On Making Other People Look Bad

Loss and Prayer, 2023
Loss And Prayer

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on my career these past months. Most of this reflection is on the many different people I’ve dealt with over my professional life. And how I’ve learned something from every person I’ve worked with.

Some of the lessons I learned were positive experiences, and I count those people as mentors and role models. Other lessons- not so much. One constantly recurring lesson I remember is how so many people I’ve worked with put effort into making other people look bad.

A Career Lesson

I’ve written before about a team leader who worked very hard to make me look bad – and succeeded by getting me fired. Momentarily. But then there was a former client who took a different tack, and severely punished me for succeeding.

Being a Good Consultant

Several years ago I found myself working at the Washington Navy Yard, supporting a small but interesting program. My eight-person team provided logistics support to the program’s Government logisticians, and initially I was direct support for one of the lead Government logisticians. After one year on the program I became team lead.

One of my team’s Government clients, Carl, had been grousing about a problem for months, but prior to becoming team lead I had no direct involvement with him. Now, as team lead, I offered to help him resolve the issue.

The Problem

Carl explained that one of the sites our program supported down in Panama City, Florida, had a problem receiving repair parts. Any parts ordered at the site would be delivered to Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia. This had been going on for “at least two years,” and Carl was pretty frustrated. Having parts turn up at the wrong location meant that our program office had to pay, and arrange for, reshipment down to Panama City. Which caused repair delays, extra incurred costs, and generally made everyone involved rather irritable.

After listening, my immediate thought was that the Navy’s supply database was improperly coded with location information for the equipment maintained down in Panama City. I had a pretty good understanding of that database, having worked with it (at that point) for about 15 years. My working theory was that we just needed to identify the correct person responsible for coding that particular data element and get it changed.

I explained my working theory to Carl, and proposed that I setup a meeting involving the stakeholders who had been involved in this part-transhipping drama. His response; “Hey, whatever you want to do. I’m fine.”

The Approach

So I organized the first of what would prove to be a series of five monthly meetings. Carl would never allow me to talk during our meetings, but led the discussion focused on who might be the correct individual responsible for coding that data element. At each of the first four meetings, no one present knew who was responsible. But, each time we had someone present who knew someone else who might know. So that “someone else” got invited to the next meeting. As the meeting series progressed, I added new people to the invite, and made sure I prepared each meeting with an email directly to the new invitee. My emails introduced myself (as supporting Carl and our program), explained my role, what our group was attempting to accomplish, and confirmed the new invitee would be available to participate. These emails were copied to Carl, as per consulting etiquette.

After each meeting I prepared a detailed set of minutes including action items and who would be added to the next meeting invite. I sent the minutes to Carl for review and approval prior to sending out to the entire group. Each time for the first four meetings, Carl just emailed his response of “they’re fine, sent them out.”

The Fix

On the fifth meeting we hit paydirt. I had invited a female Government data manager located in Norfolk, who we identified the previous meeting as being overall in charge of this database. In our meeting Carl explained our issue. The data manager said “wait a minute. Let me get my contractor who does the data entry.” When her contractor came online, she explained the issue and asked her contractor if he was familiar with that set of data. The contractor said “yes, and I coded the location that way because…” and launched into an explanation. She stopped him and said “that’s wrong. You need to make a change because…” And our meeting group got to listen to technical talk that, after all was said and done, resolved our issue.

The data manager explained the process for propagating the data update, that it would take several weeks, and what we (Carl) could do to track the changes. She assured us that this would resolve our issue, and once the update had been fully propagated all repair parts ordered at Panama City would be shipped to Panama City.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I was feeling pretty good after that meeting ended. My theory had proven correct, and in a matter of four months (five one-hour meetings plus prep work) I had resolved an annoying issue Carl had been dealing with for over two years. I didn’t expect Carl to fall over himself with gratitude that I solved his problem, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

I wrote out my meeting minutes in the same format as previous and sent them to Carl for review. Within a few hours Carl kicked them back – marked up all over in tracked changes. This was accompanied by the nastiest email I’d seen in a very long while with words to the effect that the minutes were completely unsatisfactory, I needed to learn how to do my job, and he wasn’t going to put up this level of crap writing.

And Carl copied our Government Program Manager, Joe, on his response. This was the first time Carl had ever copied an email to Joe on anything I worked on with Carl.

I soldiered on, revised the minutes as per Carl’s explicit tracked changes, got them approved and distributed. I then asked Carl, as a consummate consulting professional, if he wanted to hold any follow up meetings to track the data propagation process. He said “No,” so I left it alone. A few days later Joe commented to me that I needed to learn how to write proper meeting minutes. I didn’t even try to explain what happened with Carl.

Carl never said a word to me about successfully solving his problem, or even if the data propagation completed properly.

A Nasty Follow-up

A few weeks later I happened to be over in the Government Offices early for a meeting. (My office was in my firm’s building a few blocks from the Navy Yard. I worked from there, and only came over to the ‘Yard’ for planned client meetings.) While I waited I decided to use one of the Government’s computer workstations designated for contractor use, which happened to be next to the open door of the coffee break room. I overheard Carl talking to someone in the break room, and using my name. Carl’s discussion was on wild claims that I was “turning my team against him,” “cutting him off from any communications with my team,” and a bunch of other pretty wild – false – stuff about me as Team Lead.

After a few moments Carl came strutting out followed by our Program Manger, Joe. Carl looked surprised to see me sitting there. Joe glared at me and demanded “Ron, is what Carl just told me true!?” I responded, as calm as I could make my voice, “No, absolutely not.” I then turned to Carl and said “Carl, I don’t appreciate you making up stories about me.”

Carl roared at me “DO YOU KNOW WHAT I CAN DO TO YOU! DO YOU! DO YOU!” His voice echoed around the entire open office space. Joe looked at Carl and motioned him to leave. Carl glared at me and stomped away. Joe and I spoke for a few moments, then Joe said “well, you embarrassed Carl in front of his boss, so I guess you should expect that kind of reaction.” Then he left.

Epilogue

I never heard anything about that incident again from Joe, or Carl. My supervisor heard about Carl yelling at me (everyone in the Government office knew something went down) so I had to explain what had happened, and the back story. My supervisor understood, and I suffered no repercussions within my firm.

As Team Lead I still had to deal with Carl periodically. However, I was always careful to have someone else from my team present whenever I had to talk with him one-on-one.

Several months after this incident I learned of an opening on a submarine acquisition program, so I moved on. After nearly two years on that Navy Yard program, I didn’t even bother saying goodbye to either Joe or Carl.

But, I’m left wondering “Why?” It’s pretty clear (to me) Carl went after me for easily solving a problem he could not. I would have been fine with Carl never bothering to even say “thanks,” as not getting credit for doing good work was par for Navy Yard consulting. But I can’t accept what Carl did/attempted to do to me, for solving a problem he couldn’t. Why did Carl feel a need to destroy my credibility as retaliation for solving his problem? Did he really have such a need to look good by making me look bad?

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