Keeping the Rust (and Dust) Off
The metaphors “shaking off the dust” and “shaking off the rust” are common phrases that are sometimes used interchangeably. The expressions typically suggest that a person, group, or idea be brought back into use after a period of desuetude or neglect, purposeful or otherwise. However, it would be a mistake to assume they mean the same thing. Perhaps because, over time, language can morph, slight deviations can become accepted as one of the same. Considering what is literally involved in shaking off dust—minute particles of matter composed of plant pollen, paper fibers, minerals, and human and animal skin cells, among other materials found in the surroundings—compared to rust—an iron oxide that is chemically bonded to a surface caused by a redox reaction of iron and oxygen mixing with water or moisture—there are varying methods and levels of effort to remove it. In fact, depending on the extent of rust, it can be remarkably difficult to return the object to its original cast, but certainly shaking it would not be a successful strategy.
Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, who epitomized the active and forward-thinking leader, stated, “We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.” Refusing to “rust out,” he took on the mantle of “trust buster” and made conservation a top priority for the nation. Roosevelt became one of the most prolific and beloved presidents. Although he was born into a family of means, Roosevelt was a sick and frail child, who was told that in spite of his brilliant mind, he would not go far in life due to his ailing body. A conversation with his father, a preeminent philanthropist and business leader in New York City, who Roosevelt admired immensely, changed his perspective. Young Teddy vowed to “make his body” and commenced a strenuous exercise regimen, which he not only found therapeutic, but also energized him. Suffice to say, his grueling pace of work found him assuming the presidency as the youngest person in history, elected to a full term in the subsequent election. He facilitated the construction of the Panama Canal, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, and once, while campaigning for president in 1912 under the Progressive “Bull Moose” party, completed a speech even as blood from a failed assassination seeped through his shirt. He would commence that speech by showing the bullet hole that pierced the folded manuscript in his breast pocket and stating, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” When he was not occupied with being the nation’s leader and world’s peacekeeper, he was an accomplished writer and editor. Infections and chronic medical conditions ultimately took their toll on Roosevelt and he died at the age of 60, but in light of how he lived, few could argue that they were not a full 60.
As president, Roosevelt repeatedly cautioned others that “they were becoming too office-bound, too complacent, too comfortable with physical ease and moral laxity, and were failing in their duties.” I imagine that Roosevelt saw the dust accumulating and the oxidation begin to pit and show shades of brown, red, and orange on those around him, perhaps even before they noticed it on themselves. What can the court manager draw from Roosevelt’s own work ethic and his expectations of others appointed to the privileged capacity of a leader? In keeping pace with the requirements of the work, how does a court manager stay relevant in her profession and remain important to the organization? What can be done to avoid “rusting out,” and how can she assure herself that, like Roosevelt, the grass is not growing beneath her feet?
I was meeting Toni for lunch at Mainpointe—a cult favorite pizza shop that served what the immigrant owner marketed as “a little slice of Calabria.” The pizzeria was as Toni had described it—a “hole in the wall”—aside from a prominent mural on the side of the building’s brick veneer, featuring its name around the top curvature of a slice of pizza with its maxim brushed into the golden swirls of the melted mozzarella and vibrant red tomato sauce. A landmark since the owner emigrated from the Calabria region in southern Italy in 1960, the wall painting tantalizes mass transit riders on the train coming from points west morning, afternoon, and night.
Toni was planning to survey a relatively small multifamily home in this section of the city as a potential investment when I agreed to pick up a couple of cups of almond bubble tea and meet her for lunch. I found her next in line in front of the elongated “pick-up” window, which was adjacent to the “order” window of the same size. We were fortunate, having gotten there shortly before noon just as the line of veritable arc city inhabitants was growing longer by the minute. Two large, wood-fired ovens lined the rear wall visible to patrons, who could only order from the window between 11:00 and 5:00. The shop would close for an hour and reopen for dinner at 6:00, at which time the main entrance to the very small dining area would be open until the late evening or whenever they ran out of food (whichever came first).
“I ordered us three margherita slices—two for you, one for me.” Toni mentioned as I walked up holding the tea.
“I was hoping to go and see the property beforehand, but I was running late so I came straight here. If you don’t mind, let’s eat and then walk over together. It’s only a few blocks from here.”
“Not a problem. It’ll be good for me to see how you assess a property before deciding whether or not to purchase it,” I said.
“Well, the first rule is any property in a one-mile radius of Mainpointe is generally worth the time to go and see, which is also the second and third rule.”
“Ha—of course, location, location, location.”
“You got it,” Toni said. “This section of town is generally good—the asking price is a bit steep, but I’m curious so we’ll see.”
“Margherita!” exclaimed the counterperson.
“That’s us,” Toni replied and asked him “Posso avere del formaggio rosso?”
The gentleman thought for a second, “Formaggio rosso?” He chuckled for a second before reaching underneath the counter and handed her a glass shaker of crushed red pepper.
“Grazie.” Toni thanked him while she sprinkled the slices with a few flakes.
We walked over and sat at one of the small round aluminum tables in the adjacent gravel lot that lined the mural wall. “What did he find so funny about crushed red pepper?” I asked.
“I actually asked him for the red cheese,” she explained. “It’s kind of joke among southern Italians, which he did get. I think what threw him off was that I spoke to him in his native tongue.”
We ate the slices in less than half the time Toni waited in line. I handed her an almond bubble tea and we began walking in the direction of the property for sale. “Nothing beats Mainpointe pizza followed by some good bubble tea,” Toni joked.
The oolong tea mixed with almond-milk creamer and extract and tapioca pearls (aka the boba or “bubbles”) was one of our favorites. Toni took a long sip of the tea before looking around to gain her sense of direction on whether we should make a left or right onto Basille Street. “Yes, a left here,” she said to herself out loud. “So apart from indulging me on this latest investment venture, what do you have going on this week? What’s the latest down at the courthouse?” she inquired.
“Nothing more than the typical, but I did have a rather frustrating meeting to start the morning.”
“With the judge?”
“No, with one of my managers, although a presiding judge was present.”
“We had a meeting about the new courthouse that is being designed, and we have lots to review before the space allocations can be finalized.”
“Sounds exciting,” Toni remarked.
“It is. Certainly one of the largest projects I’ve overseen.”
“I can imagine.”
“So we’re discussing various options—the pluses and minuses—that we need to reach consensus on so that we can make some final decisions with the county’s architectural team next week. Anyway, there’s only four of us meeting—the presiding judge, a family court judge, myself, and the operations manager—who is my lead administrator on the project.”
“Everyone at some point or another over the course of the hour is weighing in on the different choices that we are considering, with the exception of my ops manager. Complete silence—not a word for the whole meeting, despite the fact that he’s been attending all of the county meetings on our behalf. I could tell by the judge’s body language as she kept looking over to him that she was anticipating some feedback from him. With about 10 minutes left, the PJ finally asked ‘What are your thoughts, Zack?’ And he responds ‘I don’t have an opinion. Too many chefs in the kitchen will ruin this recipe.’”
“Really?” Toni asked incredulously.
“Yes—talk about an embarrassing moment. I could tell that the judge was really vexed over the curt and, frankly, useless answer.”
“How did she respond? Did she?”
“She didn’t respond. She appeared surprised at first, but then seemed irritated. I quickly interjected to restart the conversation, but it was very awkward as we finished off the last few minutes of the meeting.”
“Is this an isolated incident? Perhaps he’s having personal problems that are distracting him from the work.”
“My predecessor hired him, but in the year that I’ve worked with him, I’d say that this is typical. He takes little to no initiative and offers very little value when he’s assigned to a project and you’re looking for guidance or advisement.”
“He’s an abandoned man.”
“Abandoned man?” I questioned.
“Yes, but not in the sense that any one person or group of people abandoned him, but that he’s abandoning himself.”
“In that context, I’d agree with you. The problem, Toni, is that folks who bring that sort of disposition into the workplace, particularly as a supposed leader of the organization, adversely affect more than just themselves.”
“You are correct,” Toni concurred flatly.
“So what are your thoughts? How should I address it before it gets any worse for him and more importantly, the court?”
“I’m sorry, did you want a more thoughtful response from me?” Toni said while chuckling.
“It’s quite easy actually. I would have a candid discussion with him and let him know about your disappointment in his level of participation at the latest meeting, and your expectations moving forward. But I would end by telling him that he must ask himself one question if he wants to continue to work for the court.”
“He must ask himself, ‘Why does the court need me?’ All of us in our respective positions should ask ourselves that question on a regular and consistent basis.”
“That’s interesting,” I replied, considering the implications.
“When he, you, me, or anyone for that matter asks themselves that question, if you have a good, solid answer—great. If you don’t, then you’re in the wrong job or you’ve grown too complacent in the right job. In either case, it’s time to make a change—and quick—because if the judge starts asking why she needs you and the answer comes up short, it might already be too late.”
The silence can be deafening if a manager cannot respond to Toni’s perennial question. What can a manager do to increase her value to the organization? Always be in a state of learning (or in a learning mentality). This means a manager must be self-aware and realize that none of us, however well trained or previously successful in the organization, is “rust-proof.” Given sufficient time and exposure to the elements, all of us at some point (as President Roosevelt noted) disintegrate, but we must make a decision on how we choose to go off into that eternal sunset. Perpetual learning also requires an acknowledgment of rust and the peril in which it can pose if left unchecked. While most people would agree that the presence of rust is unappealing because of the unwanted look and rough texture, the consequences are far more detrimental. Rust corrodes metal, weakening it over time by breaking down the alloys and deteriorating its layers. Eventually, structures that are designed to support a lot of weight could be in jeopardy of collapsing, making it an urgent issue to address and sooner rather than later.
According to Michael D. Watkin’s Harvard Business Review article “5 Questions to Ask When Starting a New Job,” the single most critical question for a new hire is “How will I create value?” Accordingly, managers must always consider why they were hired for their particular role, stakeholder expectations, performance assessment, and time frames. Just as importantly when contemplating and planning action in response to these questions, managers must bear in mind that what constitutes “success” will evolve over time as the organization changes and adapts to the demands, challenges, and trends of the profession. Along a similar vein and building on the mindful engagement experiential learning cycle, authors Lauren A. Keating, Peter A. Heslin, and Susan J. Ashford in their own Harvard Business Review article, “Good Leaders Are Good Learners,” noted that growth leaders meticulously go through a three-phase experiential learning cycle. First, leaders establish learning goals in the form of “I need to learn how to … ” For instance, if a leader would like to become more influential, she should make a conscientious effort to identify opportunities through training, new assignments, etc., to further develop an area that she believes herself to be lacking. Second, a growth leader will always consider and test alternative strategies by experimenting with different approaches, assessing the results, and seeking out constructive feedback. Finally, the leader with a growth mindset needs to be contemplative and reflective on the outcomes and insight she was given by her mentor and colleagues and then institute a method based on those learning experiences. The authors highlighted the key question, “Am I in learning mode right now?”—the response of which is critically important to whether the manager is developing and performing in her capacity as a leader.
Albert Einstein stated that one should “strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” Individuals who are valuable to an institution will find that they are also successful in their role. Success, therefore, is a byproduct of creating value. Being of value necessarily requires an education—perpetual as it happens to be—because of the ever-changing challenges and composition of the profession. Einstein, who also understood the value of education, defined it as “not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” He drew clear distinctions between education as a repository of facts and figures and instructing the mind to process those evolving facts and figures. The manager who incorporates the learning mentality takes initiative, seeks out answers before problems become pervasive, and is generally forward thinking—all of which creates value by benefiting the court and public.
“Inspiration exists,” as Pablo Picasso remarked “but it has to find you working.” The manager with a learning mentality is one who rejects the notion of being fully contented and is contemplative of questions for the purpose and desire to act upon the answers and continually self-improve. This is not to suggest that because perfection is a futile endeavor, a manager can never be satisfied with oneself. Instead, she realizes that contentment with oneself can be pernicious, such that it quickly ripens and spoils into complacency. She assures herself of not deserting her mind by regularly addressing the questions that make her distinct and unique to the court and, more fundamentally, why she decided to begin and remain in the profession. All of these center on her being prepared and working toward responding to the one critical question posed by Toni: How will the manager know if she’s still adding value to the court? No one besides her ever asks the question.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.