Monday, November 25, 2013

Don't Forget Where You Came From...

That is probably the best advice I ever received during my working life, both in the military and working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Two different supervisors reminded me that nearly all of us start at the bottom and have to work our way up. Therefore, when we get into a position of importance we need to remember what it's like at the bottom to make us more effective supervisors.  And it applies to any civilian job as well.

When I worked my way up to Lieutenant in the BOP I began putting this philosophy into practice.  When talking to the line staff, everyone from the rookie to the highly experienced Senior Officer Specialist, I always tried to put myself back in their shoes and remember what it felt like to be there.  From the first few weeks that I started my career with the BOP I had aspirations of moving up.  After three different assignments in the Air Force I would never have been content to stay in the same place for 20 years.  It's difficult enough for me to think about doing that now that I'm retired.

From the time I was 19 years old I moved, on the average, about every 2-1/2 years.  Until now.  I'm pretty sure I'm here to stay because we just bought our retirement home.  So my days of moving from place to place are over.  But that's OK.  It's time to settle down and travel only when I want to.

I tell you about my moving because in my career with the BOP I worked seven institutions and at the Management Specialty Training Center in Denver.  For 19 of my 22 years I was in a supervisory capacity and trained and mentored staff on a regular basis.  I like to think I did a decent job and never forgot what it's like to be a new staff member trying to get along and figure out what you're going to do with your career.  I can think of quite a few people throughout my career that I encouraged and helped to seek a promotion. Some of them went on to be very successful, becoming AWs, Wardens and even regional staff.  I'm proud of them all for doing it.

One of the things I did when I was a Captain that was useful to me as well as to line staff was to make rounds through the entire institution and ask one specific question.  I would give the person a few days to think about it and then always get back to them for their answer.  The question?  "If you could change one thing about this institution what would it be?"

Line staff really liked being asked what they thought about things in the big picture. It made them feel more a part of the team. I would get some poor answers from people who were disgruntled with the system at times. But for the most part I got good ideas or, at least, good feedback and insight into what was important to them. The thing to remember when asking that question however, particularly if you just arrived, is never to try to make major changes in your new institution right away - unless that's why you were sent there or unless it's a blatant hazard the way it is.  You'll alienate people quickly if you show up and try making changes your first week.

I worked for a Warden once who, on his very first day in his very first department head meeting opened the meeting like this:  "I know you all liked the previous Warden.  Let me make this clear.  I'm the new Sheriff in town.  If you don't want to work for me I'll trade you."

Most of us were taken aback.  The man didn't even know us and he was scolding us and threatening us on his first day.  Needless to say he was not very successful at that, his last institution.  And for that he blamed everyone but himself.

Just a few tips from a retired old hack.  For some of you it won't matter and for some it will be inevitable - some staff simply won't like you for whatever reason. But it's always better if you don't have staff using that old line from Hawkeye Pierce in the M.A.S.H. TV program "Let's save time and start hating him now," right after your arrival.  It will make your job much easier.

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