Now that I’ve started my own Leadership and Business Coaching practice I’ve found myself reflecting back on my career and thinking about what career lessons others might learn from my experiences. So I thought I’d share some insights from my first ever job in local government in Ireland. Though it was a thrilling and exciting whirlwind of a role it was fraught with hard cultural challenges that definitely taught me a lot about personal resilience. Its almost 23 years ago now and the work culture has hopefully changed but there may be some elements that you might recognise.
Having worked for a number of years as a journalist (visual arts critic, columnist, feature writer) it was clear back then that the industry was changing rapidly and I doubted that it would yield the kind of income that I needed to support my family. So when a job came up in a local government quango as a Housing and Life Long Learning Officer I thought I’d apply. I reckoned my core BA in History and Sociology would stand to me along with my research skills. And a policy role appealed. When I got the job my boss who was the Director of the quango sat me down to fill me in on the organisational structure. He told me that I’d be reporting directly to him. Which struck me as odd given I was a Grade 7 analogous (that analogous bit becomes important later) and there was a more senior Grade 8 between me and him. “What about the Grade 8” I asked “shouldn’t I be reporting to him”? The. Director replied wafting his hands in the air “Oh don’t worry about him just report directly to me”.
Now if you know nothing about local government in Ireland let me explain something. Hierarchy is EVERYTHING. So my first thought was “I don’t care what the Director says I'm going to make sure that the Grade 8 and I are best friends”. And we became so and that Grade 8 turned out to be the most invaluable link across the whole organisation. He’d been there for years, was extremely well liked and smoothed the way for me on heaps of occasions. So what was my motivation at the time? I’d been reading the 48 Laws of Power (I know, I know) and one particular quote struck me quite powerfully:
I could have been flattered that I was leap frogging grades to the ear of the ultimate boss but what would that do to the morale of a more senior colleague who had earned his badges doing all the hard yards that I had missed? Seeking his counsel, asking for access to his network reaping the rewards of his endless spring of valuable work titbits would have been impossible had bad feeling existed to begin with. What became crystal clear over time was that the Director who had come from outside had no deep mesh connectivity in the organisation. So having the biggest title does not automatically confer organisational power. It was the Grade 8 who ultimately led me to my next job working for the local authority proper when they needed to appoint a communications officer a post that had never existed before in the authority. Through his contacts I got to know one of the County Councillors rather well who knew that I’d formerly worked as a journalist. She mentioned me to the County Manager (Chief Executive Officer) and he invited me for a coffee to discuss the role.
And here is where hierarchy really hit home. If you are going to be responsible for the communications of an organisation you really need to know where the bodies are buried. At a Grade 7 (analagous) I was two ranks away from Director level. But only Directors sat on the management board. So I told the County Manager that the only way I would accept the job was if I reported directly to him AND he gave me a seat as an observer on the management board. Otherwise more senior people would gaslight me, or tell me half truths (nobody wants to expose their failures) or not give me the time I needed to get to the bottom of press queries. I told him I wouldn't contribute or say anything in the meetings I just needed to know what was going on. So that's what he agreed to. And the result? Like throwing a hand grenade at myself! Did I know that was going to happen? Of course I've just written about that in the paragraphs above! So why do it?
To say all of the Grade 8’s were outraged was an understatement. What was the blonde woman interloper doing at management board? How did she get to report directly to the boss? This example totally contradicts what I said about about keeping people onside in an organisation - but in this instance I had to do what was required to enable me do the job at the necessary level. So context is important. Work began to feel like a war zone when I wasn't busy dealing with all the communications functions of a large local authority - I didn't have a team just me. There was a constant low level campaign against me and here is the bind. Reporting to the CEO of the organisation meant I couldn't go to him all the time to involve himself in petty little vendettas I had to keep that to a very minimum or at least only when strictly necessary. Now for the Grade 7 analogous bit.
So if you were a Grade 7 (i.e. had moved up the ranks during a long career in local government) you could park your car in the nearest car park to County Hall. And you had a yellow sticker on you car to prove it. If you were Grade 7 analogous you could only park there on non Council meeting days and you got a red sticker. This made it clear you were breaking the rules if you didn’t clear out for Council meetings. So the lovely County Hall custodian would pull me aside and remind me that I needed to move my car (on instructions from the disgruntled Grade 8’s) even though I was running around like a mad thing preparing for those exact meetings.
The final straw came when the council was due to announce the location of a new landfill site for the county. Naturally this was one of the biggest press stories I needed to manage for the authority. With several national newspapers, three TV crews and as many radio journalist in County Hall for the announcement I was told again that I needed to move my car. That was the point that I went to the County Manager and said “I realise you are very busy running the county but I need a yellow sticker”! One mysteriously materialised an hour later. I could have gone to him about a gazillion other things that were happening (like them giving me a desk in the post room) but you need to pick your battles 😊
My last point is about inclusivity as a means of combatting these kinds of negative power plays. Very often junior members of the authority would approach me in the corridor, or in the street outside the office with a tentative “I think this is something you should know Emer”. It might have been a bit of relevant but idle gossip, or something they believed might morph into a negative press story”. Even when I’d heard it several times before I never said “oh yeah I know that” I always replied “that’s so good of you to share and it's really helpful”. If you need to demonstrate to all and sundry that you know everything you cut off the oxygen you need to survive especially in challenging work environments. Everyone at the lower ranks of the organisation knew the battles raging around my appointment and their tacit support was a huge boost for me.
So the lessons: