One of the workshop sessions I particularly enjoy teaching is a class for new supervisors/directors. Usually attendees are eager and even anxious to learn the "tips of the trade." There are always some veteran attendees who are there to be reminded of why they do what they do. Then there is the occasional wily veteran who is really there to "catch" the presenter in a contradiction or error.
Early in a recent session we talked about choosing your battles. That is, an effective manager can't do everything at once, or certainly can't do it effectively. In fact, if the manager has his/her proverbial finger in every pie it can really hurt the operation. It negatively impacts morale, staff development, and overall performance.
Later in the session we discussed how important it is to be consistent when dealing with employees. That's when the cunning veteran posed one of those four minute questions. When I boiled it down, the issue he raised amounted to how can you both choose your battles and be consistent. They seem contradictory. (My initial reaction, of course, was to kick the questioner out of the class. After all, the class is for "new" supervisors / managers. Then onto the next topic: The Importance of Being Open to Questions.)
Seriously, this was a very good question. It forced me to reconcile two common business aphorisms: "Choose Your Battles" and "Be Fair, Firm, and Consistent."
I thought of the many circumstances in my career where I chose to take action rather than to avoid or ignore the issue. These decisions tested my ability to be consistent. There was the time when I had to dismiss a driver who had been wonderful in every aspect of the job but driving. There were several times when I directed that we follow the contract or law even when it made little sense to do so. There were also numerous times when it would have been much easier to pretend I didn't see what I saw. Some of those times I didn't take immediate action – like when one of the office staff took all of the highlighters. Other times, like when I saw an employee harassing another, I took firm, timely steps to stop the behavior and discipline the perpetrator.
What led me to pursue some solutions while ignoring or delaying a decision on others? For me, I think it boils down to a few factors. If I answer yes to any of these questions then I must act:
- Will not acting violate my core values? For example, does a child's or employee's safety or well-being depend on me doing something? Everyone's "core values" are different, but I wear mine on my sleeve.
- Will not acting compromise our ability to achieve our mission? In our case must we act to ensure the safe, effective, and efficient transportation of students in support of learning?
- Could not acting lead to significant negative consequences? For example, breaking a law might lead to a fine, very bad publicity, or worse.
It's not easy being a manager, especially in a service business. It takes a lot of perseverance to be consistent. It takes a lot of focus to recognize the important decision points. However, the good news is that it gets easier. Once you've made the difficult calls, you only have to look toward the last time you were faced with a similar choice and then do the same thing. If you're transparent and consistent, over time, your co-workers will learn where you stand on issues. More significantly, they'll learn where you'll take a stand.
Pete Meslin is the director of transportation at Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County, Calif., and a national speaker on student transportation issues. He is a past chair of the STN EXPO and frequently contributes to the magazine. He blogs with Peggy A. Burns, an STN contributor, attorney and owner of Education Compliance Group.