Pause, reset, trust

I had a meeting scheduled with my bosses yesterday to discuss our recruiting efforts. After what happened on Friday with two hand-picked candidates asked us to meet with (and turned out to be kind of awful people), I was bewildered and confused by the process. Their reaction when I tried to discuss it muddied the waters further as well as left me feeling completely disrespected and on the path to demoralized.

Sunday the scheduled meeting was moved into the afternoon and a management meeting scheduled instead – which is just me and the partners, versus the 5 of us, 2 supervisors, 3 seniors.

The situation was unfortunate, because it made me wonder who these men were and what had happened to the cooperative, creative bosses I had earlier in the week. While I am not a shareholder in this firm, I am typically included and consulted with regard to management of the firm. To be shut out and shut down so completely is awful; had they physically reached out and slapped me I would not have been more shocked and surprised.

And as if they had physically assaulted me, it gave me enough pause to stop and really consider my options and alternatives if this is the way things are going to be moving forward.

My ways of processing things is partly analysis of the situation, it’s possible reasonable (and unreasonable) explanations, and figure out what must happen to make restore peace in my fiefdom that is my day job. While I really love the staff and the role itself, if I wanted to work in a compartmentalized corporate conglomerate where I am a mere cog in the big giant wheel I would have chosen another type of firm. If it took 18 months for the partners’ Dr. Jeckyll to transform in Mr. Hyde, experience tells me the time span between future transformations will evolve into a briefer and briefer pattern.

After leaving my prior employee-based position, I swore not to put myself into another position where I am cleaning up the messes resulting from lack of communication and poor decision making. If I am in a role where I am supposed to be managing something to manage firm resources and personnel, I need to either be part of the solution or my job becomes a cancer that takes over my life.

This weekend, I decided we would resolve this issue or I would be turning in my notice. Sounds extreme, I know, but in truth I have a thriving part-time self-employment business and am routinely having to turn away referrals from existing clients because I don’t have time to take on a lot more new work. While making money is really nice – I am a capitalist at heart and do appreciate my opportunities to make lots of bucks – it is not worth sacrificing my self-respect or feeling undervalued and unappreciated. That said, I am not someone with an over-inflated ego; I so nor believe myself indispensable and beyond reproach for my skills and work habits. I am well aware that everyone is replaceable and there are literally dozens of equally to more qualified candidates out there. But whether those other candidates bring the same level of care and compassion to the work, I have no idea. I do think my empathy coupled with practicality, skill set, and willingness to be fair and balanced in dealing with people – maybe it’s less common.

M and I had discussed this extensively over the weekend, and I had a few in-depth conversations with other friends who are in similar lines of work. I needed a gut-check to ensure I was not massively overreacting. But at the end of the conversations, I would probably still be inclined to walk away if this was the new world order at my firm. Love the people, actually really like and respect the partners as well, but I cannot and will not work with my role and priorities being altered without any discussion or notice.

With this all settled for me, I went into the meeting with a clear head and an open mind. I had my hopes – an explanation at the very least – and was not completely disappointed by the outcome.

There was a genuine apology for their brush off. There was opportunity for me to vent my feelings – primarily anger, disappointment, and betrayal. I felt set-up, walking in blind with a couple of candidates they already knew or were at least familiar enough with to invite to meet with us. No debrief? No advance warning? Or was it the candidate set-up with extended hopes and expectations?

Uncomfortable silence around the table when I laid it out for them in black and white, and I was dimly reminded of reprimanding my kids in their youth. Unanimous agreement all around the process had been botched and that the candidates were unlikely to be a good fit with the type of firm they have created and the professional atmosphere they want to foster.

The why of it all still eludes me, other than the concern of adding more female professional staff looms large in their minds. I point out that yours truly is female and a manager, even if I am not an attorney and even if my male bosses dis me from time to time. However, I agree that another female hires would be beneficial. Alas, finding the most qualified female for the jobs we are seeking to fill has been a challenge as well. In addition to that, our willingness and ability to accommodate the time and schedule requests of the lady lawyers we have extended offers to have been rejected. Not our fault.

But before we dug too deeply into the actual recruiting part of our meeting, I wanted to wrap-up the communication aspect of our discussion.

Bosses agreed they botched this introduction and also agreed it might have been partly an unconscious and on purpose choice to test our mettle. Nope, I did not like that, at all, and we were very nearly back to square one.

Of the 4, all have been married and divorced at some point, although all are presently single right now. I am older by more than a decade and have been with M for more than a quarter century and know quite a bit about trust, betraying trust, and what it takes to rebuild once broken. Just in case you’re curious – it was not infidelity on either side, so much as my child victimization and M sharing it with our counselor without my permission or even telling me first. That lack of communication nearly ended our marriage, and it took a long time and therapy to recover and rebuild.

While their behavior is small-ball in comparison, it is serious enough that I did figure out my options and whether resignation was a viable one. I do not threaten ever, and I did not give them a “my way or the highway” ultimatum speech. What I did say – I am a professional in my own right and in my own field, and I am always straightforward and honest with them about my thoughts, ideas, opinions. This is their firm; they can run it however they see fit. However, if my role in it is as they have described and up to this incident acted like it was what they wanted, the game playing and mettle-testing must cease. Immediately. Tell me it is none of my business. Decide to alter my job description and explain to me that they are implementing changes to my duties and role. But do not treat me like an unknown quantity they cannot or will not trust enough to use her best judgement. Because despite what they thought they were doing or what they intended, this is the ultimate outcome of their misstep.

They are smart men; they got the message loud and clear. There is no double-secret probation, no hoops they must jump through to make it up to me. But my expectation of being treated like a professional was crystal clear.

After a rough day with all that yesterday, it was good to have some space from them and focus on my self-employment workload today.

Life is long and relationships of all stripes complicate everything. But we will sort it out, work it out. Our first big fight; time will tell how it shapes our future.

Crazy week – mentoring, bullying client, balanced responses

I used to think that parenting was the most terrifying job in the whole world, because the consequences of failure impacted others outside of me. I could easily imagine screwing up so spectacularly that my children would suffer dramatically and their hatred of me would be a defining energy source for the entirety of their adult lives.

At this point, I am comfortable that my mostly irrational fears had no basis in reality. I did make at least my fair share of mistakes, but perhaps in my imperfection I did a better job of preparing my kids for successful independence and living life under their own means and power.

While I mostly enjoyed being a parent, especially the part where the kids grow up into people I genuinely like as well as love because they are my kids, I have always been open about anticipating the launch point, where I am no longer primarily responsible for their well being and making all the decisions for them and their lives. I know a lot of parents cannot fathom my feelings – and probably judge me as unfit for feeling that way – but I believe a big part of being a mom is preparing kids for functional independence as they mature and are capable of assuming it. To me this is a very natural, organic transition.

In work, I have been a worker bee; I have been a supervisor; I have been a boss; and I have been part of a firm’s policy-making and enforcing management body. In my current law firm position, I actually wear all those hats and more. Here, I am also considered a mentor for not just my direct report, but also for other administrative and newer/junior staffers.

The mentor role – it’s disquieting for me in the same ways it is sometimes hard to be a flawed human being and a parent.

Yet, I think I probably do okay, so I should probably quit squirming internally at the title and wincing and physically trying to shrink into my chair whenever the word surfaces in relation to me and my place in the firm. There are ladies in my business network and social circles that I trained and supervised 20+ years ago that have gone on to their own careers as managers or more that still keep in touch and occasionally even ask for help or advice with their own thorny business problems.

I recently hired a new receptionist, and it is on the surface a risky hire. Even my bosses were kind of tepid on my selection at first. She is young – only turned 20 this week – and had no real office experience, much less law firm experience. However, she has a steady, stable work history, good test scores on the Office suite programs she uses as part of the job, and positive entry-level references. In our interview she was poised, thoughtful, and had a restrained sort of eagerness to prove herself. I saw her as a blank slate – no bad habits to break immediately – and someone bright enough I could train to the job.

Thus far, it has gone very smoothly. The reception and basic admin functions she’s doing well, learning quickly. I am finding it’s the smaller details that I am having to provide more training, correction, feedback, but she is learning and adapting. Things like dress codes. *sigh* I have a love-hate relationship with my firm’s dress code, which is essentially law firm level professional, i.e., suits and ties for male attorneys, skirted suits or more tailored dresses and jackets for female attorneys . Administrative staff have a slightly relaxed version of that – slacks, dress shirt, ties for the men, slacks/skirts/nice tops or dresses for the ladies. Fridays are considered casual days, unless in court or in meetings with clients outside the office. And then there is a mostly unspoken standard understanding of casual if you have any meetings in the office, i.e., khakis and buttondown shirt equivalent of business casual. For the rest of us, jeans and tailored t-shirts are fine, except they cannot be ripped jeans or screened t-shirts for favorite things, etc. And no gym-like attire, as in no tank tops, board shorts, flip flops, yoga pants. Believe it or not it was a question posed when we announced relaxing the casual Friday standard.

It seems the more you have a dress code, the more you have to talk about what it means to have a dress code. And I admit being kind of surprised that I have to be so specific and break it down into what not to wear for some of the staff, or had a female staffer bring in a new dress or outfit and ask if it’s okay for the office. I remind myself I’m older and can remember working for firms where I had to wear a dress or skirt and pantyhose every single day, including the 100+ degree days of summer. I am so glad professional dress has eased back from that point.

For my receptionist, there are also things like taking notes, writing down instructions, asking questions if she does not understand something. Where I am very old school and tend to walk around with a notebook and pen in my hand, she is just learning the habit and constantly trying to find something to write with, write on, but improving. She is adopting my post-it note habit of sticky-ing every document that comes across her desk and writing down what it’s for, what needs to be done with it, any deadlines associated, etc. I have had decades to hone these skills, figure out what works best for me and the way my brain works. She is just starting out and adopting/adapting new habits for her workstyle. There are far worse people to learn from; trust me, I have worked for a lot of them at some point.

Overall, she is doing quite well and I am very pleased. The risk seems to be paying off.

Until today, and now I worry that she might be thinking of running away screaming and never coming back.

My least favorite client came in for a meeting. Usually I review the meeting schedule and advise her if there are any high maintenance clients coming in, but this morning I was handling another issue and had not had an opportunity to look at today’s schedule. But when I saw him in the conference room and the expression on her face as he was speaking, I knew it was going to be a rough introduction.

In an odd coincidence, M knows him quite well and has since his very earliest running days. And once client figured out that M and I were related, actually married, he has taken that as license to be very observant about my physique, trying to fat shame me, and stating how I am not capable of running on M’s level. At first I just stated the obvious – I had no desire to be a runner – but he was undeterred. Last time he was in the office for a meeting he tried to fat shame me again, this time saying if I lost X amount of fat I would do better with my exercise efforts, and in his professional opinion I might want to join an obesity therapy group program to work on my lifestyle habits.

To say I had had it at that point is to put it very mildly. I looked him squarely in the eye and said I was not paying for his analysis and would like him to stop sharing his unsolicited opinions with me or anyone else. He started to tell me how getting angry was good, but being defensive was not going to get me anywhere, and I just put my hand out in a “talk to the hand” type gesture and left the room, seething with anger but maintaining my basic professionalism and not throwing the cup of coffee at him instead of setting it on the table. He told my boss that I was resistant to change and inflexible. When my boss asked me what that was about, I told what was said and that I showed admirable restraint in my response. Boss was aghast. Hostile workplace and harassment laws apply to clients and vendors as well as other employees.

My new receptionist was not so fortunate this morning and got snagged by his very cutting tongue. She was nearly in tears by the time she got back to her desk, and I sent her on a coffee run – hers was on me – to calm her nerves and then had her working in the file room when the meeting concluded to avoid further confrontation.

When I came home and told M about my first run-in with this old acquaintance, M remarked that this is his specialty – confrontive analysis – and he is quite brilliant and effective at it. Totally lost my shit on M that night. I maintain that since I have not engaged him professionally for such services, he’s just a big, mean bully and that I cannot effectively defend myself against it since he is effectively assaulting me in my workplace and professional environment.

Which elevated it up to the boss. To boss’ credit, he initiated a telephone conversation prior to this meeting and told client to not engage any staff in any discussions unrelated to his current consultation.

Except as I almost expected, he completely disregarded the advisement. My receptionist is today’s cannon fodder. And I feel badly about not shielding her better, yet at the same time understand and accept this is a teachable moment for her from the way we, her management team, handle the situation. Boss is writing a strongly-worded email and we will be withdrawing as counsel should it happen again.

And I find myself irrationally angry with M for indirectly defending this jerk. Intellectually I know M is mostly horrified at the behavior of this client of my firm and his old acquaintance, because M’s acquaintance has had a direct, negative impact on M’s wife, but emotionally I know this man is someone M has known for decades, followed his career, and actually admires his methods and successes with patients. It’s the “admires his methods” that enrages me. Irrationally, I know, and I am working on finding my way to letting go of it. The situation would be completely different if this had happened in a non-business situation, because my honest reaction would carry no consequences. But in my professional office environment, I am completely hamstrung between how I would like to respond and how I am professionally able to respond.

F**king asshole. The client/acquaintance, not M. Just to clarify, because I am kind of irritated to different degrees with both at the moment. But it far better, healthier for my marriage to sort out my shit here rather than going home and picking a fight with M because this guy put me into a very pissy mood. Hopefully I’ll be completely over it by the time I get home tonight.

And while I am speaking of my personal irrationality, let us transition to the crazy portion of this post.

Monday I had a conversation with another member and found him odd. Our conversation seemed a bit disjointed and weird, and I had already decided to keep my distance and avoiding getting drawn into another chat-fest with him. Yesterday J remarked that he’d seen the guy doing weird stuff and talking to himself, which reinforced that it would be far better to me to be really busy and focused on my own List of the day should our paths cross and he try to engage me in conversation again.

So this morning this same guy shows up as I am finishing the first block of my List of the day. He said hello, I said hello back, and then promptly turned my back and started mentally projecting “I am very engrossed in my exercise” vibes while actually being very engrossed in my List. Thankfully he did not talk to me further, but instead sprinted around the room several times (in his bare feet), climbed onto the TRX structure, shadowboxed, all while carrying on a very animated conversation with himself or an invisible friend. I avoided making eye contact and kept reminding myself I had an exit strategy in place and knew exactly where I would go to finish my List should the need arise.

I believe he is a mostly harmless nutball, but still. From the animated conversation I observed (had headphones in my ears and music turned up and could not hear what was being said), he could be quite a time suck if encouraged to chat.

And I am not the only one having brushes with nutty people. M is out on the trail running before dawn every morning, and last night he told me about passing a homeless couple whose dog had gotten sprayed by a skunk and they were trying to find the dog and wildly shining their flashlight up at the homes above the trail while trying to find their dog in the bushes. The noise, the light shining in the windows woke a homeowner who threatened to alert the authorities if they did not move along. Rather than moving along, homeless guy yells back at the homeowner to “shut the f**k up, we are on public property.” At 4 in the morning. State parks are close at dark, and technically neither they or even M should have been on the trail at that hour. M warned them about it and continued on with his run. By the time he returned a couple of hours later, stinky, skunk-smelly dog was the only one left on the trail. Poor dog.

It is turning into even more of an eventful week than I had anticipated.

Dancing in the rain

They say when it rains it pours, and today I think that to be true. Metaphorically speaking, of course; it’s sunny and gorgeous here in northern California. So in flipping off my own inner negative girl, I have decided to shake off my potential for cranky and refuse to wallow in negative misery.

And no, my level of first-world problems has not increased. Today has just been particularly trying on several fronts and I am shamelessly using my blog to vent frustration that has no other safe outlet.

Work is rocky right now, with my latest mentoring project referenced in this post. Our meeting lasted 2+ hours and feels unpleasantly uncomfortable, but we hammered out some really basic steps to be accomplished this month, with another formal check-in in 2 weeks. Behind closed doors, staff can pretty much say anything to be me – be critical, disagree strongly and even loudly if that seems appropriate, but be prepared to get as good as they give. The only rule I have is to not allow it to get personally insulting or to include other staff behaviors unless it is directly on point with whatever problem we happen to be discussing.

Maybe it’s the age difference anymore, but this woman is going to be a challenge for me, and not one that I am eagerly anticipating. The discussion got heated at a couple of points on both our parts. Normally I might agonize over my unprofessionalism and losing grip on my emotions and my temper, but in this case it was primarily to make myself heard and understood than from any genuine emotion-backed escalation.

On the heels of that, though, I had a phone call from my largest self-employment client about a meeting that I had hoped to avoid. Awhile back he received a proposal from a former employer of mine, and while they were the unsuccessful consultant on that project, there is another project he is pursuing where they could be a good fit. It goes against my personal ethics and conscience to recommend avoiding them, but I can and did confess to an intense dislike of the local director pursuing a business engagement with him. The rest of the firm is mostly fine, and I left on good terms and with good feelings toward them. This one guy, though … I despise and distrust him.

I am honest to a fault, particularly in business dealings. While I prefer it if I get on well with, respect, and actually like my business associates, it is not always absolutely mandatory to have a functional working relationship. Of course it is a lot more stressful, but being mature grown-ups we should be able to look past that and meet the common goal.

When this director was hired, I privately labeled him a complete and total kiss-ass politician and suspected my brand of frank directness would be irritating to him. Since I was a direct report to him in my position of office manager for a regional office AND I was well liked and highly respected by the executive branch at corporate HQ, he immediately felt I was dangerous to him and his machiavellian machinations. Have done my time in other corporate organizations, I recognized the type and the writing on the wall. I privately told the corporate operations manager, who was the supervisor of all administrative managers as well as our individual regional directors, that he would want to bring in someone else of his own choosing, rather than “inheriting” an existing manager, no matter how competent and respected; she agreed it was a possibility. I was not even upset about it, understanding this is the way things go, and during our first meeting I said the same thing to him – that if he wanted to bring someone else in, he should just tell me so I could start looking. He protested, said we’d “learn to work together” and all that happy stuff politicians say while kissing babies and then stealing their lollipops.

Thing was he could not disparage or complain about me to corporate, because by that time I had 2+ years of working directly with them on various innovations and reorganizations that had been adopted at the other regional offices. The CFO and COO wanted me to work with them, but since HQ was in San Francisco it was logistically challenging. In the meantime, I kept my head down and did my job. And the local boss would trash me in front of the staff and in private, but in email and conversations with the bigger bosses, I was the best thing since sliced bread.

Final straw was when one of my staff left and he chose to reorganize my responsibilities without consulting me. Being the big boss in charge of the office it was his right, of course, but to discuss my job and my responsibilities with every other manager in the office, get their input, and then tell me about it after my job had been completely gutted was the last straw. I got the “it’s not you; you’re doing a great job! But I want to take the administrative management in a different direction” speech. I was essentially demoted in my own office behind my back, and while corporate was aware it was happening and that he was exercising his prerogative to reorganize as he saw fit, they believed he had included me on the discussions and explained the reasoning behind his decisions. There was a hand-slapping discussion with the CFO and COO after I submitted my resignation, but by the then the damage had been done. It was a truly ugly, life-changing moment when I was finally told, and I honestly cannot recall feeling more professionally betrayed than I was that day. Sadly for me, I also count it as among my finer professional moments that I did not start crying in front of him. He would have interpreted it as being upset because of the changes, where in truth I was so speechlessly angry for being treated so unprofessionally I had no other way to express myself. My conversations with corporate immediately afterward were full of angry tears that I was glad they could not see over the telephone line.

I took the next day off, and when I returned on Tuesday (it was just before Memorial day weekend) I submitted my 2 weeks notice as well. A rule obeyer until the bitter end, I slogged through those last 2 weeks professionally cordial and helpful when asked to the staff, yet completely silent and absent from meetings unless specifically requested to attend. It was 2005, lots of other opportunities were available for me, and while I had nothing lined up when I resigned, by that Friday I had several good offers in hand.

Now my client is entertaining a proposal from them the firm with him in the lead role for some environmental work and studies. Since this director is the one in charge of the potential engagement and I assist my client with evaluating the cost estimates of such projects, of course my client has requested that I attend a meeting/presentation with them next week in San Francisco. I agreed, because he’s my client and I need to be professional about the job, but my dread and loathing for this former boss are off the charts today. It’s been more than 10 years; I am apparently not completely over it (understatement of the year thus far).

The idea of sitting in the same room and listening to him present their quals and gush about how the fabulous fit they are for this project, how cost effective, how amazingly wonderful … yuck. But I will hold my nose and try to open my mind to the potential that he is not a complete lying, backstabbing sack of poo. Then there is the fact of having to have lunch with that smarmy asshole (gee, let me tell you how I really feel) that makes me want to vomit. Fortunately others I know and actually like from the firm will also be attending both the meeting and the lunch, so maybe I can mostly avoid actually interacting with him.

And in addition to those somewhat stressful occurrences today, a client whose project was officially over on March 31 emailed and then called today about continuing. I’m reluctant, because I feel a little (or a lot, depends upon the hour of the day) overwhelmed with work right now and am actually trying to trim my roster of smaller, more time consuming clients. Every time I tried to bring up referring her to someone else she would ask me what it would take to get me to continue. While I am terribly flattered, the work is tedious and the net pay is inadequate to make it worthwhile for me personally to continue to do, yet I cannot in good conscience abandon her. She is full of praise for the work I am did for her and the plan had been for her existing staff to take over this month. I spent time with them last month walking through the steps involved, documented the  process for their references, and feel like it’s complex (everything government related is overly complex) but manageable. But today she says the initial run was completely screwed up and she will need me to untangle it and then take it back, because I am the only contractor she utilizes that is worth the monies paid because it makes her life simpler.

Put that way, it is difficult to argue with her.

We finally came to verbal terms on rates that will allow me to subcontract the work out and still pay my full hourly rate to review and submit it. She promised me a contract by Friday so I can pick the work back up next week without missing a beat. Oh joy.

In addition to my young friend’s heartache, I have another close pal geographically even farther away this year and in the dating dumps. He’s what I refer to as a “serial monogamist” who does not treat women poorly (that was his younger, dog days), is always honest about his intentions (no marriage and no kids, somewhat disinclined toward long-term serious relationship), and who recently broke it off with his flavor of the quarter, because she has young children and he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of meeting and spending time with them, getting attached, knowing he was leaving in 8 or 9 months to return home to the states. I guess the disentanglement is not mutual, and she’s been trying to woo him back. What’s different this time is a broken hand is keeping him from fully venting his frustration in the gym. I have mostly been letting M take the lead in communication on the subject, because I have my hands full with work drama and such right now. But I still hear plenty from both of them, in addition to the daily peppering of questions about how I’m spending my time at the gym. Yesterday I said I was sitting in the hot tub eating chocolate dipped strawberries and swilling Mexican coke; he was not very amused.

I have no clear plan of how to cope with the various big and little human dramas going on all around me right now, and it’s okay that I have no clear answers right now. Problems, I find, do not become easier to handle by worrying obsessively. Tomorrow is training with J, so I will not necessarily be mulling answers while we are working. But I might. Sometimes I am capable of amazing multitasking and have enjoyed some of my best breakthroughs while washing or drying my hair.

But honestly, most of this stuff is well beyond my scope of control. My work issues are going to resolve well or not, and there is little more I can do to influence those solutions at this juncture. I will not allow myself to vomit or allow the horrid former employer to ruin another millisecond of my life. The meeting is next week, I will look and feel fabulous, and remember that I am now on the other side of the table and they have to impress and influence ME now as I am a major player on my client’s team. For my friends I am here to listen and offer support and suggest real and imaginary shortcomings for those who cause them heartache.

Maybe it’s emotionally pouring on right now, but I have come to wholeheartedly believe there is something magical and healing about dancing in the rain. Even for those of us who don’t dance, I still highly recommend it.