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  • After a month and a half period of trying the new job in Beltsville on for size, on a detail, I decided I was definitely in. I had to sit through an interview with a panel, which I hadn’t had to do in seven years. I had been very happy in the Office of Public Health Science, and never even gave a second thought to going anywhere else while I was there. That job was so demanding and exciting and fulfilling, all my energies had gone into bringing excellence to all I did there.

    So I was really rusty as an interviewee. Rusty and nervous as a jack rabbit on an ice-covered pond. I mean, I knew that Tony liked the idea of my taking that job, but since he had announced it and commissioned a panel to interview people, I had time to think about it. Too much time. What if I really blew the interview? He might have no choice but to go with someone else who nailed their interview. Then, I’d be stuck back in the CFO job that I never wanted to go back to. Plus, the last time I had been in an interview, it was for this same job 7 years earlier. That was the only time in my career that I had interviewed and not been selected for the job I was going for. However, that time, even though I didn’t get the job I was interviewing for, one of the panelists was so impressed with me, she brought me over to the Office of Public Health Science to mentor me to take her place as Director when she retired from there. So, it had turned out for the best, in the long run.

    I knew the people interviewing me. Jane was this senior executive who intimidated a lot of people – she was on the Management Council, and we’d always gotten along – she had been one of my biggest champions when I was new in the CFO role, and cultivating the Management Council to work with me in managing the agency’s budget through the first year that it exceeded one billion dollars, and as we were in the process of preparing to switch over to a whole new financial accounting system. Her support had really helped me to settle in on the Council. Robert was a guy who had come in behind me in Philadelphia, when I had come into headquarters, and then he followed me into headquarters when the Regional Office in Philly got closed and became a smaller District Office, back in 1997. We’d gone through the Career Development Academy together back in ’93. The 3rd panelist I didn’t know as well – Sara had been part of my program’s leadership team, the director of another division out in Beltsville, so I’d been in leadership team meetings with her, but that was about it. She had a very dry, wry sense of humor.

    One of the perks of my position was, I got an assigned parking spot downtown, since I had to go back and forth from Beltsville to downtown a lot. My predecessor had never shared the spot with others, but I immediately changed that when I went out there on my detail, and made it known that anyone else out there who needed it could use it, whenever I wasn’t. My staff set up a schedule, and others appreciated it, and started to use it. When my interview got scheduled, I let Ina know that I’d be using it for that time slot. She said that someone else had requested to use it then, but it was my spot, and I got priority of its use. What I didn’t know, until the interview, was that the other person who’d wanted to use it was Sara! As we were chit-chatting before the formal interview began, this came up. She’d had to park on the street at a meter. She laughed about it, but I thought “Uh-oh – this isn’t starting out well.”
  • Between that, and my general nervousness about it all, I almost panicked right from the start. Jane asked the first question. It was what they called a Behavioral Event Interview (BEI), where you’re asked a series of questions where your response is to give a specific situation that demonstrates your experience related to the question. I had been on the other side of the table for dozens of these types of interviews, but quickly realized that it was a lot tougher when you’re the one being asked the questions.

    The question was one that I had about 15 different great examples for. My only problem was, my mind just went completely blank in that moment after Jane asked it. I did my best to make it look like I was trying to think about my best example, but in reality, I was sitting there thinking, “Shit! I am completely screwed, here. I’m drawing nothing but blanks. The lights are on in there, but nobody seems to be home. What the hell am I going to do?” 10 seconds, 15 seconds went by, and I’m just sitting there, feeling like a complete idiot, trying to keep my composure. “O.K., nothing’s coming. I’m just going to open my mouth, start talking, and just hope I say something semi-intelligent, or something that sparks the right memory of a related experience. O.K., here goes…” I started talking, and after a few hems and haws, I stumbled onto an example, and though it was not necessarily my best one for the scenario, it answered the question, and by the next one, my confidence had returned, and my mental block went on a break and I was permitted to think again. Whew! I passed muster, and got selected for the job.

    I learned that one of my duties on the new job was to lead the Unity Day effort. Uh-oh. This was going to be tricky. Me and Unity Day had a history. Way back when, when I was out in Beltsville in this division before, we used to hold a picnic on the grounds of our facility, which was ideal for such a thing, and we’d invite everyone out from downtown for the day. We would charge $5 - $10 a head, which covered the costs of the burgers, dogs and chicken. We’d take turns manning the grill, and it was an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other on a less formal basis, a team-building opportunity. There’d usually be a pick-up game of softball, horseshoes, music and singing. Each year, more people came out for it, and it got to be quite an event. We started setting up tables and people would bring information about what they did, and share the information, so it was a way to find out what everyone did in their little corners of the agency.

    At the time, I was in charge of the Field Supply Center, and would order and stock all the stuff that Food Inspectors needed to do their job, and they would order it from us. Our safety people had come up with a strategy to help the inspectors deal with the heat on the slaughter lines of these big meat slaughter plants, which included these things called “Sqwinchers”, a gatorade-like, electrolyte replacement beverage, that came in handy 6 ounce foil containers that they could drink right on the line, and not have to take a break to cool off. The inspectors loved them, and it really helped them combat the heat. When I was in that job, I had the authority to order all of these things – I had what they called a contracting “Warrant”. I was the only one outside of the Procurement shop who did. When I went to the Office of Public Health Science, the folks who came in behind me were not warranted , so they had to order these things through Procurement. The first time they tried to order Sqwinchers, Procurement gave them a hard time, because they said the Sqwinchers were a food item, and it was not legal to purchase a food item with appropriated dollars. But, these were for the inspectors on the line, in the 100 degree heat in the middle of Oklahoma, part of a safety strategy to keep from becoming overwhelmed by the heat and becoming dehydrated. They still fought it. It became known as the “Sqwincher Wars.”

    I was appalled, from afar, at the silliness of it all. The Procurement people just weren’t thinking. Then, while the Sqwincher Wars were raging, I saw an announcement that they were hosting the first “Unity Day” (they called it something else at the time, but it was the same concept) out in Beltsville, and everyone was welcome to come, and it would cost employees nothing to participate. I thought, “Wait a minute. Wait a goddamned minute, here. That means they’re paying for it with appropriated dollars. WTF!” When I looked into it, that was exactly what they were doing. They were justifying it by having an award ceremony at it, and a speaker, so they dubbed it “Award Ceremony and Training Event”, and used a loophole to pay for it with Appropriated dollars. I was outraged! “You mean to tell me, you will sit there and fight against giving a GS-7 Inspector on the line a lousy drink to keep from passing out, but you want to wine and dine me and all my GS-13, 14, and 15 headquarters cohorts at a picnic, and pay for it with taxpayer dollars? Do I have it right? Hell no, I won’t go!” I boycotted Unity Day every year from that time forward, on principle. Each year, it got bigger, and cost more, and more people attended it, all except form me. I stood my ground, on principle, and also made damn sure the inspectors got their sqwinchers, even though that was no longer my gig.
  • So now, this event that had cost $72,000 to run the year before, was supposed to be my baby. I tried to wiggle out of it, citing my contention that it was inappropriate, but my boss said I had to do it. I would be rated on how well it came off. I said that if that was the case, we’re going to do it a lot differently this year, and for a lot less money. He liked that part, and said it was my gig to run as I saw fit. It just better make everyone happy.

    I cut out as much of the fluff as I could, empowered a multi-program group that wanted to hold an agency “Olympics” at it to run with their idea, as long as it didn’t cost anything to do, and I got a serious speaker (he was actually a comedian, Brett Leake, but had a powerfully serious message about diversity) to come and speak, and made it a requirement that everyone who attended the event hear the speaker. We pulled it off for a lot less than they had in previous years, despite record attendance, and eveyone learned a lot, and also had a great time.

    By the next year, with a little more time to strategize, I effectively killed Unity Day. The one that I ran was the last one they ever had. Much as I hated the idea of it, I made the most of the situation, and as is evidenced by the picture of me with featured speaker (Yeah, that’s me in the ridiculous looking Cow Hat!), I had me a damned good time while I was at it. No one said that I couldn’t enjoy myself – after all, it was my first (and last) Unity Day. It went out with a bang. (Brett sent me an e-mail the following day – “I never thought I would use this word in relation to such a ridiculous hat, but I must say – you wore it with aplomb!” I loved that!
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