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The Executive and the Admin

As you gain experience in business,  a lot of the sophistication and nuance you once saw in people will boil away.  People, you will realize, are not so complex and, for right or wrong, you will find yourself summing up and categorizing people fairly quickly after very compressed interactions.   It is something you need to learn to do:  as you succeed you will find yourself in contact with exponentially more people and situations, so you need to develop your own personal heuristics to quickly find the signal in the noise.   Never forget that, as a leader, your job is to extract action from complexity and to glean discrete knowledge from ambiguity.  

So, for me, I have developed two main categories within which I put the people who work with and for me.  They are either Executives or Admins.  I value Executives.  I do not value Admins.

Before I go on, it is very important to note that these are *not* job titles.  They are mindsets.  There can be business executives that are really Admins and admins that are Executives.   There can be a receptionist that is Executive, and a vice president who could be Admin; whether someone is an Executive or Admin has to do with attitude and perspective, not the title of the job they are doing.   Being an Executive or Admin is about a state of mind and approach to problems.  In the simplest terms, an Executive is able to prioritize their time efficiently, allocating the maximum time and energy around what they instinctively know is of the greatest strategic importance, often starving less important priorities in the process.  An admin, on the other hand, looks at each task individually and tends to weight them more or less equally at first and ultimately gives priority to things based on outside forces without involving their own judgment.  An Admin will prioritize based on what is due in the shortest time  and/or what is most able to be done based on resources presently available.   An Admin mindset is a dangerous mindset for reasons I will get into shortly.

Fortunately, as I’ve said, Executive and Admin is a mindset, not an attribute of the person.   So, if one realizes it, one can change.   Let me give you some examples of what I mean.

Some time ago we had the “enviable” problem of having far more work than our present recruitment strategies could supply new employees to service.   We had many open positions with our banking clients for whom we consult, I think twenty or so new positions.  We couldn’t fill it at the time.  Because we have a very high standard for our hires, we often can’t bring on more than 3-4 new people a month.  We get hundreds of resumes, but almost none make it through.   Some people say to me, “hey, that’s a great problem to have!”.   But the way I look at a situation like that,  is that every month we don’t fill those open positions, we lose $500,000 in revenue in addition to credibility on the part of our clients believing we can scale to fulfill their needs.   These clients came to us first to fill them, because they know we have top people.  But if we can’t fill them, they’ll go elsewhere and say things like, “well, Infusion has great people, but maybe they can’t really scale for really large things.”   I can’t have that.

So, I decided to get more directly involved in recruiting.  I went to see the HR Director.  We’ll call her Jean.   Jean was relatively new, had only been with us for a few months but had done well so far; while we didn’t have the size of pipeline of new hires we needed, she certainly was finding and hiring bright folks.  I wanted to see what more could be done to widen the pipeline.

Now, I don’t remember exactly what the situation was…I think that I went into her office and she wasn’t there or something.  It was mid-morning, unusual, but I thought, hey, maybe she had an off-site interview or something.   Certainly we were so desperate for bright new hires, she could have gone to a campus to interview.    I don’t remember exactly, so some of this scenario you can take as apocryphal.  Anyway, I think I asked the receptionist where she was and receptionist replied, “Oh, Jean went to return the grill.”  

Return the grill?  What grill? And even if there was a grill to return, why on earth was my HR director returning it when we were positively dying for resources to hire?   I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
So, when Jean gets back I sat down with her, and I asked her about “the grill”.

It turns out that the night before there was a roof-top BBQ for the staff of the Toronto office.  Ok, cool.   It was Jean’s idea, and Jean arranged it.  Great.  But, ultimately, since Jean arranged it and it was her initiative, she felt that it was her responsibility to return the grill.  And that is where I took issue.  Specifically, I asked her if spending part of the morning returning a grill was really the best use of her time given that we were “losing” 500k a month because of unfilled positions.   Wouldn’t the time better have been spent interviewing people in the hiring queue?  She agreed that, yes, it absolutely would have…but the grill needed to be returned and there didn’t seem to be anyone else who could have done it, and she didn’t want to presume to ask someone else to do a task like that.      

Ok, so right there you see an Admin perspective.  Let’s examine why:

The decision on how Jean allocated her time in this instance was based on
1)    An assumption: that no one else could do it
2)    Moralism: she probably felt on some level that she didn’t want to seem imperious and may have wanted to show that she was one the same level as everyone else by doing a task like that
3)    Low Priority Obligation that Achieves High Priority Attention:  the grill had to be returned by a specific date and time

So in this case, Jean achieved the following:

1)    She feels good about herself in that she didn’t ask anyone else to do it, and she completed a clear-cut goal: the grill was returned
2)    The grill gets returned (the grill vendor is happy) and the firm avoids a hefty  $15 in penalties
3)    The administrative staff appreciates Jean’s willingness to do any task, even though she is a manager
Note that none of the above furthered the company’s goals in any significant way.   In fact, a matter of hours is the difference between getting a hot candidate or losing them to a competing company when that candidate has multiple offers (as many of our candidates do).  So, for the sake of $15 and some esoteric considerations of the feelings of others, Jean may very well have risked and lost 250-300k of revenue for the year because  a candidate we didn’t get to in time just took an offer from a competing firm!   

Now an Executive mindset would have thought like this:

1)    I have a crisis, I am losing 500k a month in missed revenue.  All my time and focus must be spent there.
2)    There must be someone other than me who can perform the task of returning a grill.  There is nothing in that task that requires me in any way, ANYONE else could do it and it detracts from #1, which must be my priority.   If there is no one to delegate to, maybe I can hire a courier or messenger  to do it.  Perhaps I can call the rental company and pay them extra to pick it up.  Even if it costs $25, that is small compared to the risk of not getting offers out to some of the candidates in the queue.
3)    If the grill is late, the fee is very nominal.  This can not be a priority for me right now given #1.  I must either delegate it or just put it at lowest priority, bear the late fee,  and just address it when #1 is solved.
Some people might feel the attitude of the Executive is bourgeoisie.  Maybe it is.   But it is not important that you are liked, or perceived as a swell person, or beloved by your administrative staff.   What matters is that you take care of business and, hell or high water, you do not spend your time on low priority things.

I explained all this to Jean, and she understood completely.   So I asked her:
“Jean, which are you:  An Executive or an Admin?”
To which she answered:
And from then on, she was.  Her performance has been stellar and over 1/3rd of my present staff came into the company through Jean.  She is awesome, and I never again found her returning grills.

Another story:

We arranged a major outing for our New York office.  Paintball!   So, we have about 30-40 guys, we rented a tour bus and drove up into the mountains of upstate New York and fired paint pellets at each other on a variety of fields and woodsy settings.   It was fantastic for team building, and everyone had a tremendous time.

So the plan was, after the paintball, the bus would come and we would all go to this place where there would be BBQ around a big fire.  There’d be steaks, ribs, vegetarian stuff, beer, a party to cap the day where we could recount our misadventures of the day and solidify the esprit d’corps.  Everyone was looking forward to it.  

Now the paintball fields were very busy that day, and at the end of the day we had to wait for a particular field to clear (other people were playing on it).   This was the best field: full of metal structures you could hide behind…it was what everyone had been waiting for the entire day.  This is where we’d have the final battle and decide trophy winners for the day. But right about the time we were going to go onto the field, “Mary” our office manager comes over to me and says we really should leave now, that we might not be able to do the final field.  I told her that everyone was looking forward to this, all our gear was already readied and unpacked, and that we should do it.   So why was she insisting we go?

The answer was that the bus driver we’d hired for the day had been told to pick us up at 530pm, and it was almost that time now.  I then asked her why we couldn’t just call the driver and tell him we’d be half an hour later and she seemed a little agitated.   She said we had a contract with him, and we told him it would be 530 and she just seemed very concerned about keeping our commitment to the driver.

Now, Mary booked and arranged for the entire event and really did a tremendous job, she is an Executive almost all the time.  But she, like of all of us, can have Admin moments.   

Mary knew that we were paying somewhere in the neighborhood of  $20,000 for this outing.   Personally, after spending that much money, building all this enthusiasm, to burst everyone’s bubble and miss the final trophy game because the driver had been told 530 just didn’t seem like a great trade off.   We were 2.5 hours outside of new York city (where the bus would be taking everyone ultimately)…the driver was taking us first to dinner and then back to NYC.  He wouldn’t be home until 12am in the best of circumstances.  Did ½ hour really matter that much to him?   Relative to the cost of morale for ending the day prematurely and on a down note?     I didn’t think so, so I told Mary, “contact the driver and ask him what it would cost to get more time here.  How much does he want for another hour or so.   We are paying 20k for the day out here.   Another $ 100-$200 dollars in tip for the driver wouldn’t break the budget.”   

So, she offered it to the driver,  the driver accepted, and we were able to finish our final game.   And what a game it was.  I still have welts.

The point here is that you see another Admin perspective.  A non-important variable becomes somehow immutable (driver commitment)  and is given priority above what is actually much more important(team building).  So now the bigger goal contorts around the need to realize a much more minor goal.  It is the willingness to challenge assumptions and prioritize intuitively that is the hallmark of an Executive mindset.  

I have many more stories, of course.  Like the internal IT guy, “Tom” I once had who spent 4 days trying to figure out an issue with Microsoft Exchange.  When I asked him, “hey, man, why didn’t you just call the support line and open an issue?”  he said, “because that costs $199!”   But, of course, Tom had spent much more than that in salary and missed priorities figuring it out himself.

You get the point.

Again, I want to emphasize that Admin and Executive is a mindset, not a role.   You might have an administrative job.  But if you have an Executive mindset, you will be promoted into management (my one-time receptionist 5 years ago is now branch manager of my London, UK office we’ll be opening this year.)     On the other hand, if you have an administrative job and an Admin mindset, then you are not likely to ascend very high in an organization.  Ditto for the vice president with the Admin mindset; he won’t rise very high in business.

None of us are immune to bouts of Admin perspectives…so, when you are doing anything important that you need to success, add this query to your internal self-assessment kit and ask yourself:  the way I am performing right now, am I an Executive or an Admin?   You’ll find that in every case, it is clearly one or the other.

posted on January 2, 2007 2:07 PM by Greg

# re: The Executive and the Admin @ January 5, 2007 3:43 AM

Hi Greg.

I really enjoy reading you blog and this post is no exception. I think of myself as an executive but as you say, one also can have “admin moments”. Often when you find yourself in an admin moment it’s almost to late to get out of it, i.e. it takes more time to transfer the assignment to someone else than to just finish it for yourself, or at least that’s what you think. Every time I get “stuck in an (admin) moment and you can't get out of it” I think about what made me get there and how to avoid it the next time and your blog post certainly gave me more insight on how to do that.




# re: The Executive and the Admin @ January 18, 2007 8:28 PM

Hi Greg,
I attended your CUSEC 2007 speech.Admired your speaking skills and appreciated the message.

Your Exec vs Admin. post is very good. Changed my outlook a lot :)


Rajiv Abraham

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