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7 Things My First Real Boss Taught Me--Lesson 6

Lesson 6: It’s Not Rocket Science…but it’s like that

There’s a lot to be said for a small team that pulls together for a common purpose and set of goals. My most memorable experience in an environment like that (apart from my college intramural flag football team) was during the early years at my first real job. There were less than 30 of us handling everything in a rapidly growing business. Every day was different, filled with new challenges, small victories, and occasional defeats.

Like almost everyone I knew, I started college as an engineering major (call it peer pressure). Turns out, engineering is really hard. I slogged my way through for over two years and finally switched to the business school. I had already completed (and barely passed) several advanced technical classes that did not apply to my degree. Still, I had a lot invested in those classes, so when the time came, I just stuck them somewhere on my resume.

One noteworthy thing I didn’t mention about that 20 minute interview with my first real boss (Lesson 1) is that he actually noticed those random references to FORTRAN and COBOL and 3rd quarter physics on my resume. He encouraged me by saying that my technical background (huge overstatement) would come in handy in this job.

He was right. Working in Sales at a technology company, I definitely had to know the product and understand the customer environments. Because our company was small, sometimes I even found myself improvising tech support calls or trying to convey complex engineering solutions to customers (I learned engineers did NOT like to talk to customers). It wasn’t just technical issues that kept me on my toes. There were days when I might have to call customers to help collect outstanding invoices or pitch in to help box-up and prepare a critical shipment. Occasionally (and this is going to sound hard to believe in this day and age), I had to sacrifice my desktop computer for a couple of days so engineering could use it in the test lab!

Exciting environment for sure, but also chaotic. At times it could be frustrating, especially when it felt like there was no limit to the amount or type of work that needed to be done and problems that needed to be solved. I was in my mid-20s with a business degree. I was starting to feel pretty confident in my job, so I decided to develop a plan for improving our organization.

One morning I eagerly presented my first real boss an organizational chart I painstakingly created with some primitive illustrator software. It showed clear areas of responsibilities…and boundaries. It also included a little more developed management structure (read: layers) with a couple of new direct reports thrown my way. Finally – here was a simple tool to bring some sanity to the chaos and at the same time, (hopefully) elevate me a little in the organization.

My presentation of this new org chart lasted a total of about 15 seconds. Steve glanced at it, handed it back to me and said –

“We don’t need an org chart.”

Mission Control Picture.jpeg

As I write this blog, my hometown (where Marshall Space Flight Center is located) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. My dad worked for NASA during the early days of the space program, and I’ve enjoyed reading all the articles and interviews about that time period. One story I recently ran across is about Gene Kratz, the Flight Director for the Apollo 11 mission. He was basically the CEO of Mission Control in Houston when the first men walked on the moon.

Just before the lander descended to the surface of the moon, it was actually out of contact with Mission Control for about 30 minutes, so all the flight controllers took a little break to prepare for the intense work to come. Kratz is known for delivering a memorable speech as he brought his team back together that concluded with: “However we walk out of this room, whatever happens, we’re walking out as a team. We’re not going to point fingers at anybody.”

What a great message to send your team when you expect them to deal with some unknowns and do whatever it takes to successfully complete the mission.

We certainly weren’t putting a man on the moon at our little company, but those days might be the closest I’ll ever come to working at Mission Control. We were a tight, cohesive team fighting through challenges to achieve “great” things.

A few days after abruptly shutting down my org chart, Steve sat down with me and shared more of his reasoning. He came from a larger company environment where org charts took on a life of their own and had a negative impact. People used them to cast blame, create walls, and build empires. He knew that at the critical stage the company was in, he needed everyone pulling together to do whatever it took. And, we did.

Over the next few years, we did become a more formal organization with additional management layers (Lesson 5 – Gray Hair), but Steve purposefully tried to maintain that small company cohesion. He resisted org charts, was always available and accessible to anyone in the company, and looked for opportunities to share and celebrate small victories throughout the organization.