Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
As I’m beginning to wind down my career into retirement, I’m forced into reminiscing about career experiences both good and bad. One recurring theme of bad experiences relates to the many times I’ve been set-up for failures. I’ve never been able to understand why anyone would deliberately put effort into making the people around themselves fail.
I’ve experienced too many people in my professional life who seemingly worked extra hard to get me to fail. Most of the time I succeeded despite the best efforts of other people. But, there was one time I didn’t. As I reminisce about my career I keep coming back to the one time when despite my best efforts, I was successfully set-up to fail.
A Constant Thread
The memories of people who put effort into making me fail are threaded throughout my life. My first remembrance was an older kid way back in High School shop class. He put a lot of effort “assisting” me in doing a shop project – wrong. Then he smirked and walked away when I realized my project was ruined.
In the Navy, I experienced a series of commissioned officers and senior enlisted people who seemingly made themselves “look good” by making their subordinates fail. This behavior also included civilian engineers hired to provide technical assistance to the military. As one example when I ran a submarine repair shop; a civilian engineer would routinely provide me with repair guidance, then provide exactly different repair guidance on the same issue to my supervisors. Then deny ever telling anybody anything while my supervisors and I were fighting.
In my post-Navy life, I’ve run across too many people who worked hard to make the people around them “fail.” Almost always, I saw these people as obnoxious jerks who I managed to neuter. However, one particularly vicious person stands out for succeeding in making me fail, at a point in my career when I was most vulnerable.
The Supervisor of Forced Fails
In 2008, two years after moving to Northern Virginia, as a response to posting my resume online, I was invited to interview with one of America’s top consulting firms. I felt like I had been nominated for an Academy Award just for getting the invitation. When I received their job offer I felt like I’d won an Oscar.
I bounced around in my new firm for the first six months working for various teams doing odd jobs on miscellaneous contracts. While I had the chance to meet a lot of people within the firm, I wasn’t engaged in any real consulting work. Finally, I was given my first contract assignment. I would be providing direct support to a Government GS-14 in the Washington Navy Yard working on a shipbuilding program.
I was excited.
My new Team Lead was a woman, more than twenty years younger than me with no prior military experience, by the name Dion. I had first met her (but not formally introduced) several weeks earlier at a luncheon. In a crowd of about thirty energetic, lively people, Dion had stood out as a dour participant, self-isolated from everyone around her. I had a bad feeling when I recognized her as my new Team Lead.
She spent the next six months finding one way after another to undermine me and generally worked to make me fail in my first consulting assignment.
I would be replacing a man younger and more junior than me, who was leaving the firm. I spoke with him a couple of times, but he refused to say anything about Dion. His explanation: “you need to form you own opinions of her.” He was the only person on Dion’s team. This position was the only one our firm had on this contract.
The day arrived for the introductory meeting with my new client. By custom, Dion would escort me to the client’s office and introduce me. She was very specific about when and where to meet her. As my norm, I arrived 20 minutes early. Dion arrived late.
She wordlessly signed me into the building, and we arrived at my client’s office about twenty minutes late. My client, John, and I went through the ritual of him reviewing my resume, asking me a few perfunctory questions, and made small talk for a few minutes. Then Dion and I departed, with John telling me to call him first thing the next morning.
Once we left the building Dion ripped into me on how I was dressed. I had worn my usual attire of slacks, dress shirt, and tie, standard dress code within our firm. Dion angrily told me my dress was “entirely inappropriate.” In the future, she expected me to wear a suit jacket when meeting with my client. Dion herself was dressed distinctly more casually than most female consultants in our firm.
Her angry parting words to me were “in this business you either sink or swim.”
No Email Access
Over the next week I moved to the same building as Dion. My office was a room shared with one other person, at opposite end of a hall from Dion’s office. I was new to Government consulting and knew I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. I needed Dion to provide the support and guidance for success in my new career. But that support and guidance was vaporous.
First off was email. Dion claimed that I was unable to get a Government email account, for reasons I did not understand. The impact of not having a military email account was that I could not access the Navy Yard global directory, and I could not access the reservation system to book conference rooms. John was involved in managing a large project and held bi-weekly meetings he expected me to organize. I needed access to both the reservations system and global directory to organize those meetings.
Without Government email access, I had to rely on other people to make conference room arrangements and provide me with email addresses. While these people worked on the same contract as me, they weren’t members of my firm. Trying to get conference rooms booked on a few days’ notice by relying on other people was frustrating for me. To them I was an increasingly larger annoyance.
Several years later, on my next Navy Yard assignment, I learned that Dion’s claims of not being able to get a Government email account was wrong. Everyone working under a Navy Yard contract was eligible, expected, to obtain a government email account. As Dion had worked at the Navy Yard several years when she became my Team Lead, she had to know better.
The Never-Ending Rewrites
In addition to organizing meetings, I was required to take and distribute meeting minutes. John’s directions to me were to throw together minutes capturing the action items, and “get them out.” His stated goal was meeting minutes released within twenty-four hours after each meeting.
Dion had already directed that any correspondence released to John had to be approved by her. I explained John’s twenty-four-hour release goal. Her reply: “He’ll get them when I’m satisfied.”
After the first meeting I rapidly wrote up a two-page set of minutes and sent them to Dion for review. I will admit, for my first-time writing formal meeting minutes, I was not familiar with the nuances expected of a consultant. But even then I was not a “bad” writer.
Several hours after sending Dion my draft, she stormed into my office holding a printed copy covered in red-inked comments. She launched into a fifteen-minute tirade on the poor quality of my writing. Then she threw the marked-up draft onto my desk and stormed out.
Over the next several days I re-wrote those two pages at least five times. Every time I re-wrote them to Dion’s specifications, she would mark them up again for another rewrite. I kept track of rewrites and could see that she would change something, then on a later draft change back to previous wording. Finally, one week after my first draft she allowed me to release the minutes to John.
Making me spend days writing and rewriting documents would prove to be her normal practice.
No Happy Hour for You
A couple of weeks later John handed me a one-page draft memorandum. He explained my predecessor had drafted it, and the memo had since been reviewed within the Navy Yard. John wanted me to make any final edits and have it back to him the next day to release.
I brought it back over to my office, reviewed it, and carried it over to Dion for her awareness. She read through it, looked at me, and asked “You consider this ready for John’s signature?” I nodded “yes,” feeling confused. Dion started marking it up while telling me to find a copy of the Navy Correspondence Manual. I obtained a copy from our admin staff and returned to Dion’s office. She handed me the heavily marked up draft memo, told me to retype it, and to use the Navy Correspondence Manual for guidance.
At this point, it was 2:00PM. The firm was holding an evening Happy Hour celebration starting at 7:00PM that evening, and I was planning on attending. Dion was aware of the Happy Hour and knew I was planning on attending.
Over the next five hours Dion had me running back and forth between our offices, making change after change. Finally, a little past 7:00PM, Dion handed me the latest marked up draft for final corrections. Then she packed up her shoulder bag and said “I’m heading over to the Happy Hour. I’ll tell everyone you got caught up in some last-minute work.”
She then left, leaving me to re-type the memo one last time. I thought about heading over to the Happy Hour anyway, but I was too disgusted. I finished up and went home.
After two months of dealing with Dion I was furiously frustrated. By now we held daily morning meetings during which she was condescending at best. More often she was insulting and derogatory in detailing what I needed to learn about being a consultant. Without ever offering any solid guidance. I was already wondering if I really wanted a consulting career.
However, I liked working for John. I also caught, through observing a few transactions between John and Dion, that he didn’t much care for her.
In addition to supporting John, I was also tasked with preparing a monthly report for the Program Manager, John’s boss. This involved collecting raw data from about a dozen people involved in the program and compiling it into a PowerPoint presentation. The third month preparing this report, approaching deadline, I needed data from a government supervisor whom I had not yet met.
I called him, introduced myself, and politely asked when I could expect his data. His answer “When I damn well feel like getting it to you.” My response “OK, I understand. I do need to get this report out by the end of the week.” At this point he screamed into the phone “Do you know who I am? Who the hell do you think I am! Learn your Goddamn job or you’ll be looking for another job!” and hung up.
About thirty minutes later Dion walked into my office, holding what appeared to be a printed email. Without even asking me what happened, or letting me read the email, she ripped into me. She started with “I just received this email from our Program Manager.” She then proceeded to lecture me on dealing with Government clients, ending with “sink or swim, ” then walked out.
I had enough
A Plea for Help
I wrote a brief, but angry email to one of the Senior Associates, Tim, whom I had worked with during my first six months of bouncing around the firm. It was a cry for help. Tim called me within minutes after I sent it, asking what was going on. At that point I pretty much blew, venting nearly three months of frustrations with Dion. Tim sounded honestly shocked. He promised me he would help me out.
Several days later a person I had never previously met, Ben, appeared at my office. He explained Tim had asked him to talk with me, that he understood I was having problems with Dion and my assignment. We ended up spending about one hour talking. I showed him some examples of documents I had re-written multiple times and detailed, as professionally as I could, my frustrations working with Dion. He was non-committal but said he’d do what he could.
I never learned what was said between Ben, Tim, and Dion, but my relationship with Dion became “frosty.” On the surface, she acted professional towards me, but underneath I could sense she was angry. Although she never directly discussed me complaining to Tim and Ben, I sensed she was looking for payback. The only concrete result I saw coming out of my call for help was being directed to an in-house three-day remedial writing workshop. I saw this as Dion’s way of proving I didn’t know how to write.
A few weeks later John asked me to arrange a short-notice, two-day working group conference of forty people in Norfolk. My firm had an office there and John asked about using our conference room. I told him I’d work on that, and immediately asked Dion how to make those arrangements. Dion showed me our in-house reservation system, and how I could reserve conference rooms in any of our offices anywhere in the world. We looked at the Norfolk office and saw that the days John wanted were already reserved. Dion’s response: “well, that’s all you can do. Tell John he’ll need to find some other location.”
I stewed on that for a couple of days, not satisfied. After talking with a few other people, I found contact information for the Norfolk admin staff. Then I emailed them, explaining what I needed. The lead Admin got back to me right away, letting me know I could use the conference room on the requested days. The lead Admin also committed to setting-up lunches and handling the minor details that help make a two-day conference for forty invited guests run smooth.
When I told Dion I had made conference arrangements she first showed – surprise. Then she looked – angry. She made no other efforts towards helping me set-up the conference. I couldn’t help shaking off a nagging feeling that Dion had wanted me to fail.
The Norfolk conference was a success. John was pleased.
The Abrupt End
Over the next couple of months things seemed to be getting better. Dion continued to play her “re-write forever” action game on everything I wrote. But it seemed like she was getting tired of her own game as the number of rewrites decreased. The Government Jerk who had given me a hard time over reporting data retired, and his replacement was a pleasure to work with. I had arranged other major events on John’s behalf, and his project looked to be moving along well.
One afternoon, after going over some issues with John in his Navy Yard office, John abruptly changed the subject. “Ron,” he said, “I wanted you to know you’re doing a great job. I know I’ve acted like a real jerk, but I just get so frustrated sometimes.” I was caught off-guard. John continued: “I want you to know there’s a GS-12 job opening up on this program. If you’re interested, I’ll let you know when it gets posted, and I’ll do what I can to endorse you.” Now completely surprised, I thanked him, and told him I’d think about it.
I went back to my office for a meeting that a Senior Associate, Jim, had previously setup. I didn’t know what the meeting was about, but with John’s unexpected compliments I honestly thought Jim’s meeting was going to be something good. It wasn’t.
Jim started with “I suppose Dion has already told you what this is about?” I cautiously shook my head “no,” and Jim looked annoyed. “Ron,” he said “too many people on your team are complaining about you. Those complaints are constant. Dion has expressed repeated frustrations with the conflicts you keep getting into, and complaints from your client. For your own good, we’re pulling you off this assignment.”
Jim told me I would have a few weeks to find a new assignment, time for him to find a replacement for me. In the meanwhile, I was warned not to tell my clients I was leaving, that it was Dion’s responsibility. Over the next few days, I made quiet inquiries, and confirmed Jim had never spoken to John. John didn’t even recognize the name. The only people it seemed Jim may have spoken to were people I routinely annoyed over arranging conference rooms and providing me email addresses.
Jim would have had no first-hand knowledge of the people I was involved with. That information would have come from Dion.
After this my working relationship with Dion went to ice-cold. She came by my office the morning after Jim spoke with me, and I just told her I was too busy to talk. I stopped meeting with her each morning. I also stopped routing my documents through her. John only noticed I was finally getting meeting minutes out within his twenty-four-hour time limit. The one-time Dion asked me the status of documents, I just told her I’d finished and delivered them. She glared at me and walked away.
A New Start
I reached out to several people, including Tim, cautiously letting them know I was available for a new assignment. Word got around that Dion had pushed me out, and several people I’d previously worked with seemed angry. After a couple of weeks, I was contacted by Steve, a person I’d met and worked with briefly just before moving to my present contract. He told me he had an opening over at the Coast Guard headquarters if I was interested. I was, and within a few days Steve finalized my transfer.
Jim/Dion hadn’t found anyone to replace me, so Dion decided she would cover my position until someone could be found. However, the Government had other ideas. When Dion told the Program Manager I was being taken off the contract, he canceled my position.
Dion tried lashing out at me, insinuating it was my fault my position was canceled. I advised her that she should have not asked Jim to fire me. I don’t think she liked that response.
The Road Back Up
During my first few months at Coast Guard headquarters I struggled on multiple paths. I knew I was under a cloud with my firm. I owed Steve for giving me a second chance and didn’t want him to be sorry. The Coast Guard way of doing things was different than any previous work, and I put my best efforts into learning the job. I needed to prove, to myself and the people I worked with, that I could be an effective consultant.
Within six months my firm recognized me with a Performance and Team Award. Six months after that I was promoted, and I subsequently received another Performance and Team Award.
About the same time I received my promotion, I heard that Dion had left the firm for a Government position at the Washington Navy Yard.
I stayed with the Coast Guard for almost five years. The contract Steve put me on ended about eighteen months after I started, but I found new work on another Coast Guard contract. During that time I continued to maintain a working relationship with Steve, both as Team Lead and then as my mentor and friend. When my work on the second contract ended, with no new work available, I was forced to leave my firm. I ended up working for another major consulting firm back on a Navy Yard contract.
It took me about seven years to get back into a Coast Guard consulting contract. But when I did, that opened the door for me to get hired into a Coast Guard Government position. I consider my present, and most likely final job, to be the pinnacle of my twenty-six-year post-Navy career.
In a perverse way, I owe my present success to Dion. In trying to make me fail, she pushed me into a highly rewarding career path I might not have otherwise considered. But I feel no gratitude towards her. Being fired from a job I thought I was succeeding in left a wound that never healed.
I’ve often wondered; if I had not already met several senior people within the firm before moving to Dion’s team, would I have been given a second chance? What direction would my career have taken if I had left? How would I have explained a one-year tenure with this firm in future job interviews? How has Dion, as a government employee, treated the contractors supporting her? What would I have done, how would I have reacted, had a future assignment put me working for her again?
Most importantly; I’m left wondering if there was there anything I could have done differently to change the outcome?
Nearly five years after Dion and I parted ways, there was a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. When the shooting stopped twelve people were dead. I distinctly remember scanning the list of victims looking for names of people I knew who would have been working in the building at the time.
Dion’s was one of the names I was looking for. I honestly do not know how I would have felt if I had seen her on that list.