Sunday, November 2, 2008

Working for a Living

When I retired from my position as school principal of a little elementary school, I told everyone that I would not be working once I retired, and I really meant that. I had visions of doing all the things I didn't have time to do while I was working. I wanted to paint (watercolour), write the novels I've been working on in my head for years, and finally finish all the woodworking projects I've been putting off. . . . . . . . . . Then what am I doing sitting behind a desk again, with a phone with multiple lines, two computers, and file folders and papers spread everywhere?

A friend from high school operates a small company that manufactures transit cases to protect almost anything you might need to move about the world. I have followed his business from the time he and his wife started, and have always admired their hard work and dedication through hard times and empty refrigerators to a thriving successful business. There was a time in their lives when they hadn't taken a vacation of even a weekend in years, so I was pleased when they started taking time off to travel. I have kept in touch with them and we get together quite regularily, so I was not surprised to see get a phone call from him. His question did however come as a surprise. . . “How'd I like to have a job?” . . . . . . they needed someone to help out watching the office while they went on a cruise. He caught me off guard, and I hesitated long enough that I let him get in an explanation, and I was suddenly willing to think about this. I really did not think something would come along to get me back to work, but this I actually thought about, and finally said yes.

It was only for 8 days, and all I had to do was answer the phone, man the front office, pick up the mail, and look after any things that couldn't be put off till they returned. This was something completely different than anything I had ever done, so I thought I'd enjoy it, and I had always been interested in their company, so this would let me better understand what they did. There were three employees in the shop who actually built the cases, but they had plenty of work to cover the 8 days, and knew what to do and needed no real supervision from me. How hard could this be?

I went out a day early to get instructions and right away I saw a problem. I spent years running a school office, but this was completely different. I had a pretty good idea of how they divided up the management of the company from their discussions during times we got together for card games or conversations. He did the design work, the PR, and the negotiations, he organized the shop, he could even build the cases, but she actually ran the office, she paid the bills, she made sure that everything worked and went out on time to customers, so when I went to find out what I was supposed to do, it was her I went to see and find out what was expected.

I should have foreseen the problem. She has been running this office for over 20 years, it works well for her. She knows exactly how things are done and exactly how she wants things done. After all, there is no one else here to ask an opinion, she doesn't have to check with anyone, and how she does things doesn't affect anyone else. There is no one to ask “Why do you do it this way?” or “Why not try this?”. There is no instruction manual, or no guidebook, it is all in her head. This is fine for her, but it makes it difficult to get instructions for 8 days. It's all second nature to her, and it is easy to forget the little things that become important when the only expert is not here. I tried to ask as many questions as I could think of and figured I could rely on my years of being able to always find an answer to whatever the students, teachers, parents or school board officials could throw at me, to come up with something that would work in an emergency. If all else failed, they promised to stay in contact via e-mail if I needed advice on anything I couldn't figure out.

I arrived the first day, was greeted cordially by the guys working out back, but I should have listened between the lines as there was a little hint of scarcest behind the friendly welcomes. They knew something I didn't. They had been through this before – there had been quite a few other “fill-in” front-office substitutes, and they didn't seem to wonder why another new guy was here.

Ok, lets get going, turn on the computer . . . . . . . no off/on switch . . . . . . I spent years assembling repairing, working with, and selling computers – surely I could get this thing turned on. This was to be the story of the job. She didn't think she had to tell me how to turn on the computer, she knew exactly how to do it, and it didn't even think it was a problem, but I had never seen this computer before, and the way it was mounted under the desk made it very hard to examine closely. After about 10 minutes crawling around under the desk I did find a switch, and lights started coming on, the screen flickered to life and it asked for a password . . . . . . she didn't mention a password . . . Fortunately this she thought of, and I found a little hand written “sticky” with a password on it. This was the theme of the first morning. I knew what I was supposed to do, and I had a general idea of what to do, but I was missing a lot of those things she forgot to tell me because they are so second nature to someone who does it every day. I forward the phone when I'm not here, and I know how to retrieve those messages, but what about when someone calls when I'm on the other line . . . . where does it go if they left a message? The fish get fed twice a day with food from the freezer, but there are four kinds of food in there; does it matter what I feed them? Etc. . . .Etc. . . . . . everything I had to do seemed to have a couple of questions attached once I tried to do it.

And then the boredom set in . . . . . I had to answer the phone, and it rang maybe four or five times a day. I tried to sound professional and tried to help, but obviously most customers were more than happy to wait ant talk to someone who actually knew this business, so mostly I was politely taking messages for when they returned. I drove down and got the mail, sorted it and checked for anything important, and read the Princess Auto Catalogue front to back, but most just got left for their return. I check e-mail, but only found two items that I could do anything with. So . . . . . I tidied up her office, I cleaned the lunch room, I straightened up the front room, (even after being warned “they won't like this . . .”) I cooked lunch for the guys in the shop. . . . . . .

Now I would have liked to have more actual “work” to do, but I really did enjoy my time at OceanCase. By the third or fourth day I actually felt I knew what I was doing. I knew much more about what goes on in the office, and I even felt pretty comfortable with what the guys in the shop were doing. This was so completely different from what I was so used to doing for 30 years that it was a new challenge, something new to learn, and I enjoyed it, but most of all I appreciated the opportunity to learn so much more about this business that I have been following and admiring for so many years.
The next time we got together and start talking about what they have been up to with their business, I might have a better understanding of exactly what they do out there.

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