A Short History of the Action Team

Theme, and variations….

First AT

Jack, then the director of our central office, had a large organization to run with a limited personal staff–a secretary, a couple analysts, and a handful of middle managers. In order to improve his flexibility, he created an analyst group, called it the Action Team, and charged the new division to see beyond the day-to-day tasks and help build the department’s future.

While there were personnel changes over time, the staff was remarkably stable for nearly a decade and a half: Rick was usually the manager, and his staff included Penny, Henri, Billy, Don, and Denise. Robby joined late, but was an integral member from his first day on the team; Sadie, too, was a member for a while. This strong-willed, vocal, and exceptionally talented group had all been recruited from within the department, and had a mix of experience in the field and the central office.

Karen and I, both refugees from a major reorganization, joined this team late in its career. My bureau had been abolished, and my job with it. Karen had been reassigned from a secretarial job when her boss (Jack, as it happens) retired. The existing staff had worked with both of us in our earlier roles, and helped us find our feet. Eventually, we figured out that the survival trick was to build ourselves a niche and become indispensable to the organization. Rick, a radically hands-off manager, depended on us to keep ourselves busy when he didn’t have something he needed addressed.

About half the job was fire-fighting, as Rick warned me when I joined the group. Depending on the emergency’s circumstances, we might or might not have useful expertise; we were expected to make good decisions regardless. The job’s other half was projects, sometimes in lead roles, others in support. On its best days, First AT was an exciting place. Even in dull times we were working on interesting stuff. The headstrong staff was always interesting, though not always comfortable to work with.

Due to circumstance and organizational history, First AT had astonishing organizational clout. Generally speaking, our recommendations had the power of mandate. While I, personally, have considerable organizational influence today, I and my current colleagues have far less effective authority. Different times, different managers, different analysts….

The wear and tear eventually got to everyone, and the staff suddenly scattered. Denise had already left to become a senior staffer in another bureau. Management moved Rick to a less stressful position. Penny accepted an IT position. Don retired. Sadie, Robby, and Henri joined another manager’s personal team. Billy was offered a testing lead on the mainframe programming group.

Karen and I inherited Action Team’s responsibilities, and a new manager.

Second AT

Robbyn inherited us. The first months were quite hectic; a pretty typical week, for me, had eight or ten meetings on nearly as many topics, which freed Karen to restructure a program involving institutional customers. Meantime, our still-new management team was taking the opportunity to reconsider their support staff needs. After several months, management let Robbyn recruit a new Action Team staff. She hired a surprising crew; it included a very young branch manager (Alice), a (blond) secretary with an unearned reputation for ditzyness (Becki), a typist clerk with an interesting work history but only a couple years of state employment (Chase), a mild-mannered investigator (Tyler), a loud and opinionated unit supervisor (Cheryl), and a fine clerk who’d been afflicted with an unappreciative supervisor (Mindy). Everyone in the building knew these staffers; except for Mindy, none were thought to be interesting talents. Karen and I, both recently new to the section, were tasked with helping Robbyn teach these folks what analysts do, and how we fit into the overall structure.

There were some changes. Robbyn was quite emphatic that the niche specialties had to go, and that teams would be assigned to work most projects. Management, meantime, had cut back our authority: We were downgraded from division to section, we were explicitly enjoined to work through management on all projects, and we were required to secure approvals for tasks we’d formerly done on our own authority. While these changes partly reflected the reality of an inexperienced analyst staff, it was also clear that the new managers wanted more control of the decision-making process.

Robbyn’s a great boss for a team of self-starters. She has a high tolerance for noise, and isn’t really particular about methods; she balances this by insisting on excellent status reports and acceptable performance. She’s got terrific team-building skills, and a talent for matching skills to projects. She knows when to challenge her staff, and when to back off and let things ride. The result can look chaotic, but Robbyn’s at the center, aware of the issues, and in control. Unmistakably in control. The result was a less brilliant AT than the original, but cohesive and very capable group with an array of complementary talents.

We were just learning what we could do when Janet, who had little tolerance for disorder, was made Robbyn’s boss.

Second AT lasted about two years. Mindy left first, to take the next step in a career which suddenly turned meteoric. Alice found a useful vacancy and transferred; her responsibilities followed her. Robbyn retired, returned to graduate school, and began a second career. Becki was accepted for a special training program and found a place on our mainframe programming team. Chase moved to a job which reproduced the responsibilities I’d had before I joined Action Team, and Karen found refuge on a friend’s staff. Cheryl and Tyler went to work for Mindy, who’d been promoted yet again. Only I remained….

Third AT

Tricia spent a long career on our field staff, and had become the manager assigned to shape up field offices which had gone bad. Eventually the stress got to her, and she sought out a central office position. Tricia’s first job in our building was in Joan’s chain of command, where Trish quickly developed a reputation for being argumentative, abrasive, and willing to make decisions with too little input. When Robbyn left, Tricia applied for her job and became our boss. (That didn’t slow the exodus, as you’ve seen.) While Tricia and I had disagreements, we’d worked well together and I rather liked her. Figuring that someone had to take responsibility for continuity, I stayed with the unit. (Robbyn took note of the dragon in the next office, and told me I was brave. Perhaps insane.)

Tricia’s Action Team was, well, different. She interviewed dozens of people to fill the vacancies; in the end, she hired one true outsider (Barry, who came to us from EDS); two from other agencies (Red and Laura), and two more from within our agency (Tania and Val). We soon added two folks (Michelle and Annie) who were no longer welcome in their previous jobs; both were (and are) bright and articulate folks who were available partly by circumstance and partly because they can be exasperating. The last piece in the mix was Jean, once our very capable secretary, promoted to an analyst position on merit. Throw in a couple student assistants and you’ve got a fairly large staff.

With little to do. Between our inexperienced staff and our difficult management, the managers of the operational sections were more comfortable assigning projects we’d “normally” have worked to their own staff, which they expanded to cover that need. I was certainly busy, with three carry-over projects from Robbyn’s time; we assigned part of one of those to Barry, and Red replaced me on another, where he earned departmental recognition. The others eventually joined other projects, and AT recovered some credibility.

Then we got moved, to another bureau and to another building. A departmental reorganization, a key promotion, and internal politics resulted in bureau-level swap of our staff for a similar staff–we moved to a support role for the field offices. Within weeks, I was arranging to escape. Between the disagreeable managers and the new responsibilities, there wasn’t much reason to stay.

Shortly after I escaped, Jean left to seek a different life. Of all of us, she found the stress filled environment most painful.

Third Action Team lasted less than three years. Janet retired, and Tricia soon followed. Rather than replace the section’s managers, they assigned the staff elsewhere….

AT Successors: goes around, comes around

Barry, Tania, and Laura continue to support the field offices; when AT expired, they were already working closely with another unit and their reassignment was a foregone conclusion. Michelle returned to something like her previous job, as a rearranged management team in that bureau worked in her favor. Red, Annie, Val, and one of the students joined the department’s project management team; while they’re no longer in Action Team, they’re doing AT work.

Me? I’m at Denise’s old desk, in Action Team’s original workspace–which is again filled with analysts who fight fires and manage projects. Alice is here, too, and I have regular contacts with Chase, who’s still doing my old job. Christine, Margie, and Randi round out the crew. They no longer call us AT–indeed, we now report to five different managers–but we share the workload, cover meetings for each other, and are clearly AT’s successor, doing the things Rick expected of Penny, Billy, Denise, Henri, Don, and Robby. And our bosses all report to another guy named Jack….

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