The User Pool - Chapter 2. Delegation
Updated: Mar 14
The day Mulhausen shot the CIO in Weekly Staff was good for more reasons than one. It’s the day traffic was jammed up for miles and made my morning commute almost an hour and a half long.
I used to get most of my work done in the car going to and from the office every day, so on that particular day, it was a very productive morning commute. I knew what had to be done each day and each day on my morning commute I would get on my Motorola cell phone/walkie-talkie and delegate it away. The more time in the car, the more I could delegate and the less I had to do once I arrived at work.
Early in the 90’s we all got pagers. The first models just received a call-back number and you had to locate a landline phone, sometimes fueled by the urgency of the “911” alert that required desperate ingenuity and precision in order to ring back the sender immediately. Soon though, we upgraded to a one-way pager that received email messages — although you had no way to respond back using the pager, but at least you understood better why the sender frantically needed to hear your voice. Then there were the two-way pagers that had a built-in QWERTY Keyboard. I opted out of that one. Remember, this was the beginning of the end of that magical era when you could vanish for hours with a viable reason for being lost with no available mode of communication with family, friends, or co-workers. It was magnificent. And then Technology ruined it all.
I did opt in for the Motorola Nextel walkie-talkie which everyone in IT got, but without cell phone capability enabled. Initially, this was not even an option. The Company felt we would abuse the privilege and spend their money on personal calls. There were no unlimited minutes or thresholds back then; it was a hard $.45 per minute. Later though, as corporate deals improved and studies started showing higher productivity via access to cell phones, the Company approved the usage. This certainly allowed me to get more work done in the car, but it also made me very accessible — to everyone. I told my wife absolutely no personal calls, even if in an emergency. But everyone else, including Blair, had a business reason to call me, even if it wasn’t for a business reason. The only option to ignore them was to use what has now become a gold standard: My phone died. And back then, battery life was short, so it was a much more plausible excuse than today when phone batteries can live for days.
Regardless of the rapidly improving technologies, when I was at work, there really was no time to do my job. Not that I did anything anyway, because I didn’t. But although I didn’t do anything, I always got a lot done. I made sure everything that had to be done, got done, but always by someone else. Preferably, before I even got to work. And if no one else had time to do it, I’d have my secretary get it done.
Technically, we no longer had “secretaries” at my company. All the secretaries were now “assistants.” They still answered the phone, typed letters, managed calendars, and performed other generic secretarial duties — but you could never refer to them as “secretaries.” If you called an assistant a “secretary,” it wouldn’t be long before you got a call from Human Resources. HR would then politely explain that it was now the 90’s and the title “secretary” carried with it too many outdated connotations, and therefore was an unacceptable reference — so please use the title “assistant” when referring to your secretary.
But Teri was more than an assistant. This intelligent, driven, enterprising young woman could do anything she stacked against her determination. She was completely overqualified for the position, but I always led her to believe that she was inept and wholly incapable of meeting my expectations. On the surface, this might seem cruel and demeaning, but the underlying intent, although no more compassionate, was extremely strategic on my part. The objective was to keep her challenged and unaware of her full potential so that she wouldn’t quit her mundane job to go do something more meaningful and rewarding. Good assistants were hard to find.
The day Mulhausen shot the CIO in Weekly Staff, Teri called me right before I got on the elevator to come up to my office.
“Mr. Mulhausen asked where you were,” she said in a nervously awkward pitch.
“What’d you tell him?” I inquired calmly.
“I said you were with Kornfeld in Finance.”
Teri was very good at covering for me. She was smart enough to know I delegated everything and did absolutely nothing myself. However, she knew it was part of her job to perpetuate the idea that I was woefully overworked regardless of that fact. She knew that I did most of my delegating going to and from work and that I had no time during the day to get my job done. She knew all my secrets. She knew everything I did, and with whom and where. She covered for me with Mulhausen, my wife, and anyone else who needed to be misled. She did a great job. And that’s exactly why I made her feel completely inept.
“Finance?” I barked. “Not Finance. He’ll call Kornfeld. He’ll check up on me. Next time, tell him I’m with Plotkin in Accounting.”
Mulhausen would never call Kornfeld. He loathed Finance with copious resentment because Finance regarded him with complete indifference and repudiation. But the next time she covered for me and said I was with Plotkin in Accounting, I’d berate her again because she should have said I was with Kornfeld in Finance. The point is, there was no consistent right or wrong answer because it always depended on the situation. And she would always feel like she couldn’t extrapolate the correct solution based on the current situation — because she was inept. And as long as she felt inept, she would continue working for me.
“Is the presentation ready for my meeting with Fessler?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said, with glee in her response as if she had done something right.
“Is there blue in the presentation?” I asked.
“Yes, blue. Blue letters, blue background. Any blue at all?”
“Uh…” She hated when I asked questions for which she was not prepared — nor could prepare for or even anticipate. She didn’t quite understand the question, but knew there was a right and wrong answer even though there wasn’t. She didn’t know what to go with, so she went with the truth: “Yes, I think there is.”
“Go through it again, take out all the blue.”
I was now getting off the elevator and marching toward my office with vigor. I could see Teri sitting at her desk with that befuddled look on her face. Once I got closer, I pocketed my Motorola and continued talking to her in a seamless transition.
“Fessler hates blue in presentations,” I explained.
Her transition was much more awkward. “Okay,” she said, nodding her head — as if it somehow did actually make more sense now. “I’ll take anything blue out — ” She suddenly realized she was staring right at me as I breezed past toward my office. She looked at the phone she was speaking into as if it were a gnat by her ear. She hung up and continued speaking directly to me. “Maybe only a couple of slides. Another fifteen minutes?”
“It shouldn’t take longer than ten.”
“Right — “
If she had said twenty minutes, I would have said fifteen. If she had said ten, I would have said five. The point is, she could not win. But she thought she could. And that was the key.
I stopped at my office door, unlocked it. “Any other calls?”
Teri hesitated and then cleared her suddenly parched throat. “Blair called twice.”