The Thinker

Unusually Competent People

If I am a bit slow blogging this week it’s because I have been very busy at work. It’s has not been the sort of stuff worth more than annotating: two days in a conference room with executives watching Powerpoint slides and trying not to fall asleep, and three days in a training session on creating effective virtual teams. In the middle of it though everyone paused for a retirement luncheon for our friend and colleague Colleen.

Colleen is retiring after 36 years of government service. She started at age 19. She retires something of a legend in our organization: a woman whose extreme competence, organizational skills, intimate knowledge of her domain and enormous people skills put her in the top .1% of effective people that I have ever known. And I know this even though I have only known her only ten months.

Not only will she be dearly missed but she leaves behind a far flung trail of employees, friends and admirers who were deeply touched by her during their lives. Colleen’s work has been amazing. She was recently awarded the Meritorious Achievement Award by our bureau’s director. But even that award damns her with faint praise. This is a woman with amazing organizational skills. She managed a large geographically distributed team and glued them together to finish tight deadline projects with incredibly tight budgets.

She was omnipresent but not usually actually there. But you knew she was watching you intimately. She was on every email list and most remarkably she actually read everything. She connected all the dots. She got people who needed to talk to each other together who didn’t know they needed to talk to each other. As a result she saved huge sums of taxpayer money. Part of the price she paid is that she seemed always in motion, flitting from one work site to the next. She seemed to spend more time on business travel than at home. She had perfect management skills. Most of the time she was a people person and worked through influence. But when necessary she could come out in attack dog mode, but oddly she could never be mean while attacking. She was just incredibly assertive. I know because she zinged me a few times. But she was always so sincere, so believable, so caring, so dedicated and so single minded it was impossible to dislike her. Most of the time she wore a radiant and natural smile. People who worked for her did not just like and respect her. They were in awe of her. It’s a shame she never decided to run for office. She could have had quite a number of followers. She would be excellent presidential timber.

But she would have none of that. Colleen put her own limits of her domain. Instead of remaking the world she made her portion of it exceptionally good. Perhaps she paid a price. Perhaps her husband felt slighted by all her time away from home. Perhaps her evenings and weekends were more often spent in unpaid overtime than channel surfing. But unquestionably she led people. And they followed. They marched. And new people like me who spent months doing things the old way found that there was no escaping Colleen’s personal gravity. Through smiles, through doggedness, and through her calm voice she pulled you in and made you see things her way. For example the reason I was in the communications training class this week is because she wanted me there. I thought my skills were at least okay but they did not meet her standards. She required excellence from me too, even though we are peers. Pulled by the high esteem and the respect she commanded I meekly agreed to the training. How could I not? She smiled at me so wonderfully. She cared so much. She was so concerned about the organization. To show her the respect due her senior status this was the least I could do. It was my own modest retirement present to her.

And now, except for a couple more conference calls before she officially clocks out, she is gone. If there is one thing she may have done wrong it is that her team seems a bit shell shocked at the very notion of not having her around. But that was part of the reason I sat in the training room this week with so many others. She knew not having her around as the glue that brought everyone together was a deficiency that must be overcome. She would have none of it. She would not retire quietly to let the organization slowly slide into chaos. She would retire when things were lined up so that the organization could keep charging forward without her. She would measure the success of her career by how stable things remained after her retirement.

I often wonder why she wasn’t more ambitious. Granted a GS-14 is pretty high up there in the federal government civil service ranks. I have no doubt she could have been just as effective at an enterprise level. Yet she chose to stop. It appears that status did not mean much to her. Only doing things very, very competently mattered. She fought entropy with every fiber in her body. She will leave our organization a markedly more orderly and efficient place than before her arrival.

Colleen is not the first woman I have known like this. In my last job in a different agency I had the pleasure with working with a lady named Diana who had many of the same characteristics. She took on the biggest, hairiest enterprise project in the agency. She was the project manager for a new enterprise grants management system that replaced a couple dozen stove piped systems. Diana also got everyone to sing and dance together. And she delivered this system on time and nurtured it through many growing pains.

On the macro level these unusually competent people are often unnoticed or unappreciated. But they deeply affect the lives of the people they touch. They serve as wonderful role models for those they work with. With Colleen’s retirement I feel the heat on me a bit. I’m wondering if the expectation is whether I can be the next Colleen. On one level I would like to be so respected and admired. But on another level I also want to have a life apart from work, and I’m pretty sure that part of her life suffered.

But I salute amazing people like Colleen and Diana. Human beings are so much like cats: hard to orchestrate to do anything more complicated than stand together for a picture. But people like these women manage to do it incredibly well. They orchestrate people and turn their organizations into the New York Philharmonic. I strongly suspect if Lorin Maazel knew these women he would be envious. If these women could do to orchestras what they did in the domain of the office the New York Philharmonic would be a third rate orchestra.

I’m really glad I have had these two women in my life to respect and admire. My biggest regret with Colleen is that I did not know her long enough to be fully mentored by her. But even though she is gone I will be channeling her. I probably cannot do what she did but she encourages me to always give my very best.


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