Missed Opportunities

By Ron Ciancutti
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / aaronamat

Bobby mowed grass for the park system throughout high school. And after just one semester of community college, he stopped by the field office on the way home and asked if he could be hired full-time. He loved his summers on the mower, loved working outside, and didn’t really feel he was college material anyway. After a few months and a polished resume, Bobby got his wish. At age 19 he was a full-time employee of the park system.


But Bob wasn’t content just mowing. He put together a comprehensive maintenance plan and check-off system to ensure everyone who rode a park-owned machine took proper care of it. His keen eye for maintenance caught management’s attention, and Bob began to advance. As a working technician, he grew more and more familiar with the machines and the people who ran them. The park system decided to issue him his own truck, complete with repair tools and spare parts. Before long, Bob was running all over the park system as staff radioed in their problems, and he showed up as a one-man repair crew. Over the next decade, he was a hero to the blue-collar set, a rare find to the white-collar set, and a friend to all. Good old Bobby—he was a hard-working son-of-a-gun. He was accomplished and barely 30!

Administrators then decided to put Bobby in charge of 10 people at one of the biggest parks in the system. His skill sets, unfortunately, did not include managing, motivating, or evaluating people. In looking over the yearly planner, he thought it didn’t seem too difficult. He decided he would just be fair and his employees would be fair in return.

For 2 years, Bobby did just that. He pushed the employees when he had to, but had trouble getting them to do all that he wished. “The guys and I, we have an understanding,” he explained to his wife.

An Added Wrinkle
One day, Bobby was informed in a managers’ meeting that he would be assigned a new employee beginning Monday. Bob was pleased because having one more guy available to mow in the rotation would free up another person to get the barn painted. The new person was to be Bob’s assistant. He had administrative capabilities, not field-equipment strengths. “Well, now, someone else can take over the paper side of things, and I can start wrenching on equipment again,” Bob thought, whistling all the way home.

When Bob met his new assistant, he noticed that Aaron drove a hybrid car, and within the first five minutes of conversation, Aaron spoke of his ecological concerns. As Aaron talked, Bob further noticed Aaron’s car sitting among the 15 oversized pickup trucks belonging to Bob’s staff. Bob was beginning to dread dragging this poor fellow into the office where the guys gathered to drink their morning coffee. They would eat him alive. And he couldn’t blame them. He thought, “This guy is never gonna be one of us.” But then Bobby suddenly realized that his lack of skills as a manager might truly come to the forefront. How was he supposed to handle this?

Although there was a potential conflict brewing, Bobby knew he had to remain loyal to his long-standing staff. He decided to introduce Aaron with a wink, communicating silently to his “brothers” that this nerdy new guy assigned to him was really not endorsed or wanted. The staff members would thus see Bobby’s real intentions. Bobby could throw Aaron to the wolves, and the staff would either drive him out or make him so miserable he would not want to stay.

As Bobby and Aaron began to tour the grounds, Aaron quietly took copious notes and asked relevant questions, which opened Bobby’s mind to some possibilities he had never considered before. Within 2 hours, Bobby decided he liked this kid. True, Aaron was a little quirky, but he was confident in what he believed and how he expressed himself. They returned to the office, and Bob suggested they go inside for a cup of coffee. As the two men were sharing a laugh, the crew members entered for their break.

A Coffee Break And Cracking Jokes
The members looked at Aaron then looked at Bobby, who took a deep breath and introduced the new employee with unfamiliar enthusiasm. Rethinking his position, Bobby decided to come out strong for the kid at the beginning in order to gain some rapport, but the guys had already decided the new member of the group had to go--after all, look at his car. Immediately, some crew members turned their backs while others erupted in laughter. Bob knew he was in trouble. He tried to laugh things off, but one look at Aaron revealed the new guy was visibly upset. In a shaky voice, Aaron said, “Bob, if you don’t mind, I’ll just take the truck and look at a few of those areas you showed me this morning.” “Yeah,” Bob replied, happily latching on to anything to break the tension.

Closing the door, Aaron heard a roar of laughter from within. He felt awful. Inside the office, Bob was trying to figure out what to do. He said nothing, looked at the guys, rolled his eyes, and followed Aaron. Riding in the truck for the next hour with Aaron, Bob found himself really empathizing. He told the kid the guys would straighten out eventually once they understood what an asset Aaron could be for the parks. He must have been convincing because when Aaron got in his hybrid to leave for the day, he seemed willing to give the job  a try the next day. That night, over dinner, Bob told his wife that he was fond of this new fellow, and felt maybe the guy could really help out the park system. Managing him would be a challenge, but one Bob thought he could grow from.

Smarter Than The Boss
The next day, as morning orders were given, the staff members seemed to be on their best behavior, giving Aaron tight-lipped smiles but acknowledging it was nothing more than a gesture. Every now and then one of the guys would glance at Bobby, and he would wink, suggesting, “C’mon, guys, play along. My hands are tied, and I don’t like this any more than you do.” Aaron saw all of this clearly.

Even though Bobby knew that, as a manager, he was to support his new worker and champion his right to be different, he could not muster the necessary strength. Aaron could tell Bob had taken a liking to him, but if there were any conflict, Bob would be taking the side of the crew over his assistant—that was clear. So, as the crew dispersed for their morning assignments, Aaron asked Bob if he could have a few hours off to take care of a personal matter. He then went to the main office and officially requested a transfer, telling the administrators that his new assignment was simply “not a good fit.” While they would work on getting him reassigned, he was to continue working for Bob.

Aaron returned to the field office and finished the week without getting in anyone’s way. The look of satisfaction on the crew’s faces was the most difficult part. They had won and they knew it. On the next Monday, Aaron called in sick. Hours later, the main office notified him that they had found an equivalent assignment for him. Over the next few years, Aaron developed a successful career, filled with creative ideas and solutions. When he ran into Bobby and the old crew at company picnics and other functions, the guys remained courteous yet unfriendly.

Sad But True
With a little help from Bob, Aaron probably could have thrived in that earlier position in the park system. His presence may have helped Bob obtain more management training and improve his abilities. Bob would later retire from the parks, with his loyal crew retiring one at a time over the years.

Long after retirement, the haunting memory of what Bob did or didn’t do with Aaron remained. Being half-committed was the same as being uncommitted. Sometimes an opportunity is missed, and that error is never fixed. And, significantly, the person most hurt is the one who failed at the opportunity. Bob will remember that he could have accomplished so much more if he had been always  committed to doing the right thing, not just the easiest thing.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com .