Wait! Before You Say Yes

July 17, 2018

Months ago, when Tavis Smiley was still on television, he interviewed English actor and producer David Oyelowo. Mr. Oyelowo may be best known for his role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the biographical drama Selma. When Tavis asked him what criteria he uses to take on a role, he shared three simple words: Part, Project, and People.

That caught my attention. Could it really be that simple? Had I assessed these components when I agreed to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) or for Lutheran Resources Commission-Washington (LRC-W), both in the 1970s, could I have saved myself the heartache of a joyless job or a controlling boss? It sure sounds like a simple panacea except—and this is a big exception—I didn’t have wisdom to ask the deeper questions or the judgment to look at the whole picture. I only saw the carrot, not the stick it was dangling from.

You Never Know

When I said yes to NSA, I didn’t know I would be sequestered five days a week in a building with the blinds closed. I sure didn’t know the project I was hired for would fail, which meant 25 Russian translators were farmed out to other parts of the agency where we listened to garbled intercepted conversations eight hours a day.

So, when LRC-W chose to hire me as a consultant, helping church groups write proposals, I was thrilled. No more rocking back and forth between Russian syllables to make sure I got the right word. I could use my native tongue—English! However, I learned quickly my boss wouldn’t let me consult with clients over the phone. In the mid-1970s, every long-distance call was itemized. Since I couldn’t explain over the phone my reasons for why it would be beneficial to emphasize certain points and minimize others in a grant proposal, I would write five- to six-page letters. I poured myself into those letters, except—and this is a big exception—my boss said my letters were too long. His were a page or two.

It was when he asked me to be the secretary for the two weeks while the secretary went on vacation that I put my foot down. My title was Program Consultant and my response was, “Hire a temp.” He, of course, didn’t ask the other consultant, who was male, to take her place. My unobliging response, you may have guessed, led to my demise. I was dismissed a month later.

Lessons Had to Be Learned

Now that I am older, I believe those jobs were meant for me. The lessons that came with them were painful, very painful indeed, but those jobs were neither a mistake nor a waste of time. Early on signals flashed—I failed the lie detector test first time around—but I couldn’t heed them. I would have to get up by 5:00 AM to make it by 6:00 AM to the bus stop to start work by 7:15 AM. Comments were made by friends who loved me; they questioned my decision to work for an intelligence agency. These signals should have told me something. Instead my 20+ year-old ego shouted it knew better.

I knew nothing about what I was getting into. I was too timid to ask what kind of work I would be doing. It was Top Secret, hush-hush. No information was available on the work I would be doing (my part), the project or the people. What I did know is that they would pay for part of my graduate school tuition and that sounded like a good deal to me.

In contrast, LRC-W seemed like a breath of fresh air after the confined and clandestine work of NSA. I interviewed with the Executive Director, who informed me of the nature of the work and the responsibilities he would expect if I were hired. He seemed nice enough and the work sounded interesting; I may have even chatted a brief hello with the other two staff members, the secretary and other consultant. But, did I ask them about their work—what they liked about it or why they chose to work there? No, I did not. Did I understand the purpose of the organization and how they helped their clients? Well, sort of, but not completely, even though I was handed a bunch of papers describing LRC-W’s work to take home and read through.

A few days after the interview I was hired. I could now talk about my work when I couldn’t before (at NSA). I could now walk to work instead of commuting up and down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. I could start work at 9:00 AM rather than catch a 6:00 AM bus. It seemed like a win-win, except—and this is a big exception—I hadn’t done my homework. I hadn’t explored sufficiently the nature of the work I would be doing. I didn’t know the people I would be working with. I didn’t truly grasp the impact this organization had on others. I lasted a year.

My Advice

Try not to be taken in by the glitz and glam of a project or the perks offered. Get clear about the part you will play. Will there be opportunity for you to grow? Does the project get you excited or do you feel ho-hum, or worse, unclear? Check out the people you will work with and for. Even though you’ll never know how it is to work with these people until you are there, what’s your gut feel? What do others say about your prospective boss and colleagues?

When you are going for that next job, new consultancy or new client, remember David Oyelowo’s three words: Part, Project and People. And then do your homework.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: