(First drafted March 2013). So my first embryonic manager experience was not my strong point. Working on a research team in Mongolia, I was suddenly set in charge of two feisty local girls while our leaders were out of the country on side trips.
Click here for one contested interaction with the two: story.
Hmm. Those two were a disaster, but I also wasn’t at all effective in leading them. I’ve come a long way, but even now (March 2013), I’m still working to be a better manager. Some key targets for me at the moment are managing my own priorities, communicating tasks more clearly, managing my workload stress so that I don’t let it out on my employees, being more confident about my vision, and keeping both myself and them directed and productive.
Good goals, at any rate.
I’m still not sure I can formally put into words what I’m learning about management at Bilim-Tilim school — it’s early yet — but I can make some notes on how to be a good manager, given my memories of earlier times when I was a non-manager looking upwards:
Stand up for your employees. My favorite memory of working at a call center, ironically, was when a phone customer started cursing and viscerally threatening one of our workers for not having a cheaper hotel room on offer. Our manager, Dan, stood up, took over the phone line, and confronted the customer. “You are never to talk to my employees that way again,” he said into his headset, chewing the man out at high volume and angrily blacklisting him from all our chain’s properties. I’ve never seen anything like this since, but it gave all of us a great sense of security in working for this manager.
Fire when the firing needs done. When I worked at a drugstore, my coworker Valerie spent every shift in the bathroom talking on the phone to her boyfriend. She avoided the heavy blue totes of tchotchkes, medicine, and candy bars that the rest of us unloaded each Wednesday, and often called in sick. Other employees despised her. Our managers put her under disciplinary action, and yet refused to fire her… and that’s when I lost all respect for them. When an employee isn’t pulling their weight, even after reprimands, it’s time to let them go. Not doing so can pull down a whole organization, as everyone else stops working as hard or as happily.
Stay positive and professional. I definitely vent to my assistant sometimes, but I realizing in looking back that I’ve had less respect for managers who always complained to me. Sympathizing with staff and being real about hard work is great, but frequently unloading personal or higher-up work stresses isn’t wise. (I also try to avoid friending managers or employees on facebook, and when I haven’t been able to avoid it, it’s always been quite awkward). I still remember a particular store manager who made it clear that life was shit sometimes, but that she chose to work hard and stay positive. I can’t say that I liked her, but we all respected her nevertheless.
Be clear on organizational goals and how employees can take part in meeting them. One old university boss of mine used to shoot down employee ideas left and right. “Just keep working on the basics first,” he’d say, but we were doing all the basics, all the time. We wanted to do something more interesting. “It’s not the time,” he said. So we sat there quietly doing projects on the side, but had to downplay the fact that we were taking initiative in addition to our existing workload. Perhaps he had a vision, but he wasn’t inviting us into it. You don’t squelch your employees’ visions, at least not without offering ways for them to participate and be rewarded for following your vision and goals.
Give employees a future. Having managers who speak well of you when introducing you to others is wonderful. Knowing that even if the organization can’t move you up, the manager will help you get another job is also great. People work best when they know their current and future work will be meaningful, challenging, rewarding, and suit their individual skills. My best managers have encouraged this. They’ve either invited me into their vision, supported me in mine, or helped me to move on when there’s no longer anything good to do in a stiff and unyielding institution.
Offer to train people in new skills. It depends on your employees’ current stress load, but once they’ve learned their job and are doing it well, many people get bored. If you want to keep them, I think it’s important to let them go for new roles and new challenges. Good for their future… and if you play it right, for your current organizational goals.
Have high expectations, but expect the same of yourself. If you want them to be punctual, you should be too ( …eep!). My best professors and managers have been kind, but with a rock-firm edge. Crossing lines gets a quick reprimand, but then they’re fully attentive and incisive when you need their help. They play fair, they control their emotions, they remain on-target, they are generous and hardworking, they offer opportunities to learn, and they have high standards for the independent work they ask you to do. This manager is pure gold. I’m not there yet.
But when I find managers like this, I stick with them as long for as I possibly can.
Having spent years in assistant roles, it has been intriguing recently to manage new assistants. Compared with prior posts, helping to manage has me seeing many ways that I could have improved as an assistant in the past.
So if you’re trying to train your new manager, or yourself, here are some things you can do to help make your own job easier as an assistant.
That’s what I’ve learned so far (as of Spring 2013). Do you have any other suggestions for people on the assistant side of the equation?
N.B. As one of my former colleagues/assistants reads this blog, I just want to note that I first composed this almost a year ago, long before she came to work with me. It reflects my prior life experiences and isn’t intended to reflect on her or my present workmates in any way.
I used to have these daydreams where I would be the influential personal assistant to someone really powerful. But then I realized, good assistants to the rich and famous shouldn’t keep a blog. Or journal notes. Or private thoughts. Or anything evidential, really. So that may not be the best line of work for me.
I also realized that being a good assistant is really hard work. Back when I had these daydreams, I was also a terrible student assistant. And by terrible, I mean… blithely unaware. Sure, I would put in the time, and tick off the boxes. I was smart and worked quickly. I did my tasks well. And I regularly asked Professor Sarah* for more work:
“Is there anything I can do today?” I’d ask, peeking into her textile-laden office with my backpack falling off my shoulder. She didn’t ask me to come in at set times, and tended to handle everything herself. So I just showed up. She looked up and kept on typing as we talked.
“No, just keep working on the bibliography,” she’d say.
“I’m almost done,” I’d say, “so just let me know as soon as you have anything else.”
…But she wouldn’t.
I’d pop in the next day. “I’m finished with the bibliography!”
Professor S. nodded, looking a bit harried, and took three more days to assign a new task.
Had I a do-over, I would have just scheduled twenty hours in the office and then played solitaire if she couldn’t get her act together. But because I had the freedom to work off-campus, I faced that typical conundrum of flexible work: the need to be productive in assisting for 20 hours, rather than just logging 20 hours a ‘assistant’ in a certain place. And because Professor Sarah didn’t have tasks at hand, I quietly and legitimately streeettttchheeed the tasks to fill the hours I was obliged to bill, in a manner that any lawyer or consultant would admire.
… And gradually, I started doing less and less work. And she started asking less and less. And then I was frustrated: it’s not actually that fun to busy oneself with almost-work. And she was frustrated: her assistant wasn’t that useful.
Then, working at Atameken University* last year, I had my first full-time experience in managing staff. I got myself assigned as coordinator of our 12 student workers. My boss, Galia*, still ran the show, but I was given token management tasks such as setting the schedule and delegating work downwards to the students in the evenings.
In effect, I was a shift manager. And it wasn’t easy. Shy Kazakh girls and guys would come to my desk, sling their bookbags under the library counter, and ask if there was any work for them. Often, there wasn’t. What task was I going to assign to a hesitant and overworked sophomore in engineering: developing a research article on post-Soviet libraries? Help professors find elusive articles on Victorian literature? Research current changes in copyright law across countries? I could train them, but training would take more time than it would save.
And suddenly, I was very sympathetic to Professor Sarah. Here were twelve students working ten hours a week for me. I had the power to assign work… but I wasn’t making good use of them. (And neither was Galia, who had them dusting new atlases with a massive industrial-style dusting machine, the sound thrumming across the library each evening…).
So in the evenings, I’d look over at the corner. Kwoz was sleeping on the floor, while Arman crumpled over an engineering textbook on the book-processing table. There was nothing for them to do, so I let them sleep and went back to my research.
But this past year (2012-2013), I kicked it up a notch. Working at the Bilim School, I got to work with some wonderful staff, including a volunteer, an assistant, and an intern. Yet because my then-assistant and I both had to learn new roles (assistant, manager), I sometimes found myself getting cross in a very Prof. Sarah-like way:
It seems Gulyana* isn’t working… or I can’t see her working. She argues with me. I ask her to make a display. Her curved mouth forms into an O, and she swishes her hair: “But I don’t know what you want!”
“Just find some pictures of libraries online,” I say. “Paste them on the board with a caption.”
“But…” she wants a step-by-step instructional…
“Why are we doing this?” She asks, after I’d explained it all. “We should do it another way.”
And I think back. I did that too, I realize, with Professor Sarah.
“Why do I have to make all these lists?” I’d emailed her, petulantly. “What are they for?”
“Because you’re my assistant,” she’d snapped back. “That’s what you do.”
So now I understand Prof. Sarah. It takes a skilled manager to plan for an assistant, giving them an even, interesting, and useful workload, especially when there’s not enough time to get things done, let alone plan. It takes focus and relational skills to train employees not just in tasks, but in work attitudes, higher-level thinking, and a collection vision for the department.
Coming Up: read Part 2, How to be a Good Assistant!
Commentary on Steven Gray’s 2012 article, Can the Black Middle Class Survive?
I’ve been holding on to these drafted thoughts for… a loooong while, but do want to get them out there. Steven Gray’s article has stuck with me; I remember the special articles he wrote about Detroit, and have no doubt he did well in reporting on TIME magazine. Yet last year on Salon, he describes a painful layoff, and lays out the particular challenges that middle-class Blacks faced during the recent economic tremors in America:
the average black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, even as their white peers held about $113,000 in assets . . . The African-American unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent, and according to a Pew report released in July, nearly 70 percent of blacks raised in families at the middle of the wealth ladder fall to the bottom two rungs as adults. . .
Gray notes that the mid-century jobs that lifted hardworking black families into the middle class — transport, local and national government work — are the very jobs being cut as we streamline our economy. And given the unconscious way in which we all tend to hang out with people “like us,” I suspect it’s true that many talented black applicants may struggle to form the strong social connections needed to find work.
For people of my generation, it’s striking to compare our challenges with the solid mid-century jobs our grandparents experienced. In a recent book on indie films, anthropologist Sherry Ortner frames this as a particular problem that GenXers face: the realization that more work and more degrees still gain us fewer rewards than our parents earned. Even top degrees and work experience can still result in long-term “precarity” (also known as contract / temp / adjunct / intern work).
But I can also see how minorities who come from “outside” of established networks — and all sorts of older people used to working at a steady pace — face extra challenges in the fired-hired-temped-fulltime-parttime-affluent-sick-impoverished maelstrom of our current economy. The temp economy, combined with human tendencies to prefer people “like us,” may make it just a little bit harder for minorities to be hired and rehired. And over time, these differences accumulate (c.f. Virginia Valian on similar issues for women).
But as Gray suggests, it’s not just subtle bias; it’s also lower communal resources that can serve to put an individual minority at risk. If minority communities lacked access to capital in the past, they may not have what it takes to sail through wobbly, foundering economic times; this could drive talented people with some social or background disadvantage off the labor market more quickly than comparable people with more affluent connections.
I think of my own family; my middle-aged father was hit sharply by the recession, losing substantial income and investments. Once a prosperous business owner, he went through a rough patch, working l0w-wage volunteer jobs and on state assistance for healthcare and food.
But how did he survive this setback financially? He had property to sell or rent out, family to stay with, and social/work contacts that gave him potential opportunities to re-enter the job market. After years of earnest searching, he found a high-tech management job again. And even if age discrimination does one day force him out of the labor market, he’s passed along enough intangible benefits (knowledge, networks, and financial acumen) to his children that we will still have a decent chance in the future.
And knowing this, I sympathize with the Navajo families my parents have worked with, the lower-income white and black students I got to know in college. More at risk in this economy, they don’t quite ‘look the part’ when they go into the workforce; even speaking just of know-how and encouragement, they tend to inherit fewer resources than people from families like mine.
Sinking All Boats?
But I still find the black experience indicative of what it means when an economy turns down. Maybe a “rising tide lifts all boats,” but it also seems that economic storms can sink all boats; it’s just that some rowers were born into waterlogged boats, and sink faster. Those with more ports in the storm, more gear in the pack, more contacts on the radio, last just a bit longer. And sometimes that’s enough.
And Academic Boats, Too…
Of course my mind turns back to the academic world. I left a fully-funded Ph.D. program when I began to doubt that it was likely to result in a meaningful and decently-paid job. But I struggled with the decision — professor has more allure than librarian. So I ran a continuous poll of increasingly bored friends: “What do you think? Tell me the future of our economy! What should I do?”
I asked Dana,* one of the best scholars I know — brilliant writer and researcher, engaging teacher, fluently multilingual, and a new doctorate holder. Everything you’d want in… well, anyone. But s/he couldn’t find a job. By email, s/he advises me wryly:
If you want some unsolicited advice about going back for your PhD, here is mine: become a nurse. That is what I should have done.
Then I turn to Prof. Sarah, a professor safely tenured for over 20 years. She responds:
I know you’ve been anxious about what to do next for some time. Although I tend to be like you and want a linear path from one thing to the next, I advise you to take a risk and follow your passion, whatever that might be. If you’re really happy with what you’re doing, it shouldn’t matter as much that there isn’t a guaranteed path from point A to point B. . . . things do have a way of working out. And, for many, the unplanned Plan B is often a great option. Good luck, and have fun on your trip!
And Prof. Rose, whose also gotten tenure at a top university, chimes in:
I agree completely with Sarah. It’s not possible to know for sure how any plans will turn out. Even the route that seems “safest and surest” right now, may not be in 5 years or 10 years. Do what you love doing and you will be happy. . . Follow your passion!
While appreciating their thoughtfulness, I blew the responses off at first. Passion? Passion is no guarantee of anything in this economy; it’s the easy answer of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the Bright Sided, as people told to be happy when they lose their jobs.
And Sarah and Rose both saw my first approach to fieldwork, which ran something like “try to do fifty things at once – interviews, blogs, articles, online courses, language tutoring, cultural immersion, best-friendships, working out, soul-searching — and then burst into tears wondering why you can’t get it all done!”
The internal problem, then, was that I had fifty passions, and not enough clarity on how exactly to know which partial and changing passion, out of fifty, was The One.
But the external issue was our economic situation: how should talented and educated young people react to the scramble for economic survival, especially when that reduction in middle-class starting incoming and opportunities was exactly what our economic players desired, in order for financial players to be competitive with Thailand and China?
So in my mind, passion wasn’t enough in itself. In a precarious world, can we tell people to just follow what they love? My unemployed PhD and MLS graduate friends might tell you that love isn’t always enough.
Instead, we need something more. A clear eye to the future. Exposure to the practicalities of corporate capitalism. An understanding of how the world works, on the macro and the micro levels.
And then — then — I think there’s room for passion again. The drive to work together, to make life better for those around us. Work to restore a collective passion and priority on the things that make life good: caring for people, opportunities for everyone, well-connected (offline) families and communities, and a healthy, free, and supportive economy that exists for people as much as for wealth and increase.
This, I could say, is a Passion: with clear eyes, let love guide our priorities.
While lounging around last week in the Malaysian heat and air conditioning, I enjoyed watching Disney’s new movie, Frozen. The cold weather! Cold in any language!
Because, as in the lovely Between Shades of Gray, any fictional description of cold resonates with me right now. The frosty eyelashes. The wind-stilled faces. The freezing fingers. (The last book I tried to write for the kids in my library was about a snow dragon). And it’s -25 C (-13 F) outside as I write. From inside. With coffee in hand.
Right now I live in Astana, Kazakhstan, site of former Stalinist prison camps on the south Siberian steppe. That sounds quite grim, but it’s actually a lovely and lively city (see here for pics). And it has me entertained to see the bustle across the American midwest as they prepare for severe cold and snowstorms.
But on facebook, my mom’s friends are right – I have better gear than they do to weather the snow. My strategy, here, is: warm fur-lined boots and woolen socks. A down-lined coat with furry hood. Lined leggings and some type of light cardigan. A scarf to cover my chin and nose. A Yaktrax if it’s slippery outside (one works better than two, in case you need to traverse smooth pavement).
At -32 F the other day, I walked for about 15 minutes before my legs started to prickle with frost. The only downside was mascara dripping from my face when the ice melted as I stepped inside (!), and the evident need for a second full layer of leggings. The really styling ladies, though, do it all in long mink coats with high-heeled boots (news article):
But however you do it, it is possible to go for a walk in extreme cold weather, if you’ve the clothes to bundle up warmly! Below, children and parents enjoy sledding from the riverbanks onto the frozen Ishim river. (In the distance, still specks are the men ice-fishing under plastic coverings…)
Everything is looted, spoiled, despoiled /
Death flickering his black wing, /
Anguish, hunger—then why this /
Lightness overlaying everything?
— Anna Akhmatova, trans. D. M. Thomas.
I went to Karaganda with my colleague Lia and her friend Grace this week. Grace is visiting from England for the week; “I’ve dragged her all over, except Astana,” Lia says to me, laughing as Grace snaps a few pictures of the Bayterek. “It’s not really fair.” This morning we meet outside the train station, crisp and bright, the morning sun slanting across the temirzholi and avtovokzal signs. Taxi, taxi, several standing men say, clutched in small circles around gray and blue vans.
“Myi troyom,” Lia announces to the clustered drivers, blustering up in a headscarf and leather jacket. High-heeled leather boots wrap her calves; she’s lived in Kazakhstan for several years and converses comfortably in Russian.
It’s a two-hour trip to Karaganda, a center for mining as well as the city nearest to the old Soviet gulags in Kazakhstan. To get there, we’re looking for three seats in a hired car, but they only have one or two places left – or five. But a hired car never leaves until it’s full; it’s important to time these things well. “2000 each,” a man offers for a large van, but it comes with at least a 15-minute wait. “Nyet, nyet” Lia shakes her head, “nada s’chas.” We need it now. I begin to speak in Kazakh; the driver knocks the price down to 1500 ($10) each for the two-hour drive.
But Lia’s not inclined to wait. She chases down another driver who asks for 2500 each and promises to leave right away. Young and taut, he wears a woolen cap and leather jacket. We agree. So driving down through Astana at high speed, we cut to the highways at the south edge of town; he thrums along the road to Karaganda. Weaving in and out of traffic, the driver cuts just between a truck and the oncoming truck, a rush of redbrown at our swerving side. Lia dozes peacefully with her jacket over her head: Grace and I sit stiffly and watch the traffic with wide eyes.
“It’s best to look away,” I murmur. Grace nervously faces the windshield from the middle seat, and looks for a seat belt, taking mine. “We’ll make it there in two hours,” I add, “that’s the virtue of a car. But you don’t have to worry about dying on the road… that’s the virtue of a train.” She smiles thinly. In front of us, a trendy girl in a checked scarf takes a video of the roadside on her iPhone, white headphones dangling from her ears.
As we hit the countryside, the autumn landscape flattens into wide plains of large-headed wild grains, except for small patches of “river,” narrow ponds tucked into dips in the land. Signs announce small towns 5km off the road. We dodge cars crossing into our lane on the ‘bad’ stretch of road. The space is immense.
As we approach Temirtau, the driver gets into an anger-match with another guy, necks tensing, hard stares from car to car. He stares down the road as they race around the soft-sided semi-trucks; one has signage in German and the other promises Good Food in English. Our boy pushes past the other car, driving at 140 km per hour until we’re well out of sight.
Temirtau’s name means “iron mountain” in Kazakh, and some 20-40 km before Karaganda we see it on the road, smokestacks rising above the low city. Gorod metallurgikov: a concrete sign announces the City of Metallurgy.
“The children live here,” Lia tells me. The rich children at our school? I’m surprised. “No, no, the parents have a house here, they own the factories,” she corrects me. We trade jelly-chocolate biscuits and Sprite.
As we arrive into Karaganda, a city of half a million people, a sign advertises the airport; a later driver tells us that they have international flights, as well as flights from local airlines like Air Astana (and the infamous SCAT airlines, which crashed outside of Almaty last year).
The afternoon light shines brightly as we are deposited by the unmarked taxis at the train station. Lia asks the price to Dolinka, the former administrative center of the Karaganda gulag.
“5000, one way,” an older man says. “5000, oi, too much,” Lia protests, her voice rising. “It’s far,” he insists. They settle on 8000 ($55) there and back, and he’ll wait for us while we tour the museum.
This driver, Dulat, wears a woolen vest under his jacket, and a small cap. Lia sits beside him. He tells us that he only speak Russian; 90% of people in Karaganda speak Russian. “It’s because of the Soviets,” he says. He had a Kazakh father and a Russian mother, and wants to know our ethnicity. Well, Lia’s English and I’m American.
“But it’s the same in America,” I add. “People with us are mixed too.” I mention Obama.
“Your Obama got elected and he’s not a real American,” Dulat says. (more…)
I recently wrote about a Kazakh wedding for my American readers, but part of my goal was to also cover a Real American wedding. Three months after the Kazakh wedding, I attended a family wedding in America.
American marriages are usually a “love match.” After dating an assortment of partners, Rob and Elise each moved separately to Texas for work. I’ll use their real names… because their weddings pics are already all over the internet. Both are from the same town in Ohio, had common friends, but didn’t meet until she came to his workplace in Austin one day to change her cell phone.
They began dating, and after a few months Rob traveled back to Ohio to visit Elise’s father and ask for her hand in marriage before proposing.
“I know something you don’t know!” Her father said he wanted to tell his daughter, but refrained. Rob proposed to Elise and she accepted; they announced their engagement in the traditional 2000s way: a change of Facebook status and an Instagram photo of the ring.
This was followed by a series of outdoors engagement photos showing the couple looking adorably in love, in casual dress.
One photo was used on the “Save the Date” cards which were sent out to family and friends. These are sent prior to the official invitation to the wedding and food reception. A website was set up. And Rob and Elise spent months planning for the wedding; with the help of Elise’s family, they paid for photographers, flowers, drinks; food; an outdoor ceremony at a local vineyard.
They also go to get the ‘marriage license’ from the courthouse, which you do before the ceremony itself. Usually, at a ceremony a pastor marries two young people, if their families are even vaguely religious. At this wedding, my father is officiating the wedding of his own son. It’s a bit odd, but dad worked as a Christian pastor off and on for years.
What I find bizarre, though, is that years of experience in Christian ministry isn’t enough to allow you to marry someone in a private ceremony in America. Instead, what you need is a piece of paper that the government recognizes. A religious ordination. And the requirements vary by state, but each state ‘controls’ the individual marriages of any human beings in their territory.
So dad goes online to the Universal Life Church, where for $8, anyone in America can get a piece of paper ordaining them as a ‘minister’ (religious title) and letting them marry others in a way that the government recognizes… This certification by the Universal Life Church online brings jokes and snickers from my aunts and uncles: “You better check your certificates, Rob!”
Both families traveled from Ohio. The day before the wedding, those in the wedding party (bride, groom, parents, bridesmaids, groomsmen) run through a rehearsal of the wedding at the site. Afterwards, the extended family gathers for a rehearsal dinner.
We drive long winding roads and halt frequently in the Austin traffic, skirting the edge of town until we come to a small country road. We drive past the Salt Lick restaurant, but Dad tells us by phone to turn back; go to the Salt Lick BBQ and drive to the back of the parking lot.
The family still sleeps in three cabins along the lakes. Back inside, I pull off my coat and wake Nen up. We make coffee and walk to get bagels and cake from Mom’s cabin. My young cousin, Leah*, brushes her luxuriant long hair, full past the length of her slim waist. My teen brother, Nathan*, has slicked his hair to the side. My preteen sister hasn’t bothered to brush hers.
After one o’clock, we quickly begin preparing for the wedding. My brother Chip is long-gone, setting up for the outdoor wedding at a local winery. His girlfriend irons her pleated pink dress. Nen sews up the back of her dress and adds a mustard-colored sweater and heels; I iron my silk skirt. We run to our cars; I ride with my mother’s parents to the wedding, angular redbrick houses sprouting between the trees.
As Grandpa drives, Grandma chatters about the upcoming wedding. “Rob and Elise have a wedding planner,” she says. “Your mom is very impressed. The wedding planner is very organized, ‘don’t worry about this, this is the only job you have to do, and what you have to do.’” I listen, sticky hard-edged Jolly Rancher in my mouth.
We’ve got a Friday wedding, which is a bit unusual. “There was a three year waiting list for Saturday weddings,” Grandma explains.
“It sure isn’t for the trees, there are no trees here,” Grandpa wrinkles his face at the Texas landscape. (more…)