Jump-Start Vol.3

Could you describe your work-style, please?

I’m accustomed to offices where my supervisors and coworkers are too busy to micromanage me, and thus I become intrinsically motivated. It was expected of me. I wanted my work to show my character so I wasn’t waiting to be told what to do in those environments, if I could help it. Counter-intuitively, that meant that I met regularly with the same people who were too busy to be meeting with me.

I squeezed in those quasi-informal meetings so I could get my bearings, get feedback, and ensure I set my trajectory so that we all would be happy with the outcome. I identified the seams in our days and weeks when I could bounce ideas with my supervisor or a more experienced coworker. Some processes were routine but whenever there was a special project or a non-routine juncture I tried to… hmm…

To never come to someone else so soon that I haven’t partially explored the challenge but also never seek help so late that I’ve already “finished” too much and need help undoing missteps I didn’t realize I had taken. My work style is touch-and-go. I like to make light, frequent contact with colleagues. Most of the time, I like organizing my own priorities. I like deciding which order and to what extent a certain set of tasks gets done, when possible, but I make those decisions in consultation.

I don’t rely on direct-orders, I respond to them. Left to my own devices, I start to generate my own agenda. Granted, in most of my recent positions I’ve had extremely minimal control of those aspects. I understand it’s the nature of a job, sometimes: the parameters routine and the expectations are certain. Factory work manifested this so perfectly, I can’t imagine anything else could compete with its monotony. But I did it. I found ways to personalize my routine when my outputs were completely generic. I never shared this but I had particular ways I liked to stack valve bodies, or load the unmachined hunks of plastic into a cart, or hit a particular number at a certain time — developing a sense for how fast I was going, what kind of afternoon I was going to have based on the morning. My attention to detail didn’t sleep…

…I didn’t fall asleep at the laboratory. I found my rhythms. Again, I found particular ways of doing things that resulted in the same, consistent outputs that met the expected parameters. The way I put test-tubes on the rack or how I labeled them before putting them into the cooler. I tried to notice the color of the samples in case it mattered later. I reckoned with common problems that might bore you but were a welcome break from simply matching tubes to their manifests. We all had our idiosyncrasies about scanning manifests into the computer system… …okay, I’ll admit it: we always had the radio on. That really saved my sanity. I sang so many oldies into my N95 and the whole lab was the same way. No one needed to interface with the public: we all just needed to get the job done. Even the most experienced scientists wore jeans under their lab coats, wrote goofy stuff on the whiteboard, reminisced with the songs on the radio — as long as we tested the samples and reported the results accurately, it was all gravy!

Another confession: I knew how to not completely bust my hump when I was in lawncare. That’s a skillset that’s not celebrated sufficiently in our culture: I knew what it meant to do ‘enough’. An anecdote is coming to mind so I’ll just run with it:

I had a customer complain to my face about the job I’d done right after I finished doing it. Keep in mind, I only worked one season: I had some doubts. That morning the ground was wet and I was still learning to gage how much weight the ground could take. Aerators are heavy machines and scarring the lawn is not acceptable. Yet it rains so much in Maryland and we were racing against the change of seasons. Once it got to be too cold, there wasn’t much benefit in aerating and re-seeding (of course, there was usually not a great deal of benefit to doing that twice a season anyway but, you know, green lawns are a cult). I decided this lawn was just dry enough.

Truthfully, I thought it was going well. The cores popped from the ground beautifully, very few wheel-tracks were left, and I tried so hard not to leave muddy spots on the front walk-way. But it’s an art. That day, it would not have been possible to have no tracks, not smudges, immaculate work.

The owner confronted me, politely at first. He wanted my supervisors phone number and promised I wouldn’t be in trouble. It was against our policy for me to give him Ozzy’s number: all customers are supposed to go through customer service. He started to get irritable with me and said he had done some aeration in the *past* and I had done poorly — but if I just gave him my supervisor’s number he wouldn’t hold it against me.

Nope: it wasn’t our policy. Ozzy would’ve been so much more irritated if this clown had called him directly. I called Ozzy and left a message warning him. I owned that the lawn was wet and maybe I shouldn’t do any more lawns in that neighborhood that day (which I didn’t). I took responsibility but I did it from within our set policy parameters: customers go through customer service, I level with my supervisor because that’s what a good employee does.

I ‘won’. The customer went through the motions with customer service and eventually got through to Ozzy (who was ready for him). So, Ozzy goes there to survey the damage and smooth things over. He told me later that I’d actually done a good job and the customer didn’t know what he was talking about — obviously, he’d done aeration in the *past* because he didn’t do it as well as we did.

Note how I didn’t do any more lawns in that neighborhood that day. I wasn’t so obsessed with proving I was right that I would cause myself more work; I’d already been through some 60 weeks. When lawns were too wet, I ducked. If rain started too early in a job, I ducked. If a job was more than 10,000 sq.ft. and I had several other lawns to do, I ducked it until the end of the day and if there wasn’t time, I flaked and let someone with a tractor-unit take it later. There’s just a world of scenarios where I could see that calamity was too likely and so I ducked until conditions were better. That’s wisdom.

I also took on harder tasks when I knew I could make better time. I often muscled a chain back onto the teeth of a machine’s gears so I could continue a job. I usually pulled my machine onto the back-basket of the truck after I turned it off so I could pull-up the tines and save them from being damaged or dulled by the ramp. I hauled dying aerators up hills when their engines weren’t strong enough, using my legs to make-up the difference. I did huge, flat properties that I knew I could sprint through and I knew just how fast I could go without adverse effects. I did swampy properties [like the one I mentioned above] languidly, preserving both the turf and myself. In short, I didn’t assume that maximum exertion was always the best way to be successful; every scenario has a rhythm. Yesterday’s rhythm effects today’s, which effects tomorrow’s, and I stayed self-aware.

My thoughts on this stretch on and on but I think I’ve reached the limit on this topic for right now. I want to explore other questions. There’s always a false-bottom on this question because a person in my position wants to find the right answer for the employer. I don’t mean that I want to fabricate anything in an interview. I just want to pitch them a factual truth that they want. Truth is, after all, more about the pitch than the substance. A parable is true without being factual and some statistics are misleading while still being, technically, factual.

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