Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Models of Leadership

At my summer job I'm still figuring out how to run things effectively. Everything we do is complicated or time-consuming enough that no one person can do it alone. And everyone I work with is so smart that they always hated groupwork in school and dealt with it by doing the whole thing themselves. We have so much staff turnover from year to year that I always have to wonder if it's worth the time to train someone to do something or if it would take less time for me to do it myself. Same thing with decisions that need to be made. I don't want to have to make every decision myself. But I also don't want someone deciding something stupid. And then delegating and the tree of information. I have two primary minions who each have three to six minions of their own who, in turn, supervise things. It's not clear to me what the best way is for everything to work smoothly, for the work to be spread out effectively, and to avoid wasting people's time.

One of the things I find interesting about my new job is watching my boss's style of leadership. I have actually have two bosses because of the way this grant is funded; right now I'm talking about the main PI. My boss has been in charge of things, but I don't think that he's ever run anything like this before. And, like my summer job, everyone around is pretty smart (as most are successful computer scientists) but most of their experience is in technical things, not management.

I think my boss is dealing with similar issues in leadership to the ones that I have at my summer job. For example, sub-minions (like me at work, like some of the undergrads at my summer job) don't know who to ask about things. I know that my boss knows a lot about a lot of things, but I also know that running things keeps him pretty busy and he doesn't have time to answer my questions about things that someone else knows more about. But I'm not really sure who to talk to.

I've learned a lot of useful things as a result of chance encounters in the ladies room, which does not seem like an optimal model of new staff training. Yesterday someone I met in the ladies room told me about an internal course that I should take -- but can't because of my travel schedule. I wonder if these things are advertised in more standard ways. But I don't know who to ask. From where I am, the graph of the staff seems to be very sparse and with a lot of bridges.

I'm still dealing with a lot of little things administrative things; apparently this is quite common, as the person who used to have my job went through similar challenges. No one put in the request for my login credentials to give me access to the page of new staff information, so I am denied access to the page that gave useful information for people getting started -- like how to connect to the printer and a zillion other details. I don't have a phone in my cubicle; I don't know if not having a phone is standard or if I should have a phone. I'm working in computer science, but the only computer that I have an account on caught on fire and is being shipped back to wherever it came from and being replaced by a new one, so I can not do anything on the system since I don't have accounts on any other machines.

I'm making more progress on the University side of things. It helps that my ex-secretary from math is friends with one of the secretaries in the computer science department (and that I know how things work at the University). I finally found a sysadmin at the university and asked to be subscribed to the mailing list where the staff send out messages about HR paperwork and other university announcements; this is important, as when I'm at the university, I never run into anyone in the ladies room.

So I have all of these things that I need to find out, and I know that my boss is the wrong person to ask. And dealing with all this stupid crap is keeping me from getting work done. Because of the work I do at my summer job, I know how hard it is to manage a group, so I'm not faulting him and I'm not mad at him or holding this against him. I know that leading this type of group is a lot different from the type of academic leadership I saw in the math department. In math, the tasks were well-understood. "Here is a textbook and a syllabus. Go teach calculus at these times in these places. And next semester, do it again." When you have a large group with little turnover and everyone doing roughly the same thing at the same time, it's not that hard to get everyone on the same page. It's when you have layers of responsibility and different groups working on different things and a lot of one-off projects that it is very hard to steer.

There are a lot of things about my job that are very open-ended. I will have a lot of leeway and freedom about designing the tasks that I'm working on. I'm expected to figure out what needs doing and how to do it without a lot of guidance. I'm OK with that. But I can't do any of that until I can figure out the basics. I know I'm not the only one who is having trouble figuring things out, as on Tuesday I went to a meeting whose theme was "There are people who are doing stupid things because they are ignorant of our arcane -- yet important -- administrative rules that are hidden amongst a tangle of information on our web page, and we need someone to call them up on the phone and tell them to stop doing these things and let them know what they should be doing instead." Good thing I don't have a phone. (Or an account on a machine that is not on fire.)

But as the summer is gearing up, I'm trying to think about ways for me to keep my entire staff in the loop so that they don't have an equivalent experience. I have the advantage that everyone is starting at once (and that I have immense turnover, so almost everyone is new), so I can hold a big meeting and go over the basics with the whole group. Also my organization has an easier structure. I need to dole out tasks now (including the default task: "If you don't know what to do, then work on ... ") so that they know what's expected of them and can choose to avoid doing things at the last minute.