Monday, February 13, 2017

On My Career and Education

Working in the food service industry, I twice was elevated to roles where I oversaw the store for the shift. At Quizno’s that was only usually me and one other person, but by the time I was at Casa, that meant that sometimes there were 20 people working who I had to make sure were coordinating service to the customers by all stakeholders so that food would go out and the money would come back in and all transactions were accounted for at the end of the night, and the prep was completed for the next shifts and the restaurant was clean before leaving. I was also involved in higher-level strategic decisions about staffing and menu items, though I was not directly responsible for these decisions. One of the key responsibilities was managing the labor levels. I had to ensure that sales were in line with the staffing in the moment to ensure we weren’t losing money by paying too many people to just stand around. Thankfully I was usually able to work with under 10% labor as pizza is a relatively high margin food.

Then there was a transition period. During this transition period, I worked jobs that were related to my education at the time. I taught Chemistry at WVU and Saint Rita and English at Kansas State University. I also worked as a reporter for three different newspapers. Two of these were student papers, but one was the region’s main daily paper. These positions all represent similar skill sets that are hard to quantify. I was able to work autonomously under my different supervisors and editors, who I all had to ultimately answer for. There were additional stakeholders in the readers and the students and their parents who were the ultimate consumers of my work. I wrote in genre-specific ways and developed soft skills both in reporting and in teaching. Interpersonal communication is so important because you must show that no matter what your ultimate role you are selling to people the necessary intimacy. They should believe that you are in the same boat as you are. It is a collaborative and not an adversarial process.

Ultimately, making things a collaborative process has been my management style for good or ill. I have always been of the opinion that you shouldn’t ask someone to do something unless you were willing and able to do it to. For me that is the essence of leadership. We are all in this together, and we are working towards similar goals. If you need help doing the essence of what the organization does and I can step in, I will. There’s an important balance though. People must be trusted to work on their own and present the results that come and be self-directed. You cannot just jump in arbitrarily. This is as true as it is making pizzas as it is making sure someone has submitted all the billing to the state.

This leads into the last six years at CSS. I started at CSS as an intern for a couple of months. In that time as an intern, my role was limited. I entered in paper billing sheets into the computer system and helped generate invoices from the internal system that would be in turn entered into external systems to create billing claims from the state. I made enough of an impression that a month or so after the internship ended, I was invited to replace my former supervisor when she left the agency for a different position. I was in that role for over three years, and as I gained experience the role grew. It became not just tracking the A/R and the payments in the internal billing system (I would generate reports from these activates that would be entered in the financial system) but also receiving money for the participants and tracking their spending, as well as invoicing families for more billing. I supervised up to three people in this role.
As that role grew, I became familiar with the inner workings of the agency. An additional task was to gather the statistical and usage data for our participants’ usage of different programs offered by the agency. Various funding bodies ask their own specific questions about the number of clients and the programs they use and I had to know based on our internal codes how to report this.

This knowledge of the internal workings of the agency helped me in what was the biggest project I undertook at CSS. Simultaneous with an effort to reduce paper use in the agency, I was one of the key people in a project to replace the legacy internal payroll, billing, and record-keeping system with a new uncorrupted database. This was a multi-year project on top of the regular duties of the agency. Though the developer had a system he expected we would be able to use with little customization, we ultimately found the needs of the agency to be more complex. As such, we had to pull apart our process, define them, and then reenter client data and test the integrity of the database and create reports that answered the questions our funders asked – all hand in hand with the developer. 

Gaining this internal organization knowledge meant that my role kept expanding. I was promoted to the Accounting manager with the responsibility now also over payables. It was not much longer when I was promoted again to Director of Finance. As Director, I handed off most of the responsibilities I had inherited to the other people in the department. My new role was working hand in hand with the CFO as a second in command situation. I learned to prepare the income statement and the balance sheet for external reporting, aided in the annual budget, and prepared grant applications for our various funders as well as create the reports to those funders based on statistical reports generated from the new database we had worked so long on. In this last role I had less autonomy and I worry that I did not learn enough of the accounting to go with my institutional knowledge side.

My journey has not only been professional though. This also tracks back to my initial round of college. I have both writing and quantitative skills and liked to exercise them both. I was a chemistry major until my junior year where I switched to English because I saw myself as a writer much more than I saw myself as a chemist. That English degree led to the grad school in English and those transitional jobs. In the liberal arts is all about reading widely and thinking critically and being able to apply this to the world you encounter. Everything becomes, pace Derrida, a text to be read. 
I’ve never stopped learning, both formally and informally.  I set up my blogs and started reviewing on amazon as a way to continue engaging critically with the world – and to help create some audience for my more creative writings. 

I also went back to school to help leverage my intellect and skills into something marketable. First it was through Chicago Career Tech, where I received certification in medical coding and billing. I was also certified by a third-party group, though that certification has since lapsed. Through CSS I was in the Nonprofit Leadership Program at Notre Dame. That made me realize that if I wanted to grow in my career I would need to continue my education even more. I took and did well the basic accountings and economics classes as a preparation for the MBA at Concordia. In the last ten years with about 80 hours attempted of college and graduate level work, my lowest grade was one A-.