“I was startled and delighted!”

In a wonderful blog post on October 6, the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, writes about the book, The Progress Principle.   The book examines elements that contribute to joy in the workplace, something I’ve learned as we became friends this year that David understands very well.  Because the question centers on the inner life of workers, the answers depend on needs that aren’t always possible to express directly in the office. Ferriero explains that there sometimes is a mismatch between what records such as diaries show employees value in the workplace and what surveys show managers rank as most important. 

One of the things I like so much about the Big Dude is his willingness to reflect on and share some of his experiences as a young librarian, long before he headed a federal agency or a library.  David writes that

“Thinking back over my own career my inner work life has clearly been ‘joyful’ in those situations where I felt good about the work I was doing, had the resources with which to be effective, and the trust of my supervisor to do the work. I still remember going to the best supervisor I ever had with a problem to her expecting her to tell me how to solve it. When she asked me what solution I would suggest, I was startled and delighted! That expectation of autonomy was huge to my attitude about my work.”

For this to work, the supervisor has to be able to read an employee well.  And the employee has to be ready for progress.  To be eager to move on to new levels of participation and engagement as opportunities present themselves. 

My late sister, Eva, worked at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) from 1983 until her death in 2002.  She was good at reading people and gave a lot of thought to how to approach the assignments she gave them and the way she trained, coached and mentored them.  She understood who was inspired by challenges and who had fixed comfort zones out of which they were reluctant to move.  Who thrived on autonomy and who needed some nudging, even hand holding, at times.  I am not at all surprised that several people she supervised and mentored, such as Jay Bosanko, Neil Carmichael and Joe Scanlon, have moved on to hold positions of high trust and responsibility in the Big Dude’s NARA.

I think Eva would have been very interested in Ferriero’s transformation effort, read the internal NARA blogs, and contributed her thoughts and ideas to the process.  To be honest, there are areas where she might have struggled to accept change.  But a boss such as the Big Dude would have sparked her engagement because she would have understood the underlying goodwill.  I miss Eva, greatly, and wonder sometimes what she would think of the fact that Ferriero and I became friends!  Knowing her, she probably would credit his astuteness in dealing with different types of people while cautioning me not to come across as a gadfly in blogging about my complicated issues!    Sisters definitely know how to keep it real.  Eva exhibited many of the same qualities David has, including a great sense of humor, patience, kindness, and understanding that different people display different wiring.

When Ferriero left Duke University to become the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Library, a university newsletter summarized his many accomplishments, including innovative use of technology, fund raising,  improving diversity, and bringing the library into the community.  The university president said of David, “he has done all this with charm, wit and great sensitivity to the multicultural nature of our university.”  It’s not surprising that at his blog as AOTUS, some of the Big Dude’s most engaging posts are the ones where he talks about people issues.

When I attended an event in the Archivist’s Reception Room (105) at NARA this past Wednesday, the way David greeted me was pitch perfect.   We’ve interacted in other settings but never in the formal Reception Room.  When I walked into the room at 5:30, AOTUS was standing in the middle of the room with Jesika Jennings, an official with the Foundation for the National Archives.  As had David, Jesika had sent me a great note of welcome after I donated to and joined the Foundation at the end of September.  When I received my flyer for the October 5 reception and the Gehry panel, I wrote back that it called for “professional attire” and I knew exactly what that meant.  I should paint my finger nails blue!

As the photo at the left shows, this is something I first had done in the 1980s while working at NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project.  Good times!  When we had a Halloween costume contest, I painted my nails blue (my favorite color), sprayed my hair blue, and dressed up as a Star Trek type character with Vulcan eyebrows.  The photo shows me at NARA that day, typing Nixon tape subject outline logs on the Datapoint word processor.   My relaxed smile is directed at the photographer, my NARA boss, Fred Graboske.  I’ve misplaced the original but have on my computer this version which I once labeled to use elsewhere.

So what did David Ferriero do when I walked into the formal, beautifully decorated Archivist’s Reception Room?  He welcomed me, then turned to the official photographer who was standing on the other side of the refreshments table.  Ferriero took hold of one of my hands by the wrist, held it up, and exclaimed to the photographer, “Look at her finger nails!!”  I was “startled and delighted!”  I burst out laughing and said, “Well, of course I went to the trouble of painting them blue–it’s worth doing when I come to NARA.”  He laughed in reply that he liked the blue nails.   I hope to get copies of the event photos that show Ferriero greeting me.  If I do, I’ll put up a new post that shows them.

David had noticed my blue nails when we first met and had told me then that he liked them.   They certainly have been featured at my blog! So the Big Dude knows why I paint them blue and that I like having fun with them.   

One of the photos from my meeting NARA Nixon Presidential Library director Tim Naftali earlier this year shows me exuberantly showing him my blue nails.   When I come to NARA for formal events at which David is present, however, I tone down my exuberance just a little, out of respect for his position.   I’ve laughingly told AOTUS I’ll do my best to act “like a normal person,” LOL.   One reason I pose as I do in photos with David is so my nails will show up in the picture!  It was great for me to get a photo with David and the former director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project on Wednesday, just as I got one this summer with him and the present NARA director of the Nixon Presidential Library.


David understands me awfully well, senses beautifully what lies beneath.  The Big Dude has totally mad skillz!  What he did was draw me out when I visited NARA this week.  He was exuberant on my behalf on Wednesday when he held up my hand in that formal setting and exclaimed about the color of my nails!  I laughed and laughed and am laughing about that still today.  He put me at my ease that way, in a way that’s natural for him, and signalled, without coming out and saying it directly, that I could be myself.  As a result, I was relaxed and friendly with everyone I met and took the time to chat with during the hourlong reception.  Most of all, he let me have fun at his “house,” as he sometimes refers to NARA in greeting visitors.

The gesture cost David nothing, he was just being himself (see his email to me July 15.)   It’s the sort of thing I refer to as an intangible benefit, unrelated to monetary costs incurred.  And that’s important in a time of tight budgets!  I’ve mentioned previously how Jim Hastings and Fred Graboske both were able to keep up our morale at NARA’s Nixon Project during the 1980s, despite money being very tight in the years after the Reagan Reduction in Force that decimated our staff.

Good bosses succeed because they know how to intuit peoples’ unspoken, unarticulated needs.  Just as Ferriero’s boss understood that he had untapped abilities that would enable him to progress in how he contributed to the library enterprise, he himself has an exquisitely developed sense of what others are all about.  Not everyone does. 

There are people with whom I’ve worked as colleagues or as a subordinate for 20 years who don’t understand me and never would think to greet me as David did, although some others possibly might come close but never match him.     Ferriero  totally gets my playful, fun-loving, irreverent side, in ways I yearned for people to understand when I posted on #thatdarnlist but rarely found.  Those who advised me to blog instead of posting there actually helped me, because this format enables me to be as quirky as I really am!  No one is going to yell at me for my word choices or, as @NewMSI observed astutely when I unsubscribed, misunderstand and attack me. 

Good bosses whom I’ve observed in action sense untapped abilities, skills and needs in people and as David’s boss did, care enough to draw them out and to develop them.  Having the right person in a position matters, a lot.  My friend Dejah perfectly captures the extent to which people can be clueless about others in her Friday photo comic about a dog owner out walking a dog.    The final panel says it all!  As the dog owner yanks impatiently on the leash and yells, “Now!” the dog thinks, “No respect.”  The same thing happens with people some times.  They fail to read what the other is doing and look at issues too much from their own perspective.  Dejah, who owns two dogs, observes astutely, “When all else fails, write what you know.”

Some of this depends on what you have inside yourself.  My sense from working with bosses with great skills and bosses who fell short is that good managers display qualities that are inherent in them and have been fine tuned through training.  If David Ferriero represents a high point in an executive who intuits and reads individuals exquisitely and handles people issues well, I’ve definitely also seen the low point in others during my time in Fedland. 

In an era when so many institutions are having to do more with less, it’s all the more important that supervisors read others well (whether you call it emotional intelligence or something else) and spark engagement among employees who are eager to contribute.  Getting the balance right is challenging. 

You want younger employees to feel free to speak up because they often have a lot of good ideas and a fresh perspective.  But you may have to guide them a little at times, because you’ve experienced and learned things they have yet to encounter.  Above all, it’s important to treat them as partners, with the respect they are due, not to shut them down by saying Mommy or Daddy knows Best.  That’s why I love David Ferriero’s mantra, “yes until no.”  Awakening engagement among veteran employees can be challenging.  That especially is the case if they’ve been beaten down by bureaucratic processes or let down by managers with poor people skills.  And the hiring process can be tricky, too. 

To what extent do resumes reflect all that a prospective employee might bring to a job?  Only a little!  One reason I enjoy social media is because you get glimpses of people at their most visceral.  You can really learn how someone rolls!  Listservs are the same way, they can really teach you a lot, good and bad, about the communities that form around certain professions. 

Not everyone is compatible!  I like some of what I see with some people in Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, while others occasionally do things that make me go “yikes.”   But Twitter and Facebook and blogs really do give useful insights into what someone’s wiring is like.  Which is why I’m really glad that AOTUS’ blog is catching up with the real David Ferriero!  

As prospective employers increasingly check out peoples’ web lives, I sometimes wonder what skills they themselves are bringing to the process.  Not everyone has David’s psychological training and great combination of intuitive skills and learned behavior!  Just as the Big Dude pointed in his blog post to mismatches between the inner lives of employees and what managers value, are potential gems overlooked some times, because resumes can’t tell the whole story of a person? 

Social media and listservs provide some clues but you’d be surprised at how different some people come across in private, off-web communications, as opposed to in public settings on the Interwebs.  With others, it’s very much a case of what you see in public is what you get in private, too.   So there’s a lot in the mix.  You have to be comfortable with what you know and to embrace the idea that there are things you might not know.   And above all, to be open to learning yourself, just as you coach and mentor others. 

Ferriero has been a good influence in many peoples’ lives, including mine.  And of course, as you can tell, David has had some really good influences in his own life, as well.  Pay it forward.   Some of this is luck, some a case of being in the right position at the right time.  Some of my tough experiences have helped me develop greater sensibilities towards those who have been unlucky as well as those who have been lucky.   I’ve had my ups and downs in life and in the workplace.  I’ll always most value those who reached out during the down cycles and didn’t hang out exclusively with the rising stars or go along to get along.  Which is what totally makes the Big Dude such a cool dude–he really is a great model for leading and managing people!

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