Not too long ago I participated in Cycle Oregon, a weeklong bicycle tour. Seventeen hundred riders pedaled an average of 75 miles each day through remote eastern Oregon. At night we camped in ad hoc tent cities planted at various locations along the route: rural high school football fields, small town parks, or wheat fields. Seldom did we have cellular telephone coverage. That was just fine as we, en masse, divorced ourselves from the damn things for this seven-day break from the regular world.
At dusk on the last night of the tour, as my friend Steve and I were casually walking through the surrounding sea of tents, we encountered a group of thirtyish guys sitting around, drinking beer, being boisterous. As we passed, we overheard them laughing, waging bets about how many voice mail messages one of their group members would have the next day when he was back in cell phone range and able to check his messages. Clearly, back in the real world these guys worked together in an office. One predicted the total messages would be 250; another, 150. The young man on the receiving end of the jest was robust, clean-cut, and confident. He smiled at the fawning. That’s all we took in as we walked past, but it was obvious this man was important in his work. He was well respected, a leader and a high earner—a success. People depended on him.
For 24 years I have been general manager and CEO of a small business. Centratel is profitable, has 30 employees, and a solid, loyal client base. It is certain the part I play is important: In my world, I’m also a “leader and high earner.” Many depend on me, too.
The next day, at the beginning of the long drive home with my bike ensconced on my car’s roof-top rack, I checked my voice mail box. There was one message. Left earlier in the day, it was a general and benign update from my chief operations officer who knew I would be interested in getting caught up on things when I was able to pick up my messages again.
Andi told me all was well in the office and she hoped I had a fun week away from things. “Drive home safely,” she said. That was it. She didn’t need to address the obvious: During the week, without a hitch and without an ounce of input from me, the business had functioned perfectly while it continued to churn out thousands of dollars in profits. It didn’t matter I was absent.
Who knows what that voice mail-inundated young man does for a living but I tell you this: He is mismanaging things if his world can’t proceed for a single week without his direct influence; if the myriad of systems in which he is involved all come to a halt when he is not available. Yes, all those voice mail messages attest to his status and importance, but in the bigger picture he is a slave to his job. And the people who depend on him are slaves to his presence. They wait for his next call and can’t move ahead until he provides input. Because he fails to set up business systems, in his absence things come to a standstill in the same way a dam causes a river to back up into a lake.
I’d say he was about 30 years of age. I’m 58. People and circumstances change with time. Eight years ago, my life was just like his.
– Sam Carpenter is author of the recent book, Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Working Less and Making More.