Saturday, May 10, 2008

Public Sector Pondering - Part 2

So. The developer is angling for a better deal. Just what I had suspected. Thinking that he’s snagged the project, he’s now trying to renegotiate the terms set out by the MTA when the bids were solicited. Not nice. Wish I were a fly on the wall of the Mayor’s London apartment during his discussions with Mr. Speyer. Bloomberg will hold him to the bones of the accepted offer, but he’ll probably add some subtle sweetening that will make Mr. Speyer not feel that he is returning to Italy empty handed. Such are the moments of artistry in public-private partnerships that elevate the negotiations to Olympic caliber. I predict success for Bloomberg, and I would not at all mind having him in the White House, although that no longer seems possible.

While in the public sector, I was fortunate to work for some very astute negotiators. I spent years sitting in on their meetings, taking notes, observing dynamics, keeping quiet, and, only after the meeting was over and the outsiders ushered out the door, did I pepper my bosses with questions. How did you know how to calculate the gap? How did you know that they couldn’t handle any new debt? Where does that show up in their financials? All I saw was that their sales have been growing wonderfully over the last three years. They’ve added hundreds of new jobs. What makes you think they are ready to tank? What was that whole business about an off balance sheet solution? How did you know they would flinch when you began talking about their working capital? How did you know about their relationship to their parent corporation? Inventory? Receivables? Payables? How did you calculate those cycles just be flipping through their annuals? How do you know what questions to ask? What the hell is “cash flow”?

I am seated in the office of the Governor’s chief economic development czar, and I am sweating dark patches into my gray suit. (None of my male co-workers wore suits. They preferred putty colored khakis and open collared shirts, but I had once read that one’s professional dress ought to be a less expensive copy of what your boss wears. My co-workers were not shy about telling me that I was pretentious. During a Christmas party skit, I was referred to as a fop. It did not bother me.) I am convinced that my longer-than-perhaps-acceptable lunch hours at the gym were about to catch up with me. Maybe my tendency to roam the halls chatting with my co-workers with coffee mug in hand would be called to my attention. I had been given so little to do. Always had a week’s worth of work completed in two hours. Maybe I should have begged for more. I had no business in this agency, and now, I’d be let go. Unlike my co-workers, I had never owned or managed a business. I had no MBA, no MA in economics. He told me to shut the door, and he stepped from behind his enormous mahogany desk and sat down next to me on the sofa.

One half hour later, I was back at my little metal desk at the end of a long row of similar desks with no partitions. I was on the phone booking a flight to DC. It had been decided that our State needed a business specialist who could manage a multi-million dollar revolving loan program capitalized with Federal funds. Someone who could demonstrate the Governor’s commitment to the small businesses of our State, and who would structure the financing needed to leverage the bank loans that would help manufacturers expand. Someone who would be able to identify that rare small business with strong growth potential. The boss reminded me that the statistics about small business survival are grim. Only one out of ten survives into its second year. When I had reminded him that I had a background in theology and that I could barely add or subtract, and that I had never even touched a calculator, he waved aside my concerns and told me that I would be enrolled in a course taught by the National Development Council leading to certification in financial analysis. This series of week-long courses was held in various cities around the country and that I should probably not delay in making arrangements for travel and accommodations. All my expenses would be covered.

In the private sector, this sort of opportunity is not uncommon, but in the world of state employment, a world in which people sit at their desks for decades, serfs to a time clock barely legible through the dust as they grow old filling out the same reports and receiving framed congratulations as milestones are met: ten years, fifteen years, twenty years and finally a cake and the dragging out of old photos before clapping co-workers who were not even born on the day you were hired and issued your blotter, stapler, staple remover and rolodex, what I had been offered was simply an unanticipated surprise.

I was assigned a state car, and for a few years, I rarely went into the office. I made my own schedule, traversing the state, meeting with the owners of businesses hoping for state assistance. In those years, I walked through almost all the factory space in the state. Tired workers wiping dirt from their brows would look up from huge gun-metal machines as the owner, shouting over the roar of production, would try to explain to me how his gizmos were made, my eyes blinking behind safety glasses as I pretended to understand the manufacturing process. I often felt slightly ridiculous, and very much the fraud, and yet, once, a few years into this assignment, at a conference in St. Louis, I was able to report that my loan program had a default rate of less than 2%. The national average is 40%.

I seem to have gotten ahead of myself in the telling of this rather pointless tale. I have skipped my early years in which I learned some key lessons about government, involving an ex Miss Florida, a young man conveniently named Tran Van Tran, a subscription to The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, and a set of colored magic markers. And, there were those later years when I found myself traveling around eastern Canada with a bunch of governors and premiers, swimming in the pool of a hunting lodge with Kitty Dukakis, swallowing oysters and sipping champagne at Newport mansions and speaking about international trade regulations and the effects of air borne pollutants on maple trees, all in the name of state service, but those are stories for other days.

In all things, my friends, I would advise you to select the admirable from among your superiors, to bind yourselves to the work of enthusiastic emulation, to see the window at the center of organizational chaos and upheaval and to jump through it before anyone else does. Learn to deliver only 5% of what you think ought to be said by you to your bosses, co-workers and underlings. Your spoken contribution is never as worthwhile as you think it is. Edit yourself until you feel the pain of it. And remember that only he who is not too proud to pick up the broom will know where the dirt is.


bigislandjeepguy said...

"Learn to deliver only 5% of what you think ought to be said by you to your bosses, co-workers and underlings."

I have started calling this the "count to ten" system. Whatever I want to say now, I count to ten, and then usually I don't want to say it anymore. This is *especially* helpful with my boss lately. He probably wonders why when he asks a question, I get a dumb look on my face and kind of grin. I'm counting.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. Please keep this up! I'm loving it.

Birdie said...

Well, bite my tongue. You gave us Chapter Two! And much wisdom to be mulled over; no surprise there.

If you're talking, you're not listening, and therefore you're not learning. I would add too: Learn the names of the often-ignored building staff. Their assistance is invaluable when you need something done NOW.

(Hey: are you still considering telling us about your first month with C? You know how much we love a sweet love story.)

Tony Adams said...

Patience, WingedofParadise, and regarding your very true statement about the often ignored building personnel, C and I follow a version of that applied to sex clubs and baths and bars: "Always do the staff."

Anonymous said...

I sell enterprise software. The average deal size is $1m+, plus more money for integration. The "deliver only 5% of what you think ought to be said" is advice every business person can take to the bank.

We call your 5% solution, "playing the quiet game". It works. We can all learn by listening and watching body language.

Anonymous said...

RE: "Always do the staff" -- so true, my friend. So true...! People always wondered how I always got a room when they were still stuck with lockers. ;)