First Meeting

Here is a sample chapter from my novel in progress, Righteous. It is a novelization of the life of Jane Grey Swisshelm, a Pittsburgh journalist and civil rights activist in the 19th century.

Here is a sample chapter from my novel in progress, Righteous. It is a novelization of the life of Jane Grey Swisshelm, a Pittsburgh journalist and civil rights activist in the 19th century.

March, 1830

The carriage ride back to Edgeworth School was weary and wet.  The day had started with drizzle from a low gray sky, but now rain fell steadily.  Although the carriage was covered, the damp cold seeped through leather boots and woolen coats and bonnets and seeped into Jane’s very bones and organs.  Even Abby and Hetty had ceased the hand-clapping games they had been giggling over and sat hunched and miserable with their hands in each other’s pockets.  Jane longed for such warm companionship, but at least her sturdy, home-knit woolen mittens were warmer than the other girls’ fashionable kid gloves. 

Jane’s mood matched the dismal weather.  Her heart sat heavy in her stomach at the prospect of returning to Edgeworth.  She gobbled at the knowledge like a glutton, but the other girls baffled her.  She couldn’t quite get it right, the niceties of adolescent girls, and their petty cruelties.  They were interested in such silly things:  hair ribbons, garters, games and boys.  Jane longed for admiration for her good grades and her excellent essays, but the other girls didn’t seem to value scholarship. Jane couldn’t figure out what they did value and was too shy to ask, although she longed for a friend with whom she could share her fears of eternal damnation and her efforts to live a life worthy of salvation.  She longed for a friend who would admire her piety, her thoughts of God, her good works.  She ached for a chance to show the girls how good she was; then surely they would like her. 

What if Abby should fall on a solo hike and break her leg? And when what if Jane happened along and helped her back home, all the way back to Edgeworth?  It should be very far, at least 2 miles.

Or what if Hetty became very ill in the middle of the night and Jane stayed up with her all night, cooling her brow with cloths and holding her hand?  Everyone would say how Jane had saved her life by breaking the fever and how brave she was to care for her friend at risk to herself.  Then while Hetty convalesced, Jane would remain loyal while the other girls played outside.  It would be Jane who brought her friend little bouquets and helped her to keep up with her schoolwork.  “Why, Jane,” she would exclaim, “you are so smart and so good!  I never knew!”  And when she was well, Hetty would tell the other girls, “Jane was my true friend when I was so ill.  And, did you know?  She’s awfully smart, too.  Her ideas on salvation are most intriguing.”  For Jane would, of course, also have shared her faith while caring for her friend, as a good Christian must do. 

And yet even to think such things was sinful, almost wishing accidents and poor health on her classmates.  Jane turned away from the girls, as if they might be able to read her thoughts. 

But what if she should come into a fortune?  What if, on a lonely walk one day, it should start to rain and she should be forced to take shelter in a long-hidden cave?  And there she came upon a cache of treasure hidden by pirates long ago?  She would keep nothing for herself, but donate almost all of it to the Covenanter Church for the relief of the poor.  A smaller amount she would use to purchase a beautiful stained-glass window for the assembly hall at Edgeworth.  She would be modestly anonymous until the girls, oohing and aahing at the beautiful window – Jesus in a field of lilies, being worshipped by a group of girls who looked like Jane and her classmates – begged to know how the school could afford such a luxury.  And Miss Harrison would let slip, “Oh, it was donated by Jane Cannon.  And, did you know?  The rest of the treasure she found is being used for poor relief in Pittsburgh.”  And suppose one of the girls’ family had only recently been delivered from destitution, and, before their deliverance, they had been recipients of daily stew from the Covenanter kitchen.  And this girl would come and thank Jane with tears in her eyes.  They would become bosom friends and the girl would confide to Jane that her family had been Heathen Methodists until the Covenanter kitchen not only saved them from starvation but saved their souls also, and now they were firm Covenanters, all through Jane’s benevolence.

The carriage creaked and bumped wearily along.  Jane stopped resisting and let herself sway and jostle with the movement.  As she was beginning to fall asleep, she was jerked back to consciousness by the sound of rushing water.  They were approaching Swiss Creek, but it was just a tiny stream, nothing that would make such a commotion.  Looking ahead, Jane saw that the rains and the snow melt had swollen the creek to a small river that rushed in little white-capped waves over the rocks.  They would have to stop, or detour upstream where the stream might be tamer.

But, Mr. Ball continued to drive the carriage toward what was, in better weather, an easy ford. 

The air noticeably cooled as they approached the stream, and the sound of water roiling over rocks grew louder.  The girls looked at each other, wide-eyed.  It would be disrespectful for young ladies to question Mr. Ball. 

Jane felt the carriage wheel beneath her slide on mud as they neared the ford.

“Mr. Ball!” she cried, “Should we not cross elsewhere?”

“Miss Cannon,” he yelled back, “Mind your business, and I’ll thank you to leave me to mind mine!”  He took one hand off the reins for an instant to wipe rain from his face. 

The horses were in the stream, struggling up the opposite bank, but jerked slightly to one side when Mr. Ball eased off the reins. 

The carriage began to slide sideways in the mud until it turned on its side into the stream, dumping its passengers into the water.

Jane felt herself being carried downstream and struggled to find a foothold or handhold.  She could hear the other girls screaming, but the shock of the icy cold had robbed her of her voice.  The overturned carriage shifted toward her and she grasped at one of the wheels and gripped it, scrambling to climb onto the carriage against the pull of the water. 

Abby was on top of the carriage.  She reached a hand to help Jane up, but their wet hands slid against each other.  Mr. Ball fought to release the horses, who kept struggling to pull the carriage, jostling it so that Abby and Jane clung for dear life. 

Then, through the driving rain, Jane saw a figure running from the nearby farmhouse.

The horses broke free, and with a loud crack the carriage sank. Abby lost her grip and barely grasped the wheel opposite Jane’s   The girls clung to the wheels, their heads barely above water, while the river pulled at them.  Jane felt her grip loosen and was sure she was about to be swept away when the stranger was upon her.  He lifted her in his arms and deposited her on the opposite bank, as Mr. Ball did the same with Abby. 

Where was Hetty?

The stranger dove behind the carriage.  He rose, choking, and dove again, emerging with a limp Hetty in his arms.

He laid her in the mud and turned her head to one side. Hetty coughed, spewing up some water.  Then she coughed again, her chest heaved and she vomited onto the ground.  The stranger picked her up again and ran towards the house with her, leaving Jane, Abby and Mr. Ball to limp their shivering way behind him. 

Jane had never been so cold.  Her waterlogged woolen dress clung to her legs and water squelched in her boots.  Her mittens had been lost in the river and her hands were white and numb.  The farmhouse door was a welcome sight. 

A stout middle-aged woman waited by the fire with blankets to wrap around the unexpected guests.  She seated Jane in a Windsor chair and covered her with a green woolen blanket.  “Sakes alive, man!” she scolded, “What possessed you to try to cross that stream in this weather?”

“’Twas deeper than I thought,” Ball admitted, sinking into a chair and accepting faded patchwork quilt.

“All’s well that ends well,” the stranger soothed.  Jane liked that he quoted Shakespeare.  With the emergency over, she looked at him for the first time.  He was young, perhaps only a few years older than her 14, surely under 21.  But he was a tall, sturdily built man, dark haired and dark-eyed, with a large nose and a firm, square chin.  Jane thought him very handsome, and she turned away lest he catch her staring. 

“I’ve laid the young lady who was underwater in the kitchen, mother,” he said.  “She is breathing, but weak and I think barely conscious.  Could you tend to her?” 

Still shaking her head in disbelief at Mr. Ball’s poor judgment, the old lady bustled towards the kitchen, throwing over her shoulder, “Make these folks something hot to drink, for heaven’s sake, James.”

James smiled apologetically and swung the teakettle over the fire to heat.  “James Swisshelm is my name, and the lady is my mother Mrs.  Mary Elizabeth Swisshelm.  This here is our farm.”

“Joe Ball,” Mr. Ball growled.  Jane suppressed a titter; she’d never known Mr. Ball’s first name.

“And you ladies?” Mr. Swisshelm inquired.

“Jane Cannon,” Jane answered.

“Abby Hamilton,” Abby whispered.  Jane wondered if she looked as pale and sopping as Abby did.

“What brought you folks out in this weather?”

“Taking these young ladies back to Edgeworth School from Pittsburgh,” Mr. Ball replied. 

Mr. Swisshelm nodded.  “Heck of a day for it.  Oh, excuse me, ladies.  I mean, not very good weather for it.”

Ball grunted noncommittally.

“Jane said we shouldn’t try to cross,” Abby piped up.  “She was the only one who tried to warn Mr. Ball.”  Abby gazed warmly at Jane, and Jane flushed with pleasure. 

Ball glared at her.  Mr. Swisshelm raised an eyebrow and looked at Jane.  “Was she now?” he said, as he poured hot water from the kettle into a flowered china teapot.  “I’ll see if I can round up your horses now, Mr. Ball.  It seems that you are your young ladies will be spending the night with us.  We’ll see you to Edgeworth in the morning.”

“Thank you kindly,” Ball said.

The cold wind threw a mist of rain into the room as Mr. Swisshelm went out. 

Warming now, Jane looked around her.  The main room of the farmhouse was very homey and hinted at some modest wealth.  Brocade curtains hung at both small glass windows, and pewter candlesticks and a pair of china dogs stood on the mantlepiece.  The spinning wheel in the corner was large, and etched-glass whale-oil lamps stood on both tables.  A set of stairs led to a full second-floor.  From where she sat, Jane could see into the dining room, which boasted two more brocade-curtained glass windows, and chairs with needlepointed cushions. 

Mrs. Swisshelm returned from the kitchen.  “Well, your third girl I think will survive, Mr. Ball, although whatever you were thinking I can’t imagine.  I’ve got her dressed in a dry nightdress and settled her onto the kitchen bed by the fire.  I mean to take her some of this tea now.  She may resist, but she must be warmed inside as well as out.”  The lady poured some of he tea into four china cups and handed one to each of her guests, then took the last cup back into the kitchen, muttering to herself, “Land sakes, it’s a miracle the girl’s alive.”

Mr. Swisshelm re-entered, removing his sopping hat and coat and hanging them on hooks near the front door.  “Your horses are safely in the barn, Mr. Ball.  Our hired hand is drying them off and feeding them.  It isn’t getting any nicer out there.”  He shook his head, heading for the teapot and pouring himself a cup.  “Care for a little good Pennsylvania whiskey in that cup, sir?”

Ball brightened up.  “Don’t mind if I do,” he replied, with a sideways glance toward the kitchen. 

Mr. Swisshelm winked, withdrew a slim flask from his pocket and poured a portion first into Mr. Ball’s cup and then into his own.  “My mother and I are good Methodists, sir, but on a day like this I think the good Lord forgives.”

A Methodist!  Jane shuddered and felt a pang of disappointment.  Well, they were everywhere, she supposed, not just in Pittsburgh. 

“I made her drink some hot tea,” Mrs. Swisshelm announced as she blustered back into the room.  “And then she went right to sleep.  She’s by the fire and warming nicely.”  Jane imagined Hetty rising like a loaf of bread and suppressed another titter.  She felt a bit light-headed and silly after the close call. 

“Now,” Mrs. Swisshelm continued, “I think you young ladies are warmed enough that it’s time to get you out of those wet clothes.  Lucky for you my girls and their younger brothers are away with their father visiting relatives in Pittsburgh.  We’ve got extra nightclothes, and you girls can sleep in Rose and Eva’s bed.  Mr. Ball, you can sleep with James.  Come, girls, let’s get you into dry clothes now.  Thank heaven James saw your accident and rescued you.  I don’t know what would have happened to you.”  Shaking her head and tsking, she picked up a lamp led Jane and Abby up the stairs.

Jane woke the next morning to icy cold, and pulled the patchwork quilt up to her chin.  For a few minutes, she lay half-awake and then it occurred to her that she might have to go downstairs to fetch her clothing, which had been drying by the fire.  All of her other clothes, that she had packed for school, had surely been lost in the stream.  She felt a pang for her poor mother, who would have to somehow find the funds to re-clothe her. 

Jane’s father had died three years ago, leaving Mary Scott Cannon with two daughters and a son to raise alone.  Mary borrowed money from her parents to open a little store and barely earned enough to pay off Thomas Cannon’s debts and keep her children fed and clothed. 

But Jane’s immediate problem was how to get her clothing while avoiding the embarrassing possibility of running into Mr. Swisshelm while wearing his sister’s nightgown. 

Abby was still sound asleep.  Jane forced herself out of bed and crept on icy toes down the stairs.  She peered around the corner into the living room.  No sign of Mr. Swisshelm.  Jane scurried into the room, and was gathering up her things when Mr. Swisshelm came through the door from the dining room.  She froze.

Mr. Swisshelm turned his head.  “I do apologize, Miss Cannon.” 

Jane picked up her boots and scurried up the stairs, her face warm.  Trembling, her back turned to the bed, she hurried into her clothes.  Oh, how could she ever face him again? 

Her dress, stockings and underclothes were dry and warm.  Her boots were still damp, but there was nothing for it; they must be worn as is.  As Jane stumbled into her boots, Abby turned lazily in the bed and murmured, “Good morning, Jane.”

“Morning,” Jane mumbled.  Abby had barely ever spoken to her before, but she was too mortified to even think of making conversation now and, anyway, she never knew what to say to these girls.  And what would Abby think if she knew that Mr. Swisshelm had seen Jane in a state of undress? 

“My, it’s cold,” Abby complained, stretching her arms above her head. 

Footsteps clumped on the stairs and soon Mrs. Swisshelm appeared with Abby’s clothes.  “Here are your clothes, Miss Hamilton,” she said, “I can’t seem to find..  Oh.  Miss Cannon.  I see you are already dressed.  Well, then.  Get yourselves dressed and ready for breakfast.  Mr. Swisshelm will convey you to school in our wagon.  Your friend Miss Grant seems quite well enough to travel.”  She turned and descended the stairs, muttering something that Jane couldn’t hear but imagined was some complaint about scandalous young ladies who exposed themselves in their borrowed nightgowns to innocent young men.

Mrs. Swisshelm provided her guests with a hasty breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, and bread with apple butter before sending them on their way.  James would hitch Ball’s team to his wagon, and Ball would ride alongside on one of the Swisshelm horses.  The single horse would be able to pull the empty wagon back to the Swisshelm farm. 

It was a fine March day.  A timid bit of sun broke through the retreating rain clouds, and raindrops glistened on the swelling buds of cherry trees.  The Swisshelm property boasted many willows, which tossed their greening tresses like wanton girls.  Early robins chirped, fluttered and fought over worms.

Abby seemed to have forgotten the previous day’s compliments to Jane and their tentative intimacy.  She and Hetty huddled together on the wagon bench opposite Jane, giggling, chattering and playing their hand-clap games, as if Jane weren’t there.  Jane was left to contemplate her many errors in miserable silence.  Her cold hands missed the wooly mittens she had lost in Swiss creek.  She thought again of her lost wardrobe and the trouble it would cost her mother to replace it, and swallowed back tears. 

Shortly before they would reach the toll bridge across the Monongahela into Braddock, Mr. Swisshelm stopped to briefly water the horses.  “Would you care to sit up front with me for the rest of the journey, Miss Cannon?” he asked, not looking at her.  “I’d enjoy the company.”

Jane had already blurted, “Yes!” before she realized her mistake.  What would Hetty and Abby think of her siting on the front seat with a young man she barely knew?  What would they say to the other girls?  Jane’s reputation would be ruined.  Not to mention the mortification of sitting beside a man who had very recently seen her in his sister’s nightgown.  But she had already said yes.  She climbed up, not daring to glance back at her classmates, and looked straight ahead, hands clenched in her lap.

They rode along in silence for a few minutes, before Mr. Swisshelm ventured, “Nice day.  Makes me itch to get a crop in.  I hope we’ll have a dry spring so we can plant early.”

Jane was a city girl who knew nothing of crops, and only hoped for dry springs so that the mud on the Pittsburgh’s dirt streets might not be too deep.  “Yes, I hope you will, Mr. Swisshelm,” she replied.

“So what do you young ladies study there at Edgeworth school?”

“Drawing, singing, literature, mathematics.”

“Mathematics for girls?  Sounds hard.”

Jane did find mathematics to be, if not difficult, at least tedious.  “My favorite is literature,” she blurted.  “I noticed that you quoted Shakespeare last night.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you said ‘all’s well that ends well’.”  You know, from the play of the same name.”

“Well, miss, I have to confess I didn’t know I was quoting Shakespeare.  I’ll be darned.  Oh, excuse me!  But you sure are well-educated.”

Jane blushed and couldn’t think of an appropriate reply.

“May I tell you something else that I admire about you?” he asked.

Jane squirmed and continued to look straight ahead.  “I suppose.”

“I like how you spoke up to Ball there about not crossing that stream.  Took a lot of courage for a little girl to speak up like that.”

“I’m not a little girl.  I’m almost 15.”

“I beg your pardon, miss.  You being so small and dainty I thought you were younger.  What I mean to say, Miss Cannon, is that I feel that you have a good mind and a brave heart and, if it’s not too bold to say, I like that in a woman.”

Jane blushed and dared to look up at him.  “Thank you.”

“I’m not much of one for flibbertigibbet women,” he said, tilting his head backward towards Abby and Hetty.

“How old are you?” she asked, then wondered if it were too bold a question.

“I’m 18,” he replied.  “I’m the oldest son, so I’ll probably inherit the farm.  I’m the one most interested, anyway. My brothers are more interested in commerce.”

It appeared that Mr. Swisshelm had exhausted his conversational topics for the moment, as they approached the bridge.  The wagon wheels and the horse’s hooves were thunderous on the wooden bridge deck.  Beneath them, the Monongahela River ran strong, with small clots of melting ice riding the whitecaps.  Partially-submerged bare trees clawed the river’s edges.  The air on the bridge was icy and muddy-smelling. 

It was slow going through Braddock’s muddy streets, but finally they were ascending the hill to Edgeworth. 

“Nice situation here,” Mr. Swisshelm observed.  “This would be good pastureland for a herd.”

Jane nodded.  She wished she could think of a clever reply, to affirm his judgment of her good mind, but she knew nothing of pastures or herds. 

Jane’s heart sank when they stopped at the entrance to the school.  If only she had been able to think of more memorable things to say to Mr. Swisshelm.  She felt she would remember him for the rest of her life, but that he would have forgotten her by the time he got back to his farm. 

He offered his hand to help her down from the wagon.  At his touch, her heart leapt and her whole arm felt like a beehive. 

He next helped Abby and Hetty down.  Jane stood awkwardly, wondering how to say goodbye, and finally started walking towards the door of the school building.

“Miss Cannon!” he called.

Jane turned. 

“I am sorry that it took such a tragic accident for it to happen, but I am glad to have met you,” he said.

“Thank you for saving our lives,” Jane whispered. 

“It was my duty and my pleasure.  I hope that we may meet again at some time in the future.”

“I, too,” she replied.  But, as she trudged to the door in her still-damp boots, Jane was certain that she would never again lay eyes on Mr. James Swisshelm. 

Business Needs to Fire PowerPoint

Social media is where fingers usually point when critics lament the decline of reading and attention span.  And Facebook and Twitter definitely deserve their bad reputations as attention-span killers.  But in the business world, I think there is another culprit.  I think business needs to fire PowerPoint. 

As a middle manager, a lot of my job had to do with communicating, both up and down.  The people above me absolutely would not tolerate lengthy texts.  Whatever I had to say must be said in 2-3 PowerPoint slides and conveyed in a 30-minute meeting.  And, on this basis, executives made decisions about staffing, spending, and strategies. 

Working in that environment 40+ hours per week, for many years, conditioned me to think that the bullet-point style of communication, because it is efficient, is the best.  I’m starting to question that.  We are awash in information, but lacking in knowledge and wisdom.

Look, I get it: executives are really, really busy.  I agree that they should expect to receive proposals and reports in the format that they dictate.  Their precious time and mental resources shouldn’t be wasted on listening to an employee ramble or having to pick through his idiosyncratic presentation for the key information that they need.  And, a summary in graphic and/or bullet-point format can help to focus attention on the key points. 

Problems with PowerPoint

But there are problems with using PowerPoint exclusively in delivering reports or pitching ideas.

First, the brain doesn’t listen and read at the same time.  Your audience will either be reading the slides or listening to you speak, not both. 

Second, all too often, the winning idea is the one that had the most dazzling graphics and the coolest visuals.  Appearance wins out over content. 

Most important, executives make decisions that impact how millions of dollars are spent, what a company’s strategy will be in critical areas like information security, and – not incidentally – people’s employment and lives.  It’s not reasonable to assume that correct decisions on critical issues can be made on the basis of a 30-minute meeting and 3 slides.  When important decisions must be made, PowerPoint should be, at most, a starting point.  There is no substitute for additional background information and serious deliberation. 

In Aristotle’s Way, Edith Hall describes Aristotle’s 8 steps for making decisions.  The very first one is:  Don’t decide in haste.  Others include verifying the information you have, considering precedents, considering possible outcomes and their likelihoods, and taking into account the perspectives of all impacted parties.  Could you do that in 30 minutes, after looking at 3 pages of graphics?  Do you think anyone can? 

Finally, we do ourselves no favors by habituating ourselves to receiving information in 3-slide summaries.  The more you make decisions based on incomplete, summarized information, the more your capability to study and deliberate will decline.  Executives might be smarter, more self-disciplined and harder-working than the rest of us, but they are still mortal.  Faculties that they don’t use will deteriorate. 

What Amazon Does

Jeff Bezos has famously banned PowerPoint from Amazon’s meetings.  As Bezos put it in a 2012 interview, when you have to write your ideas in complete sentences and paragraphs, it forces you to think.  Yet, a 2011 study found that half of college students surveyed have never had to write more than 20 pages in a typical semester.  If you can’t write clearly, you probably can’t think clearly.  I would add that, if you can’t read anything more complicated that 3 pages of bullet points and graphics, you probably can’t think clearly. 

Alternatives to “Death by PowerPoint”

What is the solution then?  How can we provide business decisions makers with the deep background information that they need to make important decisions, without overwhelming them? 

One idea comes from the process that Amazon uses in place of PowerPoint.  Amazon workers with ideas to discuss must write a 4-6-page memo describing their idea in narrative form, and then defend it in follow-up discussions.  What if lower-level managers had to develop such a narrative and defend their ideas in front of a murder board of peers from related disciplines, before it ever got to an executive?  The members of the murder board would be required to read the narrative and have questions and objections prepared.  This allows managers at lower levels to practice the evaluation skills they will need if they move up the management ladder, and allows bad ideas to be trashed or improved before they reach busy executives. 

Do you have other ideas?  Great!  Just don’t try taking them to upper management with 3 PowerPoint slides.  PowerPoint needs to be fired – or at least demoted to a supporting role. 

Coming up next: This will be my last post on business topics. Next week, I will start posting about my novel in progress.

Avoid These Management Mistakes

In these first weeks of retirement, I’m surprised at how little I think about the job that I left behind.  But, in quiet moments, I am definitely still mentally processing my management career, and I thought of a few more lessons that I want to share.

Don’t Neglect Cross Training!

One of the most common management mistakes I’ve seen is when managers become too dependent on one person on their team.  There are two versions of this.  One is simply neglecting to cross-train. I made that mistake early on.  We had a lot of invoices to process every month, and only one person on my team knew how to do it. 

Did I know that I should get someone else trained on that?  Of course I did.  Did I do it?  Nope. Did I even make sure that I got a good understanding of exactly what she did?  Nope again.  We were constantly buying other banks in those days, we were buried in the work associated with that, and I kept telling myself we’d get some cross-training whenever things slowed down.  Which, of course, they never did.  And then my invoice person took another job in the bank.  We muddled through, with the help of some friends in Accounts Payable.  But you can bet that I got TWO people trained on how to enter those invoices once the crisis was past.

Don’t let a psycho employee steal your power

The other way that management gets too dependent on one person is when they have a power-crazy employee who thinks her job depends on being the only one who knows how to do things right.  I had a co-worker like that many years ago, when I was still a software developer.  She did more work than anyone else on the team – and complained about it.  Often, She would even go to the extent of digging into other people’s code and “fixing” it, whether it was broken or not – and then she complained about that.  She constantly criticized her co-workers and blamed other people for her own mistakes.  Worst, she would keep important information to herself, so that nobody except her knew how to do certain key tasks. 

Then she used her power to bully our boss.  When she didn’t get her way about something, she would threaten to quit, and he would placate her because we would have had trouble functioning without her.  She made life miserable for our boss and everyone else on the team, and I learned a lesson from that.  Here’s what our boss needed to say the very first time she threatened to quit: “Gee, we’ll miss you.”  Take the pain up front, rather than putting yourself in a situation where you are not in control.

Do the up-front work to simplify processes

Another example of taking the pain up front is simplifying processes.  The ultimate solution to my invoice problem was to have fewer invoices.  But that wasn’t easy to accomplish.  We were doing business with 18 different suppliers for the same service, and had about 20 separate accounts with the main supplier.  That’s 37 invoices to keep track of, validate and tediously process every month.  No wonder my invoice person quit!  Once the frenzy of bank acquisitions was behind us, we embarked on a project to consolidate suppliers and accounts.  It took 4-1/2 years of tedious work, to close contracts and migrate boxes of records.  But, when we were done, we were down to 2 invoices per month.  The position that used to be nearly full-time invoice processing is now a growth position, where the incumbent gets an opportunity to learn our business and develop new skills by taking on stretch projects.  Oh, and we ended up saving $6 million.   

But are you really simplifying?

But make sure you’re really simplifying.  When my function reported to Supply Chain, I had a new peer manager who was determined to redesign the Purchasing and Accounts Payable functions.  His proposed new process was so complicated that the flow chart covered two walls of his office.  He somehow convinced our boss to spend several thousand dollars on a plotter-printer just to print all the flow charts.  If you have any experience at all with process improvement, you’ve probably already guessed that this master plan went exactly nowhere.  That manager was ultimately fired, and the plotter-printer lurked in a corner for many years, gathering dust.  I’m not a big fan of explaining everything in a few PowerPoint bullets (see my next post), but if you need a flow chart the size of a Lincoln Navigator to explain your plan, you need a better plan. 

Next week: Why the business world needs to fire PowerPoint

Handling Conflict at Work

conflict at work

One of the hardest aspects of work for me was handling conflict.  I’m the daughter of an alcoholic father, so my childhood taught me that disagreements would tend not to end well for me.  And women of my generation were socialized to be agreeable and to keep the peace.

It’s hard to avoid conflict in almost any job, but it becomes impossible to avoid when you are managing people.   So, when I became a manager, I had quite a hill to climb.  Although I shrank from conflict emotionally, I understood intellectually that I could not avoid it and had to get tougher.

Using my strengths

It’s an HR and self-help shibboleth to focus on your strengths instead of on your weaknesses, and in my case that shibboleth proved true.  It was absolutely key for me that I used my existing strengths to build myself up in this weak area.

Strength 1: Self-control

The top strength that I used:  sheer determination and self-control.  I knew that I had to get better at conflict, and so I just made myself speak up. 

My early attempts were only partially successful.  It wasn’t hard for me to listen to views that opposed mine. And I knew that I had to respond.  What was hard was responding appropriately.  I made the rookie mistakes of trying to placate everyone I listened to, and talking too much.  I used my voice, but I used it too much and in the wrong way, and I spent too much time defending my decisions, which opened me up for more arguments.  And then I allowed those arguments to go absolutely anywhere.

I had one employee in particular who, once he started complaining, could go on for an hour, changing subjects every 5-10 minutes.  That was the first lesson I learned:  stick to the subject.  I was the boss in that situation, and  I had the power to control the conversation and keep it on topic.  Over time, I learned to do that.

Strength 2: Collaboration

I learned to hear people out, make a decision, and then announce in in few words, with no defensiveness.  Using my existing strengths – careful listening, a desire to be collaborative, and an ability to synthesize opposing points of view – gave me the confidence to be firm and decisive.  At first, I was pretending.  I didn’t feel decisive at all.  After a while, my confidence in my decisions grew and I didn’t have to pretend any more. 

Strength 3: Analysis

At first, I had some failures that I had to learn from.  Here, I used my analytical strength. 

In one conversation with a vendor where I had to deliver a demand that was unwelcome, I was met by sneering rudeness by the vendor rep.  This was the very sort of reaction I most feared, and I was caught off guard and speechless. 

I drank a lot of wine that evening, and cried a little, but I also analyzed the conversation and I was ready for him when we met again the next day.  When he again started to belittle our request, I said, “Mark, you don’t have to agree with me, but this is what we are required by our regulators to do, and therefore you have to support it if you want to keep doing business with us.”  We got what we needed, and he was never rude to me again.  Someone else would have said that to him the first time.  I had to think through conversations like that before it became second nature to me to respond firmly. 

Strength 4: Tact

It was hard at first, too, for me to speak up and disagree with my management and my peers.  What helped me here was my strong sense of responsibility.  I knew that it was my job to participate in decisions and advocate for the program that I was managing. I had to force myself to say things that I knew would be unpopular, but that I also knew were right.  Once again, I used strengths that I already possessed – tact and diplomacy – to backstop the difficult necessity of delivering bad news, demands, or contrary opinions.  And I learned that I could deliver those kinds of messages, and usually didn’t get the negative reactions that I feared.

The value of conflict

I always assumed that I was right to avoid conflict as much as I could.  But, learning to handle conflict appropriately taught me that it can be a positive thing.

Conflict is a form of communication, and it often helps us to learn more about ourselves and each other.  As I got better at confronting conflict at work, I also got better at it at home.  I’d always had that passive-aggressive tendency to hold things in until they came out in the form of screaming, tears, or both.  I learned instead to calmly state what was bothering me and what I wanted, and my husband and I got better at negotiating with each other. 

And that employee who did the hour-long rants?  He was still the person I had the most conflict with.  We disagreed about many things.  But, once I learned to set some boundaries with him, our conflict became very productive.  He often had good ideas, and frequently pointed out to me things that I hadn’t noticed on my own.  Our conflicts also helped us to get to know each other personally, and our relationship became quite warm. 

I still like getting along with people much better than I like disagreeing with them.  But constructive conflict is now a tool in my kit, and it not only made me a better manager, it also made me a better human being and enriched my relationships. 

Copyright 2014 Kathryn Bashaar | Design by | Adapted from PureType