A long time ago, I found myself working in an office with a go-getter of a manager, the sort of person who had a clear plan of how his life needed to work out in order for him to feel successful. It was so well planned, in fact, that he actually had a piece of paper that personal development coaches would drool over: degree from first class university, management trainee role, directorship role by age 30, partnership/owner of agency by 35, etc etc. It was so ambitious, that I think by the time he was 50 he was planning to be leader of the free world. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t got there yet (I just checked on Linkedin), but then again I don’t think he’s hit 50 yet either, so who knows.
I mention this because in the context of such an organised plan for life, the rest of us might have a bit more of a haphazard approach to where we end up spending our working time. I can’t remember, for example, the last time I ever looked at a job, and applied for it, thinking it would help me along a particular axis of achievement. What’s happened in my life so far has been a process of take on a job, do it for a while, and just as I’m getting bored, or incompetent, or both, someone kindly comes along and offers me something more interesting.
Which is what happened about a year ago. After spending most of my working days in a corporate office environment, it was time for a break, and I left, with no particular plans for the future. Pretty much as the door was closing behind me, I got a call from my (soon to be ex) boss, who was thinking about writing an autobiography, and was after some assistance with fact checking, editing, proofing and all the sorts of things that you need to do in order to get a book published. Which, incidentally, neither of us had a clue about. Seventy shades of fun ensued, getting familiar with all manner of new ways of working, getting a reader ticket to the British Library, spending hours looking through microfiche in dusty basements, speaking to incredibly bright and interesting people who thought little of talking to me between celebrity cookery shoots and the lost archives of PG Wodehouse, and finally holding a finished product in my hot and sweaty hand. Hot and sweaty, largely because I collected it directly off the press, which was a thirty mile cycle ride away.
Then, only a few hours after the hangover of the launch party had cleared, I got a phone call – a friend of a friend was running a construction project, and needed a bit of assistance organising stuff, making sure documentation hung together, and generally to keep him on the straight and narrow. (This, incidentally, is a more detailed job description than anything I’ve received since taking the job on. The benchmark for my continued employment is in line with the only two questions actually asked at my interview – ‘Are you reasonably organised?’ – ‘Yes’ and ‘Are you going to wind everyone up because you’re a complete arsehole?’ – ‘No’). So I said yes, on the condition that at any point (possibly when yes and no above got reversed), we could shake hands, I could walk off the site without having my lunchbox filled with mortar, and go back to wearing a suit and going to meetings for a living.
Anyway, the first couple of weeks went pretty well, so did the first couple of months and before I know it, I’m actually really enjoying myself, learning a ton of new stuff, meeting completely brilliant people, and being part of something that builds something really tangible, that people will enjoy living and working in. And there are bucketloads of lessons to be learnt in both directions between the people who put buildings in the air and people who (say) run projects in corporate environments. There’s stuff about governance, control, project management, people management, partners and suppliers that’s just itching to be written down…but that’s for a future blog. Because this one is about something really specific about working on a building site, that hit me in the face within hours of starting.
When you work on a site, you’re issued with, according to your health and safety rules, personal protective equipment, or PPE. This means you are supposed to wear, at all times, steel toecap boots, a high visibility vest, and a hard hat, plus all sorts of other exciting stuff like ear defenders, gloves, goggles, masks and harnesses, depending on the work you’re supposed to be carrying out, or if you’re headed for the Thursday Fetish night at the Loft (handily positioned just round the corner from our site).
And because you put this stuff on in the morning, if you leave the site, to get some milk or get some plans printed, or top up the unnerving amount of loo roll that seems to be being used up on a daily basis, you keep it on. So as you’re wandering along a street, humming gently to yourself, saying hello to someone you vaguely know, smiling benignly at young parents with difficult toddlers, holding the door open for somebody coming out of a shop, and…. Nothing. Absolutely nothing happens. You wear boots and a high viz jacket, and the world will summarily ignore you. The security experts of the world call this ‘hiding in clear site’, and apparently it’s all the rage if you want to bypass checks at festivals, nick equipment from offices or get up to any other sort of activity where no-one will look at you. Which is all very well, but a bit odd when you’re not used to it happening.
A couple of weeks after I started on the site, I was buying a coffee from the cafe nearby, actually in the process of handing over the money and getting my change, when a woman pushed right in front of me and ordered a ‘skinny soy latte to go and could you please hurry as I’ve got a terribly important meeting’. I genuinely had to reach around her to get my change; I can’t believe she didn’t see me there, but clearly I didn’t matter in the great skinny soy latte scheme of things. A few days later, I had to go to a meeting, and was wearing a suit – I went to the same cafe, got the same coffee, had a similar pleasant chat, and turned to see an orderly queue formed behind me.
A month or so later, I was walking into town, and saw a friend I’d not seen for about a year. We were walking towards each other, I threw my arms out, and this is what happened:
- she saw a bloke in a high viz jacket heading towards her with his arms outstretched
- she noticeably flinched, and swerved slightly to her left to avoid contact
- noticing that this hadn’t deterred the bloke, she forced herself to look up at his face
- thankfully she recognised bloke and swerved back into position
And I think that’s pretty much what happens all the time. People see the high viz jacket (it is, after all, doing a fairly good job in drawing the eye). As soon as they do, there’s a negative reaction that, at best, might be ‘this person doesn’t matter to me’. So they look straight past, possibly scanning the horizon for stuff that does actually matter.
All of which is a bit of a shame. Hiding in clear sight may be quite the thing for today’s modern criminal, but it’s very disappointing when it interferes with the morning coffee run.
Next time – why everything you’ve ever learnt about project management is wrong. Or something like that.
I’m just popping out to get coffee.
If you see me, don’t forget to wave.
Like that’s going to happen.