By Paula Kiger
1994 found me at the right place at the right time. An organization that I had followed literally since its birth in 1990 needed an Operations Manager to oversee functions that included customer service and other critical areas. The organization’s focus is the administration of a federally-subsidized health insurance program for children. The program has grown virtually in lockstep with my own daughter, who was born about 18 months after I joined. By 2008, both she and the program—which I also loved unconditionally—had developed from toddler to teenager.
In 2006, as our Third Party Administrator (TPA) contract was ending, we started the procurement process for a rebid. A TPA in our case handles: the computer system for insurance enrollees, along with eligibility, payment processing, correspondence, and customer service, i.e. pretty much everything. The contract went to the lowest bidder, who also had scored the most poorly on the assessment tools. As a staff member, it was not my place to question why it worked out that way, but simply to make it work. As the person overseeing activities related to customer service, I was centered firmly in the eye of the storm as the transition from the old TPA to the new one unfolded, with problems galore. (All transitions have problems, but these were worse than “average” and I was the one getting much of the feedback from unhappy enrollees and legislative offices).
Several months into the transition, a typical day would find me with 20+ emails open, each one interrupted by an even more pressing crisis. My seven staff members were valiantly trying to figure out a convoluted system that had not fully matured, while fending off hostility from our partner agencies, who were also awash in dissatisfied enrollees and important stakeholders complaining that their constituents were complaining.
The day I broke, I had the 20+ emails open; our external consultant (who was there to deal with some of the technical glitches but also to make recommendations related to how our staff should function) was sitting with me discussing a project; my phone was ringing; I am sure I had some child-related (as in my own children) issue on my mind. A staff member came to the door, asked me something about refunds, a situation that the TPA was supposed to have handled but had not, and I don’t recall exactly what I said (I think it may have been something along the lines of “if they would just do their **?! job), but the next thing I knew I was in tears, the consultant was beating a hasty exit back to her office to give me some space, and I had reached this point:
I realized deep inside that it was never going to be enough to be passionate about the cause of the organization I work for. As much as I love management and leadership theory, there was not anything in my arsenal of knowledge and experience that could augment the passion enough to fix this set of issues.
The tears I cried that day were a mixture of frustration, anger, sadness, grieving, resignation, and probably a few other things. As Seth Godin wrote in his post, “Organizing for Joy,” there are companies out there that “give their people the…expectation…that they will create, connect and surprise.” When an organization lowers its expectations, the “chances of amazing are really quite low.”
The day I broke was the day I knew we had given up on amazing anyone, especially ourselves.
Photo provided by Paula Kiger.