Teachable Moment #2: “If I have to stand over your shoulder and watch while you work, there’s one too many people on the payroll.” — John Predney

I’m 17 and graduating from high school in about a month. My portfolio is on exhibit at the school and the owner and senior-most manager of a New York studio decide that, for the first time ever, they are going to the “high school around the corner” to look at portfolios. As a result, I get a job offer to come to work for FLD Graphic Studio in the summer of 1979. That seems like an eternity ago looking back. However, I learned a good portion of what I know about production and hard work during my short time there as an employee and then as a freelancer.

One of the most important lessons that I learned, I learned indirectly. That’s because of the long-standing policy there that new employees worked their way up from the bottom regardless of their talent. That meant delivering packages, sweeping the floor, emptying garbage cans, cleaning out the water bowls that everyone had next to their stations and serving as the gopher for the boss’ convenience store requests.

The key to freedom from such drudgery was to become “billable.” Each employee was assigned to a drafting table, which served as our desks. Actually getting to sit at that table and perform work for clients meant that you were “on the board” or billable. And being billable meant that you were generally too valuable to be wasted on delivering packages and cleaning water bowls. Since I was still working a night job, where I was actually a janitor, the idea of expanding on that particular skill during my day job held no interest to me.

The big challenge for me, and anyone entering the workforce for the first time, was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

The world of advertising production has changed dramatically since then. Led largely by the integration of computers into the work cycle. Back then, only the typesetters used computers. Everybody else did their work with their hands and their eyes and a paint bucket-styled contraption that was filled with a toxic mixture of rubber cement and benzine. The benzine was used to thin the cement, which was not only toxic but designed to evaporate quickly.

This backstory matters to the teachable moment because the first work that I received was “cleaning up” the patchwork assembly of photostats and typographers’ proofs that comprised what were commonly referred to as “paste-ups” or “mechanicals.” The best correlative that I can think of today would be a crafting group project that is designed to look like an ad or a brochure. Well, back then, that was how ads, brochures and anything else that was going to be printed, was created — crafting projects, affixed to an illustration board with rubber cement and pressure.

Once all the elements were in place, the rubber cement, which was liberally distributed, had to be “cleaned up” or removed. We used small squares or pieces of dried rubber cement (“rubber cement pick-ups”) to remove the residue.

My boss, John Predney, gave me the initial demonstration on how to remove the cement, pointing out that if I damaged anything on the mechanical, I would have to fix it. I was to bring him back the finished product when I was done.

I’m thinking, “done.” “Perfect job” and return with a smile to show the now clean board to John. Predney (there were two Johns in residence, so naturally neither was ever called by his first name) took all of a millisecond to point out all of the areas that I had overlooked. In fact, my “clean” board was anything but. Six or seven trips later, I asked him if he would mind watching me clean the board to tell me what I was doing wrong. His reply, “If I have to stand over you while you work and tell you what to do, there’s one too many people on the payroll.”

He handed me my board back and patiently reviewed each successive submission for review until I got it right, but, true to his word, he never did the work for me or stood over me to tell me exactly what I needed to do. His complete and total expectation was that I would get the job done and do it well.

Manage your expectations

No one will ever exceed our expectations of them. Hovering above someone or telling them how to do every single aspect of their job communicates a lack of faith, trust and belief that they will get the job done and do it well. This truth applies to our non-work relationships as well as our professional relationships and probably has more to do with the insecurities of the person hovering over the shoulder than the shoulder’s owner’s current and future abilities.

Predney understood that we all have to start from somewhere but where we begin our journey does not indicate how far we will travel. In truth, each individual’s journey is a solo effort that is shaped and influenced through the support, advice and mentorship of those we come into contact with. Age is no indicator of one’s ability to positively impact a relationship – we can learn as much – if not more – from children as we can from adults. I never learned anything from anyone who agreed with me.

For me, the biggest lesson learned all those years ago – and reinforced with time – is that each of us solves problems in his or her own way. We practice our own uniquely-patented problem solving processes until we arrive at a solution. The farther we stray from our process, the less likely we are to succeed.

So, the key takeaways on this one are:

  • Trust but verify. If you can’t trust the person to get it done correctly and without your constant input, there is a problem. You need to take a step back and examine the problem to determine whether the problem is you or them. Odds are pretty good that it’s you.
  • Keep it real. As I type this, I am considering how I will respond to someone that is trying to “delegate up” and assign me a task that they were given to accomplish. Trust does not mean abdicate and it doesn’t mean that you throw ration and caution to the wind. Every once in a while people have to be reminded that you’re not asking them to do something because you think they will do it better than you can. You’re just asking them to get it done. After all, if you were going to end up doing it anyway, why are they around in the first place?
  • Understanding and doing are two separate things. The task is explained. There is a lot of head nodding going on. The task is assigned and then the ideas and suggestions start to flow. Ideas and suggestions that generally mean more work for the delegator vs. the delegatee. Hold it now… Wait-a-minute…

    The “suggestion” is the primary weapon of choice, used by both laggards and control freaks. Assign the requirement. Communicate the due date. Define the reporting structure. Highlight or document risks. Make yourself available to answer questions or negotiate additional resources as they are required. Review and revise the deliverables as needed. Those simple rules apply to both sides of what we’ll call the over-the-shoulder paradigm.

  • Manage expectations. Communicating expectations upfront is the most frequently overlooked portion of the over-the-shoulder paradigm. I’m thinking you’re looking for this. You’re expecting me to deliver that. The third party involved is anticipating something completely different. No one has spelled things out clearly and succinctly. So, after the third review that misses the mark, you think that the best path to getting what you want is to take the “Polly Position” (“Polly” being a pirate’s parrot – she sits on his shoulder). Mommp! Wrong answer. Return to the previous bullet for clarification.

Ultimately, we each have to decide when a situation is a good fit and when it isn’t. If a bad situation can be fixed, we have to determine whether we are prepared to invest the time to do so. If it can’t, it probably has more to do with the mismanaged expectations on the part of the individuals involved than individual competencies.

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