Ready on day one. Really???

Ready on day one.

Quite often in interviews with potential employees, a candidate will tell the interviewers that they are “ready on day one of the job”. They make this very bold claim based on their previous education or experience in a related field.

But my personal experience in a number of fields makes me extra cautious about someone who makes such a bold claim.

In the US Navy for instance, whether you are an officer candidate or a boot, you will have to go through a series of trainings to prepare you for the unique challenges of a very diverse professional organization.

Everything from clothes to culture will need to be learned. Rules and regulations, order and discipline, technical skills and operational readiness, analyzation skills as well as problem solving and the list goes on.

Typically on day one, finding out where the head is leads to a series of problem solving activities. Then finding your way back to your work space. If you are on an aircraft carrier for the first time for instance, it doesn’t matter if you are a Harvard Graduate or not … not knowing where the mess hall or wardroom is will result in you missing meals.

I found this to be true in the civilian world as well.

Every industry and every company I worked for had an onboarding process that helped the new employee transition into their new role. But the idea of getting used to all of the physical barriers to success could not be overcome by any onboarding program. You learn by doing and you make a lot of mistakes along the way.

About 10 months ago, I came out of retirement to become Chief of Staff for one of my county commissioners.

I had been retired (mostly) for about five years so was a bit rusty about being a new employee. But I felt that my nearly fifty years of experience in the navy and business leadership was more than enough to help me to fill the role. Over the last 10 months I have found myself tested every single day to fulfill the needs of this position. I have to tell you that I have also never been happier in my previous careers.

Westmoreland County Pennsylvania a big county

Our county has over 351,000 citizens with around 67 communities of one kind or another. It stretches over a thousand square miles making it larger than at least one state. The County government is made up of three elected commissioners with a large number of departments. Total work force exceeds 1734 people (more when we are fully staffed) with some professional and some union represented groups. This is just a high level view of the teams we have in place to serve the public.

The role of the Commissioners is to be the Chief Executive Officer. In this role, they do not create legislation but they oversee the expenditure and distribution of over $420,000,000.00. This number includes the general fund, retirement funds, social services, and public safety in addition to every other service provided. The list is pretty extensive.

Every day is different.

Every day brings challenges from within the organization and outside that need to have someone with a wealth of knowledge and a breadth of experience to manage. You have to learn nearly every aspect of how a community works from laws and regulations to culture and changing conditions. You start the morning plowing through reports from the various departments and fielding phone calls that are as unpredictable as anything you have ever encountered. Since the budgets ebb and flow with the changes to the economy (inflation) projects often need attention to ensure that the public’s funds are being used correctly.

People problems occur often as they do in any organization. The Commissioners offices often end up being the arbiter which can consume an inordinate amount of time.

It is possible to develop a routine after a while.

But being able to pivot and adapt is absolutely critical. In any of the leadership positions, one of the most important tools is being able to remain focused and calm and not have emotional outbreaks that add to the chaos.

Temperament is one of the hallmarks of a great leader. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who have learned that and practice it every day.

To get really good at the role of the Commissioner and their staffs, it takes about four years of actual experience. By the end of a four year term, the people who are successful have humbly learned their lessons and gained from the experience. Decisions made are not made in haste and they are well developed and planned. In short, the leaders that go through that time of testing will make fewer mistakes.

The right team

This particular set of leaders had one additional crucible for their term. Covid. The rapid onset of the great pandemic effected every single department and every single function of county government. From the prison to the Manor (where are elderly are cared for), from the parks to human services, challenges emerged that were stunning. Even the elections bureau faced unprecedented challenges that came during a contentious election cycle.

The testament to their leadership is that everything kept going. Even in the aftermath, the management of key funds has continued to be steady and sure. The use of the recovery funds has been well planned and will ensure that the county continues to recover along with the rest of the country.

Of course one thing I have learned, among others, is that someone always thinks they could have done a better job.

They use platitudes and word salad press releases to justify a change in leadership. As long as they are the change. I have looked pretty closely at the existing team and the ones pretending to have a better plan. I have been doing that for a living for many years. Do they have the right experience and skills to run such a complex organization? Do they have the temperament? Do they have the slightest clue of what this organization is made up of? Or do they just want to see their names on a plaque outside of their door?

Just like any interview I have ever participated in, I look for all of these things.

But I am especially cautious about anyone who says they are ready on day one.

Especially when they have no real understanding of the job other than the title.

Personal note:

You might think this is self-serving. I get that. But remember this: I left retirement because I believed there was a real need. My beautiful bride would love to have me back at home full time again. To be honest, I’m tired a lot more than I am rested.

But I care about my community and I want it to have the best leadership it can possible have. I will be very happy for my commissioner to have a great new Chief when the time comes that can help him and the current team into the next successful four years.

Chief Mac

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