thing that stands out in Singapore is the quality of its civil service. Unlike the egalitarian Western public sector, Singapore follows an elitist model, paying those at the top $2m a year or more. It spots talented youngsters early, lures them with scholarships and keeps investing in them. People who don’t make the grade are pushed out quickly.

    Sitting around a table with its 30-something mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of “Yes, Minister”. The person on your left is on secondment at a big oil company; on your right sits a woman who between spells at the finance and defence ministries has picked up degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Stanford. High-fliers pop in and out of the Civil Service College for more training; the prime minister has written case studies for them. But it is not a closed shop. Talent from the private sector is recruited into both the civil service and politics. The current education minister used to be a surgeon.

  11. When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

    Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

    Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

    Thank you all very much.

  12. “When doing a job — any job — one must feel that he owns it, and act as though he will remain in that job forever. He must look after his work just as conscientiously, as though it were his own business and his own money. If he feels he is only a temporary custodian, or that the job is just a stepping stone to a higher position, his actions will not take into account the long-term interests of the organization. His lack of commitment to the present job will be perceived by those who work for him, and they, likewise, will tend not to care. Too many spend their entire working lives looking for the next job. When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.”

    -Hyman Rickover

  13. “Even average, unheroic people called upon to make no extraordinary sacrifices, expend their lives at tedious and distasteful tasks, not because they would actually perish or suffer ostracism for forsaking them, but because their sense of self-esteem – their internalized imperative of what family and public expect of them – drives them on.”

    Ericson, Edward. “Humanism and the Tradition of Dissent.Humanism Today

  14. I believe in the refusal to take part.
    I believe in the ruined career.
    I believe in the wasted years of work.
    I believe in the secret taken to the grave.
    These words soar for me beyond all rules without seeking support from actual examples.
    My faith is strong, blind, and without foundation.

  15. Be as cryptic as possible, never direct. Another cardinal sin for a manager is to not tell people what she expects from her reports. Expecting people to read your mind or learn things by osmosis is a terrible idea; to make things even worse, criticize people for not doing what you knew you wanted but never expressed. If you want to take it up a notch, go behind people’s backs and talk smack about them to your peers or superiors. At that point your reports will have no recourse, because you are their proxy to the upper strata of the organization.

  16. Rob, we’re not no-future losers. You know those high-school kids who study hard, get great grades, have part-time jobs, and manage to excel at athletics all at the same time? That was us. The university students who go to class, make the dean’s list, run extra-curricular clubs, and still make it out to the bar once in a while? We were those guys. We’ve got nothing against hard work and earning our way. I’d argue that we’re even rather good at it. You know who gets jobs today? The CEO’s kid. The CFO’s niece. The VP of Marketing’s next door neighbour’s kid. Nepotism and cronyism are what it takes, and even that isn’t always enough.

  17. “Bureaucrats write memoranda both because they appear to be busy when they are writing and because the memos, once written, immediately become proof that they were busy.”

    -Charles Peters

  18. Jacob N. Shapiro, author of The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations , sets out his thesis about the micromanagement style of terrorist leaders in a fascinating piece in Foreign Affairs. It comes down to this: people willing to join terrorist groups are, by definition, undisciplined, passionate, and unbalanced, so you have to watch them closely and coordinate their campaigns. From the IRA to al Qaeda, successful terrorist leaders end up keeping fine-grained records of who’s getting paid, what they’re planning, and how they’re spending. This means that in many cases, the capture of terrorist leaders leads to the unraveling of their organizations, but the alternative is apparently even worse — a chaotic series of overlapping, self-defeating attacks and out-of-control spending.

  19. What is true for Walmart is true for al Qaeda: Managers need to keep tabs on what their people are doing and devote resources to motivate their underlings to pursue the organization’s aims. In fact, terrorist managers face a much tougher challenge. Whereas most businesses have the blunt goal of maximizing profits, terrorists’ aims are more precisely calibrated: An attack that is too violent can be just as damaging to the cause as an attack that is not violent enough. Al Qaeda in Iraq learned this lesson in Anbar Province in 2006, when the local population turned against them, partly in response to the group’s violence against civilians who disagreed with it.

    Terrorist leaders also face a stubborn human resources problem: Their talent pool is inherently unstable. Terrorists are obliged to seek out recruits who are predisposed to violence — that is to say, young men with a chip on their shoulder. Unsurprisingly, these recruits are not usually disposed to following orders or recognizing authority figures. Terrorist managers can craft meticulous long-term strategies, but those are of little use if the people tasked with carrying them out want to make a name for themselves right now.

    Terrorist managers are also obliged to place a premium on bureaucratic control, because they lack other channels to discipline the ranks. When Walmart managers want to deal with an unruly employee or a supplier who is defaulting on a contract, they can turn to formal legal procedures. Terrorists have no such option. David Ervine, a deceased Irish Unionist politician and onetime bomb maker for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), neatly described this dilemma to me in 2006. “We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn’t punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization,” he said, referring to a period in the late 1980s when he and the other leaders had made a strategic calculation that the Unionist cause was best served by focusing on nonviolent political competition. In Ervine’s (admittedly self-interested) telling, the UVF’s senior leaders would have ceased violence much earlier than the eventual 1994 cease-fire, but they could not do so because the rank and file would have turned on them. For terrorist managers, the only way to combat those “counterproductive activities” is to keep a tight rein on the organization. Recruiting only the most zealous will not do the trick, because, as the alleged chief of the Palestinian group Black September wrote in his memoir, “diehard extremists are either imbeciles or traitors.”

  20. Thirty years ago, I added, [All Souls] prize fellows would certainly have considered the civil service to be as attractive as academe or business as a career choice. With no hesitation, he replied, ‘Well, not me. It is either academe or business. He explained: ‘I want to look back at some point in my career and see that I have built something, that I have built a business or written a book. It is really not about accumulating money.’ In government, he added ‘you are part of a maze, a process, and you never know if in the end you have contributed to the success or failure of anything.’

    Savoie, Donald. Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom. 2008. p.ix (hardcover)

  21. You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

    Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

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