Wednesday, November 18

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Management

There were a number of changes I expected coming to Nakuru. I expected the winters to be a bit warmer. I expected to be taller than most. I expected, too, to be paler than everyone. I didn't so much expect to be a manager. That's kind of silly in retrospect. After all, the position I came to fill was director. What did I really expect to do with that sort of title? To mow the lawn and play with the kids all day? No, there's staff to do that. We have farmhands to tend the garden and care for the cows; cooks to prepare the meals; guards to watch the gate and patrol the grounds; caretakers to clean the buildings; and, for just the past few weeks, teachers to lead classes.

My job is to make them do their jobs. Oh, there are the four hours of online work I am supposed to do daily for the greater Foundation, but what I do here is what they call “white-collar work.” It's kind of a new thing for me. Kind of important, too. On a personal level at least. Beginning around eighth grade I identified myself as a communist. I've mellowed out since then, just socialism now, but it's good to be on the other side of the desk. Every other job I've had, from Zippel Bay State Park on through Hopkins House to the House of Charity, has been grunt. I was told what to do. I did it. In disagreements between workers and management, I naturally sided with the former. I still take orders, but the balance is definitely shifted toward the giving end. It's one of those “learning experiences.” It's a walk in the other one's shoes. It's a look through their eyes. It's a shoe on the other foot.

It doesn't offer quite the same satisfaction that grunt work does. Opportunities to say “See those eggs? I collected them myself,” are rare, and “See those eggs? I made sure someone collected them,” just doesn't sound as good. I'm not just responsible for feeding the kids. I'm responsible for their entire welfare. There is simply neither the time nor the energy to see every individual project and need followed through on. I need to find the person to do it and move on to the next need. I may find the sellers and buy the food, but someone else has to prepare and serve it. Gratification is delayed and always tempered by the realization that while the cleaning may be going great, the repairs are probably falling behind.

The irony is that my job is most pleasant is when all the staff are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Were this state to persist, however, my position would be superfluous. They would need no one to point out their mistakes or remind them of the next item on their checklist. By necessity, my job involves telling people when they're screwing up or, more often, when they need to do more for the same reward and those are a distinctly unpleasant experiences.

More unpleasant still is when staff continues to refuse to follow our directions, and they need to be fired. We had a major staff reshuffle a few weeks ago which involved eliminating a lot of old positions and creating a number of new ones. We preferred not to hire five people again and a sixth decided he didn't like the new contract. On the one hand, we could tell ourselves work would be easier now. The caretakers would listen when we told them to wash the youngest children in the bathrooms rather than on the asphalt outside. The children would be better cared for. On the other, nearly 120 people came to interviews for about eight positions. Our former employees weren't making a lot, but it's going to be a far sight more than what they'll likely make in the coming months. The case of our former cook was especially difficult. He stole from our food supplies, lied to us and defied our authority. He had to go. There was no question. But his wife gave birth a month or so back. His family needs to eat, too. In the end, our duty is to the kids here. We tell ourselves, if he isn't performing his duty to them, he can't be here.

If it seems crass to turn the loss of people's livelihoods into the grist for a blog post, I totally agree, but I don't really know what else I can do. I don't know if this is the sort of thing I want to do with the rest of my life. Satisfaction in my job may be more complex and distant, but if I want to make big changes, it's what I have to do. I can't do it alone. I have to bring the right people together and give them the right direction. We'll see what happens.

1 comment:

Markus said...

Hi Chris,

very well written, and exactly what i am currently experiencing, or rather hope to be experiencing soon in my working life. I am now in a state where i am looking for a job, and i hope that in this new job, i will be able to make decisions on my own and achieve goals in the way that i think is right.
Doing what other people told me was comfortable for some years now, because if it didn't work out, it was not your fault. But if you want to move on, you need to take responsibility and change the world your own way.

Have fun in Kenya!

Greetings, Markus