Tuesday, March 03, 2009

One Gen Xer's View of the Transformation Discussion

I really appreciate being included in the ongoing discussion re: what to do with/about NASA. If I seem to lecture overmuch, I apologize. Part of that is just me, part of it is a habit I picked up from my grandparents, part of it is a sincere desire to see ambitious younger folks not make some of the same mistakes I made at their age. Allow me to ‘splain.

I came to NASA somewhat late in my career. I was 36 when I moved to Huntsville. Before that, I was a proposal writer at a defense contractor in Northern Virginia, and before that I spent 12 years at Walt Disney World, working in a variety of roles, including parks, resorts, IT, HR, and training. Most of the management stuff (e.g. change management) I picked up from reading books from the Disney University library or through writing papers for NASA. Other things, like PowerPoint, I’ve picked up on the job, through my off-duty reading, or in grad school (UCF, M.A. Technical Writing, ’02). I’ve spent my career as an hourly employee or an independent contributor, not as a manager; but I've been supporting managers, from the front line to the executive offices, so I have a pretty good handle on their wants/needs in the field of communication.

I think I learned more about interacting with the public—and management—at Disney than anywhere else. Much of what I learned came about by trying to do things “my way,” which is to say the wrong way, or in a way that usually resulted from arguments with my managers. I was a pain the neck as a 20-something employee and had more than a little impatience and “attitude.” I think it took a second verbal reprimand (guaranteeing that I wouldn’t transfer out of the job I had for at least another year) to realize that my confrontational approach with management was hurting, not helping my career.

If I wanted to stay with the company and improve my circumstances, I had to “play the game,” at least to some extent. That did not mean silencing my beliefs or sucking up to the boss. It did mean not rudely questioning the motives or intelligence of my managers every time decisions didn’t go my way; not demanding changes, but backing up my concerns with facts; and not expecting to advance simply on my own merits. If I wanted to “move up” in the organization, I had to admit (gulp) that my Silent Generation parents and Greatest Generation grandparents were right, and that I needed management coaching and support.

I am not saying Nick and the rest are doing what I did. Quite the contrary: they’ve been a lot more respectful and wise in their approach than I was. I was into my early 30s before I really understood how management thinks. From there, it was easier to know when it was appropriate to speak my mind and try to make changes and when it was better to shut up, wait, or accept things. Again, this was my particular problem, not necessarily others’.

There’s a saying I read recently that sums up my approach to my dispensing of unsolicited advice: “A smart man learns from his mistakes; a wise man learns from others’ mistakes.” So, again, I hope some of this commentary is of benefit, however tactlessly offered. Maybe more folks will learn from me what not to do. In any case, thanks again for reading. As new thoughts or approaches come to me, I’ll be sure to share them.

1 comment:

Rolando said...

Hi Bartacus,

I am Rolando and I am one of the GenY folks who writes on Unlike Justin, Madi and Nick (to name a few) I have not been extremely politically correct in my "demand" for change.

This blog post resonated with me. It is very difficult for me to hide my contempt and I have been labeled a "troublemaker". A lot of my actions stemmed from my frustration. I mean after going to my leadership with really good ideas on how to improve the process...and constantly getting turned down...without technical merit...really got to me -- I had the facts and I didn't even get a chance to present them -- I requested help to get more facts (because I don't know everything) and I didn't get the help.

Before I came to Houston to work at NASA I worked on the JSF in California. When I came here things went backwards many years. That in itself was frustrating.

Before the NASA "Barriers to Innovation" video came out I was thinking "the heck with this". Now the video by itself would have had very little meaning - for me. The fact that upper-management supported it meant a lot.

I am in the process of learning some of the things you mentioned in your blog. Now my personality is such that I will always push the barriers, because I expect to always get better. I know that my pursuit will get some people upset, but I will try to be more selective with my battles and am working on approaching things a bit smarter.

I really would appreciate any advice you have on "what management wants to hear?" OR "How does management like to hear things?"

I am learning some of that through trial and error, but anything that I can learn from others makes it easier on me to progress faster. I am certain that others will appreciate it too.