Career Tip: Don’t be an a**hole!

Minimum Asshole Distance
Image by Davezilla was taken via Flickr

This “career tip” probably seems very straightforward as obvious advice — we don’t like assholes and nobody should aspire to be one. However, this advice comes from a significant lesson learned in my own career many years ago; it’s a real story that I think has great instructional value for everyone. Here is what happened…

Very early in my high tech career, I was asked to explore a major problem we were having in our operations and repair center — we were suffering from a very high rate of products which had been returned from customers and which subsequently had been diagnosed as “no fault found” (NFF) in our process. Many of these would then be sent back to customers and often times returned again as faulty. Needless to say, this was expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately not great for customer relations. (SIDEBAR — this was the mid 80’s and lots of companies suffered from high NFF rates for a myriad of reasons to do with customer-site troubleshooting techniques, limited test capabilities at the time, and the often finicky nature of electronics — but that is another story…)

Anyway, I jumped into this project with youthful enthusiasm and a desire to really get to the bottom of the issue — I examined the available data from lots of different angles, interviewed representative individuals involved in supporting the various processes, conducted site visits to examine the return process first hand, and so forth. In short, I did my best engineering analysis on what was going on, and turned it all into a readable management report with an appropriate amount of supporting graphs and charts. Or so I thought…

When I had completed the report, I handed it over to a somewhat more seasoned co-worker whom I trusted to give me some good honest feedback. “Hey, Abe — could you please review this and tell me what you think? I would really value your comments.”

“Sure, Tim. Leave it with me and I’ll take a look at it.” Feeling somewhat pleased with myself and convinced I had written a very solid report, I left it and headed downstairs for a coffee and a short walk around the complex.

I was anxious to read Abe’s comments, so I was full of anticipation as I headed back into our work cubicle — I could see the report sitting on my desk, and as I came closer I could see that there was some red markings on the front of the report. As I leaned over the report it screamed at me in big red letters —

ANY ASSHOLE CAN COMPLAIN. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT???

I was crushed. Devastated. I felt about a foot tall. Talk about bursting my bubble…

But as I slowly reread my report from the perspective that was now branded red-hot in my brain — what concrete actions was I recommending to the managers and process owners? — I had to admit that Abe had got it exactly right. My beloved report was very long on problem statements, facts, and figures, and disappointingly short on any actual, tangible, specific actions that should and could be taken to improve the situation in a meaningful and measurable way.

As I set about re-writing the report to emphasize specific recommendations, I swore to myself that I would take this embarrassing lesson to heart and would never again just complain about something without offering concrete actions to help improve the situation. That personal commitment has, over the years, served me very well and I believe has led me to be a far better business manager than I might otherwise have become. And I think I was very fortunate that I was exposed to this lesson at a very early stage of my career — if I had had a few more years under my belt before this “incident” I may well have been too jaded and opinionated to take the real lesson to heart. So, thank you very much, Abe. Because of you, I try hard every day not to be an asshole…!

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4 thoughts on “Career Tip: Don’t be an a**hole!

  1. I never thought about that before…interesting…. as it turns out, we were situated in a “quad-pack” (4 cubicles together with one entrance and 5 foot walls), so two others might have seen it… given the characters as I got to know them over the months and years, Abe’s comments on my report were very much in keeping with how he communicated to pretty much everyone, so I’m not sure anyone would have been too surprised if they saw the report on my desk… I always just considered my “trial by fire” and a useful kick in the butt… by the way, this was 25 years or so ago, so our level of “political correctness” in office setting was somewhat less than that today….

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