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June 5, 2010 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Coming into a job as a rookie, but seeing all the flaws; do I stay, quit, or take over?

I've got a new job at a small local store. I've done work like this before; similar business, with big corps and with small shops like this one. This shop doesn't -need- my help; they do fine, muddling along. But I can see glaring flaws in how they do things; how they manage inventory, how the staff is scheduled, how the care of the stock could be improved, how the place -should- be run... and I am torn between wanting to quit in frustration "We'll never get this place clean if you do it your way!" and wanting to take over "Give me a week and $500 and I will make this place become AWESOME". I have no previous managment experience but some of this is just common sense, in my opinion (you don't have filth and dust built up on your product, for example, and you don't let your kids trash the store for fun).

I'm NOT a manager type. I'm not a go-getter. I just get frustrated when I can't do a good job because I'm hampered by things like poor design, bad communication, and downright incompetence. I know that I'm a newcomer and there are probably huge things I'm missing in the equation. The same feeling has come over me before, and I left rather than try and "fix" a situation that was, in the end, not my business (literally). But I've felt guilty ever since, for walking away when I could have made a difference for the better.

I don't know if I can be happy working here if things stay as they are. But I don't think it's my 'place' to try to change things, as a brand new employee coming into an old family business. I don't know what to do; walk away, or should I try to push my ideas? Advice please??
posted by The otter lady to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If it's just going to frustrate you, why not quit? It seems like when things are to the point of "[letting] your kids trash the store for fun," do you really think that your help will help them? (Maybe they just hired you because they enjoy watching you clean the store after their kids trash the place? Maybe it's all just to spite you?)
posted by jrockway at 9:36 PM on June 5, 2010

I can't tell you whether you should "walk away" or not because I think you can make helpful suggestions without "pushing" them if they aren't receptive, and whether you can stand the environment otherwise is up to you.

But I think you should keep in mind that one of the perceived perks of running a family business is that you don't have to do things by anyone else's book and no one else is going to punish you if you let some things slip through the cracks. In other words, they could very well be running the business in a sloppy sort of way because they're happier running it that way than tightening things up. For example, if they weren't okay with their kids trashing the store for fun, then they wouldn't let them do it. While that would grate on me too, I'm not sure there's a great way to keep from looking like an asshole who's trying to run both their business and their family if you suggest they don't let the kids do that.
posted by Nattie at 9:37 PM on June 5, 2010

There are always ways things should be done, and reasons they're not. Maybe the simply don't have enough time to clean up as you think it should be done for example, or have prioritized it differently than you would, for reasons you aren't aware of. Maybe paying you to clean up after their kids is worth it to them to keep the kids entertained and out of their hair! You may be right in your suggestions, but there's also a good chance you don't yet have the full picture, or the same priorities. Get that full picture before you go off telling them how to run their business.
posted by cgg at 9:42 PM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

walk away, or should I try to push my ideas

I'll give you a better option: neither.

I see this situation often in my line of work (software engineering). This is actually part of being a good team: understanding that none of your process is perfect, and people on the team have ideas to iterate the process and make it better. Half the point of hiring someone is finding someone who can improve stuff. If nothing is as good as it could be, and you only hire good people, you should expect the new team member to bring ideas to the table. Otherwise, you're wasting your time.

That's the team angle. What's your perspective? Like you say, you don't want to be That Guy who comes in new and starts telling everyone how they're Doing It Wrong. Not only is it rude and not very team-like, it won't get you anywhere. Instead, what I recommend to people in this situation is to take some "soak time". Take a good amount of time—this amount varies, sorry, no standard rule here—to work within the existing process and learn the cracks and bends of it. See how others deal with what you perceive as the wrong way to run things. You will inevitably discover:

- Some things you thought were broken are actually not.
- Some things you thought were broken, well, are. But not as much as you thought.
- Some things definitely suck and should be addressed.

Bam. Now you've triaged things. Scratch the first ones off your list, save everyone's time and save your own face. Second set, back-burner them. Third set, those look important, right? Now you can start there.

Oh, right. Third option. Be incremental.

Now that you have a better handle on this specific situation—because as much as you've "done this" before, every situation is different and special somehow—you can start bringing up concerns and ideas you've been cooking. And because you've given the situation some soak time, you've been able to iterate your own ideas to make them less jarring and more effective.

This is the stuff respect is made of: showing you can work with people without telling them how to run things, but at the same time, showing that you want to help everyone and make things kick more ass. Everyone can see that you want to help, not boss them around, and that you've taken time to understand them.

Maybe the current situation is backwards, but everything is a human situation, and we seem to deal with backwards pretty well. So we get complacent and fall into comfort with things that are being done badly. As an outsider, things often look more broken than they really are, and it takes perspective to gauge accurately how broken "broken" really is. Perspective takes time. Give it some and go gradually.
posted by Mikey-San at 9:53 PM on June 5, 2010 [13 favorites]

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is common in any workplace that involves humans. A lot of places just aren't run in the most ideal manner. What I'd do in your situation, unless you can't stand being around anyone you work with (in which case I'd start looking for another job) is see what you can do to improve things without saying a thing about it to anyone.

Is there dust on some of the stock? OK, then get a cheap dust rag, or even just an old t-shirt you don't wear anymore, and clean it off. I did that in my job, and it sure made me happier not to be surrounded by dusty crap, and the higher-ups noticed that I took a lot of care in my work. There was another thing that I tried to change by talking to the person responsible for it, who didn't listen to me - not because he didn't care, but I think he just isn't good at remembering how to do things any way he isn't already used to, and plus I'm not his boss. Then I just did that thing myself and it wasn't a hassle for me. I worked there the same hours whether I did that or not. Again, it made me happier in my work, and I didn't have to feel like I was bossing anyone around.

So, see how much you can change on your own without directly impacting the jobs of those around you. If you're lucky, someone important will notice the quality of your work and you'll be rewarded for it.
posted by wondermouse at 10:30 PM on June 5, 2010

Make a change - that's leadership.

How you make the changes takes diplomacy, good non-judgmental communication skills and good delegation skills. You were hired to add value: write down what you see needs changing, propose an action plan and diplomatically discuss this with your manager next time you meet. Some of these changes may be done by you, others by other members of your team.

The key here is to show value through identification, communication and action for the company's better good. That makes you a valuable employee at your current workplace, and a desirable employee in the next step in your career. Don't quit just yet.
posted by seawallrunner at 1:23 AM on June 6, 2010

Making the business better is a separate project from making yourself feel better about the business. If you push for change simply to ease your own frustrations then you'll get all sorts of resistance. Reconcile yourself to the way it is first, then make suggestions when you can do so dispassionately. If the status quo bugs you so much that you can't live with it, then find another job.
posted by jon1270 at 3:15 AM on June 6, 2010

Hi. I was just thinking about asking a very similar question (apart from the kids thing. the kids would possibly be a sign to me to run away) with a slight twist (new owners in an existing business, so many of the current horrible logistics/workflow issues are inherited and more likely to be open to change).

I don't even know what 'discuss this with your manager next time you meet' means in this context.

Like wondermouse, I'm starting with the things I can do quietly by myself, cleaning and in some cases improving presentation. In my case, 'If you're lucky, someone important will notice the quality of your work and you'll be rewarded for it.' doesn't exactly apply like that, it's more a case of 'If we're lucky, it will be good enough when the Environmental Health inspector comes round that we won't get any trouble'. For most of the bigger things I'm going to leave it til I've been there a month, come up with as many diplomatic solutions as possible, and then ask the boss if we can maybe have a chat about stuff somewhere (I suppose that's the 'meeting with my manager?').

One thing - check the fire extinguisher(s) and first aid kit. I didn't know where the first aid kit was until I had to use it the other day, and it was not terribly helpful to find that a lot of stuff had been used and not replaced and that all the stuff with expiry dates had indeed expired. Once the immediate situation was dealt with, it was pretty easy to say to my boss that she needed to buy x,y and z for the first aid kit - are there health & safety rules about workplace first aid kits in your country/state? Is it possible to have some random 'I was just wondering' / 'at this one place I worked ...' conversation?
posted by Lebannen at 4:43 AM on June 6, 2010

My job over time has become this: move into a business, see the flaws, try to better the business by changing/eliminating bad practices, etc.

My most important piece of advice is: you need allies. You need followers. You want to make yourself indispensable to the process of improvement by being a leader.

Do not make friends -- that's not what I mean. Focus on the business, remove emotionality. But above all, don't alienate your coworkers, because that's a recipe for futility and frustration.

Also, a healthy dose of humility goes a long way here; ultimately if it's a privately-owned business, it's their toys and they can play the way they want (as long as no laws are being violated). While you have new eyes, you don't necessarily have the experience to make the judgments that you are making. Tuck some of this episode in your life away as "lessons learned," because you'll be able to use them later.
posted by kidelo at 4:57 AM on June 6, 2010

I think it depends on the personalities that you're dealing with.

If things are bad because they've run out of spark and enthusiasm, then they may be very open to someone coming in and taking some of the work off their hands. In this case, you could try picking a specific self-contained area of work they are least enthusiastic about, and telling them you'd be really keen to try it out, and could you take over the (buying / inventory management / etc) in order to get some more experience, and to give them a rest?

If they are floundering due to their own inexperience, and they know it, then they may cope well with you calmly telling them what things they need to do and showing them how to do it.

If they are bad because they are happy with how things are and really don't want to improve, maybe all you can do is the small things you have control over (cleaning and tidying, for example), or at least you will have to proceed very very slowly. Maybe you could persuade them to let you handle one particular shelf - buying, inventory management, layout and everything - and then, especially if it sells well, perhaps your influence will spread.
posted by emilyw at 6:48 AM on June 6, 2010

Response by poster: These are all GREAT answers! Everything put together gives me a much better idea of where I'm at and how to proceed. In particular I have to say my jaw almost dropped at the realization that the store isn't just a store; it's an extension of their home. Of -course- the kids trash the place and of course it's not up to someone else's version of code; it's their store and they run it probably much the way they run their own lives. They're happy. That makes me feel much better about it, somehow. I know I sure don't keep my own home desktop as neat as it could be, but it works for me. There are some things that I really do think need to be addressed (health/sanitation problems) and the words of advice in this thread on waiting, making allies, etc, are going to be invaluable there. Thanks MeFi!
posted by The otter lady at 8:06 AM on June 6, 2010

A bit more about the nature of the store would be helpful. Could it be that the very inefficiencies that drive you mad are also part-and-parcel to its appeal to the public? The little local store that just feels more friendly and homey? Laid-back. As opposed to the chain store that is run like a well-oiled, impersonal machine?

As you say, they are doing fine. Perhaps you should pick a small item of inefficiency, and simply ask "Why do we do it this way?" There may be reasons beyond b-school efficiency for the way the place is run.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:10 AM on June 6, 2010

They're happy.

I think this is what it comes down to. People (myself included) often forget that work is not the goal, but rather a means to an end. Maybe that end is helping others, maybe that end is being happy yourself, maybe it's something else or somewhere between those. People who own a family business in particular probably have a strong idea of what their "end" is, and if they're happy they might just have found it. Maximizing profits is probably irrelevant, if they're earning enough to be happy. So the real questions for you are:

1) What end are you working toward, yourself?


2) Can you achieve that end for yourself at this job, now that you have a greater sense of what end the business owners are working for?

As others said, let the company culture sink in for several months before you suggest big changes, and always phrase them as ways to make things even more awesome, rather than as ways to fix something that's "broken." Still, no matter how great the idea, how diplomatically you propose it, you are only going to get away with changes that are in line with the business owners' idea of a worthwhile "end." It's up to you to decide whether your happiness is compatible with what they're working toward.
posted by vytae at 9:09 AM on June 6, 2010

Wait. Learn more. Find a specific thing you can fix/improve without having to get permission for it, so that there's no downside risk. Say, "hey boss, I've been doing this like this, but I'm starting to get the feeling I can do it [faster|better|more accurately|more cheaply] like this instead -- would you be okay with me giving it a shot?"

Boss then says:

1: "No. Do it the way we tell you." He or she won't tell you why. In that case, best to find a better job.

2: "No. I appreciate you trying to make things better, but [we tried that, and here's why it didn't work|we tried something similar and it cost us a bunch of money/customers, so I want to think about it more|there's a corporate mandate that we have to do it this way|some other reasonable explanation]." Cool, say "I understand, that makes sense. Thanks for taking the time to explain it!" and go back to work. If you come up with something else later, try again.

3. "Sure, why not?" Give it a try. Be willing to accept it if it doesn't actually turn out to be a benefit. Follow up with him later to say "hey, this [seems to be working, should I keep doing it?|seems not to be working, can you think of where I might be going wrong, or should I go back to the old way?]" -- and be willing to listen to and respect his or her answer.

Ultimately, though, don't find ways to change things just because you can, or you'll drive everyone nuts. It is okay if things are less than perfectly efficient. This is not a great tragedy. However, if you see a big problem to fix, and other people acknowledge it is a problem, then it is worth spending some time on it.

Side note: every organization has a person who keeps spouting out new ideas and things that can be done differently, and keeps spending time working on developing those ideas, but in the meantime keeps failing to fulfill his or her primary responsibilities. Do not be that person.
posted by davejay at 4:19 PM on June 6, 2010

clarification: in my scenario, you're asking for permission to do something different that you don't technically need permission to do differently. it's a good way to show your boss respect.
posted by davejay at 4:20 PM on June 6, 2010

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