These inspiring case studies are accurate first person accounts of learning from over 25 years in employment across the private, public and voluntary service sectors. Click on the 'archives' subpage for older case studies.
case study: pick your battles
Not every battle is worth fighting and not every war is winnable. But you don't have to win a war to make a point.
During my time in the hospitality industry I had a fateful encounter with an executive manager. This particular executive had quite a fearsome reputation, which he used to hold his and other functional areas of the organisation within his grip and control. His persona was that of an 'ubermensch' and his authority seemed unchallengeable. No-one, not even the line manager that he reported to semed willing or able to do anything about the manay excesses of his behaviour.
Personally, I did not feel this situation was acceptable. Particularly as the executive was also able to exert influence over my own service area and hinder its effective operation. Unfortunately, despite urging my own department manager to act, he appeared just as impotent as everyone else.
Then one fateful afternoon, whilst I was on shift, the executive requested a partial shut down of my team's operation for a couple of hours. This is something that he did as a matter of course so that the efficiency of his service function would not be compromised by other services located in the same general vicinity.
However, on this occasion as the shift manager, I flatly refused to comply with the request. You could have heard a pin drop. The tension was palpable, my knees were knocking but I was not going to give way. The next thing I knew another senior manager had been summoned to resolve the situation. I then calmly explained to that individual why, I would not be able to comply with the executive's request.
To my utter astonishment the senior manager accepted my explanation and for a very short time allowed my service operation to continue. Later that afternoon the executive himself approached me and in a concilliatory tone explained why other service operations need to be partially shut down during particular times of the day. I then responded in an equally concilliatory tone and the matter was forgotten. Secretley however, I felt great satisfaction because the real point I was trying to make, about respect, had been made loud and clear. From the onwards, that executive accordd me considerable respect indeed.
So what did I learn? I learnt that important points of principle are worth staanding up for - but you have to know when to back down. I learnt that the purpose of conflict should never be for the sake of it. Rather it has to have a purpose, a rationale and an objective. Once that objective has been met then it is time to move on.
case study: prostration and apologies
Some time ago, I assigned a project to one of my colleagues to manage. Although high profile, with significant sums of money at stake, the project itself was relatively routine. Furthermore, with several layers of quality control in place, I did not anticipate any problems.
A short time after the project had been completed, a very senior manager, who was also the project sponsor, asked about the outcome, which I duly reported back to him. The senior manager immediately came back to me and expressed serious doubts about the reliability of the conclusions drawn. Feeling confident that all was in order, I asked my colleague who led on the work to forward me all the project documentation. My intention was to provide assurances to the senior manager that the project's outcome was indeed reliable according the methodology applied.
But then it all started to unravel in slow motion.
As I pored over the paper-work I discovered error after error. The fact that it was technical error rather than professional negligence offered little comfort to me. The thing that made it worse is that the quality control had failed and that should never have happened. As the person in overall charge I was ultimately responsible and I was frustrated with myself.
Following a conversation with my line manager, I concluded that I would speak to the senior manager and take responsibility. My defence would be simple - I would prostrate parallel to the ground, acknowledge the error and set out what I would do differently next time. My manager kindly offered to come along to support me but I declined. I concluded that my embarrassment was complete - I didn't need an audience.
Despite the fact that a meeting was arranged for me to brief the senior manager on what had gone wrong, in the end that meting never took place. On reflection, I don't know whether I was relieved about that or not as I had already crossed a psychological threshold. I wasn't going to allow myself to become sport, I had decided to do what I thought was the honourable thing and take the rap.
In the end the only lasting damage to my reputation, was the personal embarassment and disappointment that I felt for falling below the high standards that I set for myself.
So what did I learn? I learnt that anyone who tells you that taking bullets is instinctive is lying. People who do that for a living usually protect presidents. That said, I did learn the importance of leadership and responsibility. I also learnt that under no circumstances should one ever throw others under the train to save oneself. A leader without integrity is no leader at all.
case study: act at will
My first ever paid job was as a steward in the hospitality industry. Yet. within just two months of my recruitment I was promoted to a supervisory management position. At the time it was one of the fastest promotions anyone had achieved in the department. My star seemed to be on the rise and I was feeling positive. However, it didn't last. Over the months things changed significantly and I began to really dislike my job. The monotony and complete absence of job satisfaction had become more than I could tolerate.
Despite my negative thoughts, I worked hard and was well liked by my colleagues and managers including senior management. I was developing a strong brand, but didn't even realise it. Notwithstanding, a year into the job I had had enough and decided to hand in my notice - even though I had nowhere else to go.
It took just a few days for me to realise what a stupid decision I had made. With no savings to draw upon and no alternative means to support myself, I could not pay my bills and had to move out of my rented flat. It is true what they say: 'act at will and repent at leisure'.
A couple of weeks later, I finally found a part time job. It was hard work for very poor pay. The experience and conditions of my employment were humbling. But it was a job and I wasn't about to repeat my previous error by walking away from this one as well.
After a few months my former boss, from the hospitality industry, made contact with me again and asked me if I would like to return to a better paying management job, away from the stresses of my previous role. I accepted this immediately and within a year was promoted again to assistant manager of the department. That year I won employee of the year for entire business division. A year after that I was offered the department manager's job - but this time I turned it down for a career change and a better paying job in the voluntary sector.
So what did I learn? I learnt that it is important to think before you act. Things turned out exceptionally well for me in the end but I chose a path to learning and progression that was unnecessarily painful. I also learnt the importance and power of resilience. If you make a mistake (no maatter how foolish) don't wallow in self pity, get up and keep moving forward. Believe for something better, focus your effort and do not allow your failure to become your identity.
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