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Spiraling.

11 November 2015

Well, I clearly wrote the last post too soon. Immediately after, I attended a staff meeting where I thoroughly embarrassed myself, and my team, in public. There are five new work streams and I’m in charge of one. We were to give reports of our progress. I prepared nothing. I thought it was going to be an informal chat. I don’t know why I thought that. The discussion had clearly indicated that it was going to be fairly formal. So I watched as the other four teams put up very professional presentations. Then it was my turn and I fumbled over myself for five minutes looking like an amateur, unprepared, unprofessional idiot.

The next day I spoke to my director. I said, “I know I dropped the ball Monday, I’m sorry. That was my fault and no one else’s.”

“Well, self-awareness is the key.” She said.

She tried to offer me a few little outs, to be nice (at least she’s nice). But I didn’t take them. I completely fucked it up. It was pathetic, and frankly it was the kind of thing you get from someone who doesn’t belong where they are. This wasn’t just, “He doesn’t have managerial experience.” This was, “He’s totally incompetent to take on this kind of project leadership.” And I am. Not only have I never had the training, I’ve never wanted it. I don’t have much interest in being a departmental co-leader. I want to have my own department, where these kinds of make-work, do-nothing projects aren’t ever assigned.

I want to lead a computer simulation program. I don’t want to lead a performance improvement department. But if I’m ever going to lead a computer simulation program, I need to prove I can function as a leader in the environment I’m in. And, well, based on the project they’ve given me, I can’t. I lack even the most basic management skills. I don’t know how to lead a meeting that isn’t about my own expertise. I don’t know how to deploy paperwork tools. I don’t know how to delegate things to people, because I don’t know how to estimate the size of tasks.

In one fell swoop, I’ve proven that I can’t do what they promoted me to do. I am in the unfamiliar, and uncomfortable place of not being good at my job. Maybe it’s time to go look for a soft-money position. Where I can hopefully get a grant, do some simulations, hire a couple of students, and quietly ride out my career writing dull papers no one will ever read. That’s what I’m good at.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. babyattachmode permalink
    11 November 2015 08:18

    “And, well, based on the project they’ve given me, I can’t.” Or maybe tell yourself: “they’ve given me that project to learn these skills, and learning comes with falling down and standing back up again”. It takes courage to be vulnerable and I think you totally have the courage.

  2. NewPD permalink
    11 November 2015 09:36

    I’d be surprised if this is the first time that you are “in the unfamiliar, and uncomfortable place of not being good at [your] job”. What about grad school (at least the beginning)? It may not have been the degree of uncomfortableness, but were there moments where you realized you needed to step up your game?

    I’m with babyattachmode. Look three posts back. Becoming a better manager/leader isn’t an innate process and doesn’t happen overnight, just like being fit enough to run a marathon. Just like you said, it takes daily, incremental steps. Plus, it sounds like your boss is still in your corner. I imagine she would be willing to help direct your plan for improvement.

    Good luck with making your decisions in this area. We’re all pulling for you!

  3. Aimee permalink
    11 November 2015 10:07

    Don’t catastrophize. I’m sure it was embarrassing but your boss is right – you know that you screwed up and you know more or less in what way you screwed up, so you can improve. Imagine how much worse it would be if you either had no clue you did poorly or blamed everyone else for not laying it out clearly for you. That would be embarrassing. Management is hard – I’m sure that in school, like me, you hated group projects and would rather do four times the work all by yourself so that you could control all aspects of it. You can’t do that on the scale you are trying to work at. It has to be collaborative to get done at all. You know that. You are totally way more than capable of learning what’s needed, and you’ve learned the skills in AA to do it – ask for help (could you give me some clearer direction on what’s expected?), get right sized, and only take on what is actually in your control. Try not to obsess on what giant on idiot you are. That was last week. Nobody else is still thinking about it – they all know you will learn from it and do better next time.

  4. The New PI permalink
    11 November 2015 10:28

    This is what every Assistant professor goes through at the start of their lab. No management skills, no idea how to lead, complete and utter terror of making an ass of themselves and occasionally making an ass of themselves and surviving…
    You’ll be fine. You have identified all the soft spots. Slowly work on them one by one. Maybe make yourself an IDP (individual development plan). You know how to get out of this, you have gotten out of much worse 😉

  5. 11 November 2015 11:21

    The good news is that project management is a skill that you can learn. No one bothers to teach it to scientists, though- in fact, in many places they actively ridicule that short of thing as “management BS” so that not only do young scientist not learn how to effectively manage projects and people, they’re trained to think these skills aren’t as important as the science/tech skills. It causes all sorts of unnecessary unhappiness.

    Ideally, your director would help you figure out how to level up gracefully, but if she isn’t, you can still do it.

    I’d be happy to help if I can- poke around the archives at my blog, and then feel free to send me an email with questions. You unfortunately just missed a session of my “project management for non-project managers” course, but if you’re interested in getting a copy of the recording of a previous session, we can probably work something out.

    Number one thing, though, is to forgive yourself for the mistake and just focus on not repeating it.

  6. GFD permalink
    14 November 2015 17:50

    We’ve all been there, brother.

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