Sunday, June 14, 2009

A sunday meme - five things I am proud of

I have a number of remarkably serious post part completed. However, I don't feel like completing them just at present. I feel too stale. 

One of the things that I find in talking to people is just how remarkably interesting they can be. They may not feel that their lives are especially interesting, yet most of us have done things or have experienced things that are of interest to others.

I was reminded of this by an odd thing, the need to fill out a mentoring form. One question asked me to list my major achievements. I jotted a few things down, then stopped and put the form aside for the moment. You see, looking at the "achievements" I started to wonder what were in fact achievements.

My mentee is Aboriginal. She has had a completely different life from mine and has struggled with different things. I won't give the details, they are obviously private. But at a personal level, she has come through difficulties that might have broken me. These are things that she is, rightly, very proud of.

Thinking about the mentoring form, I found myself asking not what I have achieved but a very different question instead: what are the things in my life that I am most proud of? I find that this gives me a very different set of answers, far more personal, far less career oriented.

I thought that it might be interesting to jot some of them down. I also thought that I would ask some fellow bloggers with different experiences to do the same.

One: my family. After twenty two years of marriage, we are still together as a unit. My decision to work from home and take on the primary child care role imposed significant career costs, but it allowed my wife to do things, while giving me a closeness to my daughters that has been of immense value to me. I am proud of all three of my girls, and like to think that I have played a role in helping them.

Two: my staff. This may sound an odd one, but looking back over the different jobs that I have had, the thing that keeps coming out is my pride and pleasure in the people I have worked with. When I was listing individual things that I was most proud of, examples involving people kept coming up.

In Treasury, a colleague and I felt that the Department's approach to graduate recruitment was failing. Independently, we carried out a study (this was outside our normal work) and prepared a paper setting out what needed to be done. This led to a re-structuring of the graduate recruitment program. 

As much as I could, I have tried to develop and protect my people.

When I thought that a decision made by the acting head of Treasury was unfair to one of my staff members I fought the decision as hard as I could. As a director I was a fair distance down the chain, but I got the matter put on hold until the permanent head returned from leave. He ruled in my favour.

In another case, I inherited a branch that had become a people disaster area. It's hard to believe just how bad the position was. The acting head of one section was crippled by tension induced migraines. A second section head was leaving all the real work to his staff and especially his assistant who was struggling with the load because he was a sole parent with a large family who simply could not could not work long, inflexible, hours.

By changing work flows I took the pressure off the migraine sufferer, allowing him to focus on areas where he was best. The migraines were still there, but ceased to be debilitating. Changing work flows meant shifting some work to a capable female staff member, in so doing giving her greater visibility and an accelerated career path. The non-functioning director left. His place was taken by his deputy who had been doing all the work, with more flexible hours to allow him to meet family commitments.

I remain quite passionate about the importance of people management. If you look at some of my writing on management, you will see that one of my charges against current management structures is that they have effectively emasculated management as such.

Three: the Armidale pre-selection campaign. My period at university coincided with the Vietnam war and the introduction of conscription. This conflicted with my strong religious views and I finally registered as a conscious objector. This was not an easy decision of itself. I was not called up, so in some senses the matter went away.

Five or so years later in 1972 I ran for Country Party pre-selection for the seat of Armidale. At the Armidale branch meeting I was side-swiped with questions about this earlier period.

Making inquiries after the meeting I found that there was a viscous whispering campaign, with opponents ringing around the electorate making allegations about my past behaviour including the suggestion that I had spent time in jail.

The issue split my own family. My uncle, an ex-serviceman himself and a key supporter, was furious about the campaign and stated that he would not support me any further unless I took immediate action for defamation. My father took an opposite view. There was something approaching a yelling match in the kitchen. For my part, I just felt sick, knowing that the deeply personal and coordinated nature of the attacks made an effective come-back very difficult. My checks had shown that my painfully built support was quickly evaporating.

I did lose the pre-selection on this issue, if not by very much. The reason why this episode is on the list of things that I am most proud of is that I fought back.

It is hard for people now to realise just how divisive the Vietnam War was. At following branch meetings across the electorate I explained my position and people did respond, including deeply conservative branches with majority ex-service members.

It wasn't enough, but I still take pride in both my own actions and in the people who supported me. It explains in part why I am still deeply committed to the country cause. These are my people who despite their own prejudices and views were prepared to listen.

Four: the College. This is the only conventional achievement that I would put on the list. I do take pride in a number of things that I have achieved in a working sense, but many of them have been ephemeral in that they were over-turned through subsequent change.

I became the first CEO of the Royal Australian (now Australian and New Zealand) College of Ophthalmologists at the end of 1997. I was in the position for just two years.

I was appointed to raise the College's profile with Government. However, I found an organisation that lacked basic systems. There was no accrual accounting system, no proper budgeting processes, no filing systems, the system for training future eye care specialists lacked process documentation and was in fact very close to collapse in administrative terms. Adrian as Executive Officer had some changes in train, but was struggling to get things through.

By the time I left at the end of 1999, we had working accrual accounting systems, new budget processes. a working information system, a fully mapped training system with new handbooks and documentation. All this was based on a common information hierarchy. Ivan Goldberg as Censor-in-Chief (the head of the College's academic arm) had been able to re-launch the curriculum review process intended to re-structure specialist training.

I take pride in this. However, there is a second reason for pride, and that is my resignation.

Change brings pain. I was driving through fundamental change in the way the organisation operated. This led to a reaction at the end of my first year. The new honorary treasurer became concerned at my approach, wanting to return to elements of the past. I fought to defend the things that I had achieved. It all became quite messy.

The Honorary Treasured downloaded all the accounting files so that he could check each entry. I found that without my knowledge he had commissioned a special audit of the College's affairs, special advice from the College's lawyers, to check my management. He forced a special meeting of the College Executive that actually fired two staff who he had decided must go.

At one level, I was in a strong position. In some ways I am an obsessive person. I had driven through budget and accounting changes to provide greater transparency and accountability. Each month I checked the accounts in great detail. Every thing was documented. I was fire-proof. At a second level, I was involved in a broader fight about College direction and management. I resigned because damage was now being done to the College. My president said "Jim, I wish you hadn't done that", but it was the right decision.

My successor was a calming figure without my baggage. He smoothed things down, preserving the things that I had achieved while making necessary compromises to allow the College's collegiate system to function. He has just retired. Reading the annual reports over his period, I think that he has done a very good job.

Five: my writing. A year or so back I would not have included this one. However, now that writing has become something of an obsession, I do take pride in it. Here an quite unexpected pleasure has been the discovery that some of my very early work including my honours thesis has had a far greater life than I could reasonably have expected.

I said that I would ask a few bloggers to also talk about the things that they are most proud of. Now here one of the interesting things is that there is so much choice, so much variety. Who to choose?

Well, my victims are as follows.

First, Tikno who has just had a new bub (my congratulations) for an Indonesian perspective.

Second, Kanani who comes from a very different US world.

Third, Neil Whitfield for his teaching wisdom.

Finally, both Legal Eagle and scepticlawyer from scepticslawyer because I am just plain curious!       


Legal Eagle said...

What a fascinating post! I would be proud of those things too, Jim. I have felt really stale with regard to blogging - perhaps this will get me back to it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you LE.If I have inspired you, then I would be very pleased. We are losing to many of our regulars through the attrition that comes from sheer tiredness!

Tikno said...

Thank you Jim. This post has inspired me to write something in addition to my latest post.

How about your book? How many words has been written? I'm proud to you and success for you!

rummuser said...

That is some writing Jim. I am very happy to have made your accidental but very interesting blog friendship. I look forward to the writings of your victims.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Tikno and RM.

The book goes slowly, Tikno. I keep getting distracted. I am still writing notes and filling gaps, but this is a long way from turning it all into proper prose. My target completion date for a complete first draft is next April.

At the moment I'm a little behind that schedule.

I, too, have enjoyed our accidental blogging friendship, Ramana. I hope that I actually haven't put people off responding - Neil used the word daunting, and this from a person who clearly has a lot to be proud of!

Kanani said...

Okay, I'm up for it. I have the computer for a few hours (we're in Savannah and I'm using my husband's laptop) and will try to do so in less than an hour.

I think your people management skills are impressive. I've always thought a business was only as good as the boss's people management skills. If he or she didn't have those intact, the business would have more nightmares --hidden or in the open, than one could count.

Great list, Neil!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Kanani and thanks. More later!

Kanani said...

Okay, it's up on my blog. I'll check out your friends.