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  • (Last story in “My Ugly Prom Date” series – this is Part 4)

    Everything was humming along with my division turn-around effort - my “Ugly Prom Date” had started noticing some of her own attractive qualities that initially, I had to continually point out to her, and started accepting my offers to dance. She took tentative steps at first, still concerned about some of the bullies and naysayers that were hanging around the dance floor, ready to take shots at her.

    But, one by one, I vanquished the bullies, and then some left of their own accord, as it’s no fun bullying and nay saying when nobody cowers or buys into your bullshit. Part of my job was to expose them for the frauds that they were. In all, 12 people left that summer, either shown the door or nudged towards it, or traded for a player to be named later, and I managed to bring in 17 new people, all with an eye for “fit”, folks who would resonate with the rest of the organization, and help me to take it to “Disney World”, my vision for the place. I wanted people to look at us the way they looked at Disney World, and say, “Now, that’s how you do it! I want to work there. I want to do business with them. I want to have customer service like that!” The new hires brought with them new energy, fresh ideas, and the ability to think outside the box. We were ready to rock and roll!

    The most significant new hire I brought in was G, to be my Deputy Director. She would also take over the role of “Head of Contracting Activity Designee”, which I’d had to strip from the Procurement Branch Chief, because she was just too “by the Book”, which is o.k. as long as you understand the book, which she didn’t. She had a very narrow interpretation of it.

    In this role, G really needed to understand the agency and how it worked, the importance of our partnerships, and get to know our key customers. Since the Office of Public Health Science was Procurement’s biggest customer, outside of I.T., I took her down to the major Lab in Athens, Georgia, one of three agency labs where meat samples are analyzed for pathogens and residues, to meet the scientists there, and to see the operation. Since we had to fly into and out of Atlanta to get to Athens, I also made arrangements to meet our CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) partners at the CDC complex in Atlanta, and took her to our own District and Regional offices in downtown Atlanta to see how different field office’s were run, and to meet those folks, also key customers. In two days, she was able to see a good cross-section of customers and partners, and learn how the agency functions out in the world. This really helped her to understand what we do, and why. She really appreciated it, and came back all fired up and ready to help me take everyone to Disney World.
  • I had to fire C right before I went on vacation in July to South Carolina. While his departure was a major success in my turn-around effort – he’d been the biggest bully on the block, and the fact that I’d dealt with him right out of the gates, and hustled him right out of there, gave everyone a major sense of hope, and trust in me, and folks were really starting to boogie.

    But, it’s never easy to fire someone, even when they deserve it. Every time I’ve had to fire someone, I feel so lousy I actually get physically ill for a couple days. No matter what they’ve done, or haven’t done, that warranted their firing, they’re still people, and it still bothers me when I do it. Someone once said that the day you begin to enjoy firing people is the day you should get out of the business. It’s never stopped me from doing what I have to do, but it always sucks.

    So, I was driving downtown from Beltsville in the company van to meet with C to fire him. M from Employee Relations office was with me, as she had drafted the removal letter, and would sit in while I did the firing. They did that, just to make sure a manager doesn’t say something that could be used against the agency. Just as I was getting ready to pull into the parking court in the downtown building, a DC Metro Bus clipped my side, tearing the side-view mirror off and tearing up the front quarter panel on the passenger side of the van.

    Oh, great! I checked to make sure M was o.k., and she was fine. What followed was a 3-ring circus of dealing with multiple jurisdictional authorities, all of whom needed incident reports. There was the Metro Authority, the DC Police, the Federal Building Authorities, since it happened on government property, and then I had to report it to GSA, the agency that owned the van. That tied me up for several hours. M was free to leave after giving a witness statement, so she went in and met with C to give him his walking papers. It was the first time in 11 years that I had been involved in any kind of vehicle accident. It shook me up a little bit.
  • Coming back from South Carolina a couple weeks later, I wound up running over a dog wandering around in the middle of the road late at night, unavoidable, but it killed him, and messed up Kathy’s Prius, and now I was really shook up. That made two accidents in 3 weeks’ time, after none in 11 years. I went through a funk. It was the middle of the summer in DC, hot, humid, and ungodly uncomfortable, and I was not centered. I was off. I knew, intellectually, that all the pieces were starting to fall into place with my turnaround, but I just wasn’t seeing it or feeling it. My coach helped me to realize what my problem was. Everything around me was fine; it was me who was the problem, now. I refocused my efforts to start my day with reading and meditation, to get centered and in the moment, and things quickly fell l right back into place. I regrouped, and got back out on the dance floor, where my date had kicked her shoes off and was having an absolute ball.

    By summer’s end, the turn-around was complete, and I was nominated and selected for the prestigious “Excellence in Leadership” award for that year. My Division was cited by agency leadership as the embodiment of excellence, and the other programs were sent to me to learn how to turn their programs around.

    But, for that moment, that September, the “Ugly Girl” had become the Queen of the Prom, and we tripped the light fantastic, and we danced until dawn. I relished the moment, for it would not be long before I would have to move on.

    I would soon become the resident “ fixer”, as I spent the next 2 years on details to lead broken or hobbled areas out of the ditch and on the road to Disney World, to sprinkle some magical pixie dust. There was nothing magical about it, but a little smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand made it look that way to the casual observer. It took hard work, balls, and a little luck. With all three, and a little soft shoe, you could make it look easy.
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