In the previous post (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 9), I had accepted a rotation to the Caribbean division to manage trade projects, with a small option to be developed as an analyst. Of all the positions available, I got my first choice, but honestly, I was moving because it was good for my career, not because I wanted to leave multilateral.
p. Development Officer, Caribbean, CIDA — The job was new and different, and I liked my coworkers and my boss. It was a pretty big change, not the least of which is I now needed to know how to do project administration in SAP. Project structures, WBS elements, complicated menus, approving disbursements, it was all there.
I’m pretty good with computers, and even I found it somewhat confusing at times. We had a small fund set up to do trade micro-projects, plus a couple of larger trade projects with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and the CARICOM secretariat in Guyana. Pretty straightforward, not particularly large projects.
I dove into the files. I had a pretty good handle on the two big projects within a week — mostly high-level projects to support them doing some horizontal work across the region to develop almost a regional perspective on certain WTO-related files. More in the realm of trade-related technical assistance, these were research and inventory type projects to give them a basis for common understanding of their common issues. One was with CARICOM and they had hired Canadian researchers to do the expert research; one was with OECS but administered with a Canadian management company to handle finance and project administration.
The other fund hadn’t really progressed too far. Some people had submitted projects, but we weren’t up and running yet. Mostly small $50K projects to do some research and consultations in specific countries on specific issues. Canada had Sectoral Advisory Groups on International Trade to advise us, and these projects weren’t that different, just smaller scale. Most of them were good-to-go as is, a couple needed a bit of tinkering to enhance some partnerships, but they were close.
Now here is where I started to run into challenges. These were small $50K projects. According to the administration and contract people, I was supposed to set up three payments to them — maybe $20K up front, another $20K when they submitted a project report, $10K when they were done, and multiple reports and checkins every three months as it went. The administration was way too heavy for such small projects but everyone assured me that it was standard.
I didn’t care if it was standard, it wasn’t a good approach, particularly as some of the recipients were people who had managed projects for us before. Sure, there was a financial risk, but there was also a risk of over burdening them too. I fought hard to reduce the administrative burden as low as it could go.
About six weeks in, I had read every single project document there was, spoken to everyone involved, had multiple meetings with partners, and even shared a summary of each with the Policy Branch (which no one really did at that time). I was up to speed, ready for the real work.
Except there wasn’t any more. That was it. I had a relatively small portfolio to start, and I was up to speed. I was reading everything I could, but even that has its limit. The one day I came into the office, I updated everything that had to be done on my projects, and I was done in fifteen minutes. I had preprogrammed everything for disbursements, I was ready to go when something came in, I read all the reports from the region, etc. I spent the rest of the day talking to coworkers about their projects and seeing how our, well, micro-management was going. If that was the way the projects were to be managed, if that was what a “good” project manager was supposed to be doing, I was in deep trouble. Because there was no way I was going to do that with my life. I watched the one day as the one manager organized an upcoming meeting, and literally went through a checklist of logistics items for the meeting — number of chairs, how many jugs of water, etc. This wasn’t the first meeting, the organizers had done it several times before, and successfully, but she was walking through ever element anyway. If the executing agency needed that micro-management, the project itself was doomed.
I started to chafe. I had gone from dealing with high-level governance issues that I enjoyed to seeing how many jugs of water were at a meeting? Really? I hadn’t even done that when I actually was in charge of logistics projects. I started doing some analyst duties.
I was also shocked by how little information the people in the division knew about what else was going on around the Agency. Large-scale corporate initiatives were outside their sphere of information. They literally knew NOTHING about some of them, and I began to see why. If a new initiative was discussed for 10 minutes at a high-level executive meeting that lasted an hour, and the VP debriefed on it to DGs for say 5 minutes, then they only heard about 1 minutes worth on it. They in turn would debrief directors on a whole range of things, and that mention would probably get reduced to less than 30 seconds. Files that I had been working on in Multilateral Branch as the default “corporate guy”, major projects that were occupying 40% of my workload for over a year, were now being mentioned to my team by my Director as “Oh, there’s something coming about X, not really sure what that is”. Wow. No wonder they hated corporate things, they had no idea what they were until they showed up fully designed and set.
Just before I rotated to the Caribbean Division, I had been offered a really good job in the Policy Branch. It had been part of the rotation, but I hadn’t applied as it was listed as a senior position. Yet one night before I left my old job, I was finally able to connect with their Director just after 5:00 p.m. on some files, and we had this great 20 minute conversation where we dealt with about 4 or 5 common files, updated each other, decided what needed to be done, and set our path. The kind of conversation you can only have with someone else who really knows the files, no need to have the 101 discussion, you go to the graduate-level discussion and just talk about the way forward. At the end, he said, “Have you ever thought of working here?”. So we ended up having a conversation about my career, he said he’d take me now, but I had already committed to Caribbean. He hadn’t found anyone through the process, so he was about to run a full competition. Would I be interested?
I was a PM-03, and had been in the Career Development Officer program for 5 years. He was offering the equivalent of jumping out of the competition at a PM-05 level now. Of course I was interested. So I applied, and wrote the competition. Easy peezy lemon squeezy. It was the type of work I did every day in Multilateral Branch, just a little more formally presented. And I had a woman in the area coach me on what to expect.
I had told my bosses that I was in the competition, and they knew from talking to the Director there that I had done really well on the exam (before I knew). I was likely to ace the interview, everyone thought, so they all knew I was likely to make the list at the end.
I didn’t know any of this. I just knew I was bored stiff, and didn’t even know if I was doing a good job where I was. I needed to make my first trip to the region, and just before I left, my supervisor called me into his office and gave me a bunch of positive feedback, they were really impressed with what I had been doing so far, etc. News to me.
And they wanted me to know something. There was likely to be an opening in Jamaica soon, and at my level, so when I was on my trip, I should approach it as also a question of whether or not I might want to live there for up to four years. I was shocked.
I had only been in the division three months. I didn’t even know if I wanted to stay in bilateral, and here was a shot at a posting? Others would kill for it, for me it was a giant question mark that I hadn’t even really considered. Remember, I joined CIDA because I liked government and policy and multilateralism, oh my, not because I was a dyed-in-the-wool development lover.
My trip was good, I had four stops to make in just under two weeks. I started in Jamaica, transiting through Montego Bay, and meeting with an old colleague my first morning there. Luc had worked in Multi before, and I quickly found out the reason for the posting information. They had talked about it, they had debated who to send, my name was on the list, but they hadn’t planned on saying anything. But they were worried too because they knew I might make this other pool and they wanted to know what to offer me to keep me. Luc told them that if they didn’t tell me I was up for posting, then HE would when I got there. In his view, and correctly, there was no way for me to run around Kingston and get a feel for it thinking I was just visiting, vs. a very hard look at the place as if I was considering living there.
Jamaica is beautiful, the little I saw of it, but Kingston is a rough go. I would likely be living in a high-rise with security downstairs, would need to buy a right-hand drive vehicle, likely an SUV. His wife was telling me how to get all these great deals with local merchants once my wife got to know them, but of course, I was single. I wasn’t coming down there with family in tow. Honestly, it wasn’t completely appealing. The work was fine, but the personal life was going to be a challenge.
I had been single for almost five years, part of a personal decision to find out who I was inside, and what I wanted out of life, and I was feeling somewhat alone in the world. More self-assured, more confident of what I wanted, but very much alone. Not lonely yet, but I feared that might come.
A posting in Jamaica was not going to be a positive turning point for me, I didn’t think. I knew what ex-pats were like who embraced the local world, and that wasn’t me. I would be the type to try and recreate a lot of what I had back home. I would absolutely need to find the fastest / most reliable internet I could, which wouldn’t be cheap, and I could get a satellite dish easy enough. But I wouldn’t be able to go for walks at night, and maybe not in most places during the day. I thought maybe I could take some courses through the University of the West Indies, as they had some distance options, but I wasn’t sold. Then they told me the kicker. I wouldn’t be at the Embassy. I would work out of the Programme Support Unit. They didn’t have space for me at the Embassy, there was already an officer there, and the only reason they were moving forward more quickly was to keep me. Oh. Flattering, but the PSU was going to remove me from the main infrastructure, plus remove a lot of perks that go with the job. Like duty-free purchases, diplomatic immunity, etc.
It wasn’t a great combo for me, and I was having serious reservations. If it had been Barbados, I would have said yes in a heartbeat, I think. If it had been St. Lucia, I would have willingly taken a pay cut to do do it. Guyana wasn’t very appealing, but it was Kingston that was worrying me since it had some infrastructure, I just wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.
Then the results came out from the competition. As expected by all but me, I had ranked in the top two and there were three jobs. I had an offer. An ES-04 job, equivalent of a PM-05 level job. Doing OECD (yay!), G8 (yay!), bilateral relations with donors (umm, okay!), and a lot of policy coordination files (yay!). Mostly OECD, if they got who they wanted for the other jobs. I negotiated briefly with my bosses, but for them, there was no comparison…obviously if I cared about development, I would choose the posting.
And I would have. If I was a different person. If they had been willing to budge a bit on salary (the PSU positions were not subject to the same restrictions, they could have given me an acting PM-05 to offset the lack of other perks and the higher costs involved), I might have said yes. Then I looked at it objectively and it came down to two things:
a. Doing what was good for a CIDA career, taking a posting, eating the cost; or,
b. Doing what I wanted to do, was really good at, and for which hey would pay me more.
That’s the definition of a no-brainer to me.
I accepted the job in Policy Branch. I was out of the PM world. I was out of the development program. I was a full-time indeterminate policy person, freshly minted at a new level courtesy of a promotion that I had EARNED rather than just by time served. While getting my indeterminate status earlier had been significant, this one felt more real to me. This was the first time I truly felt like I knew what I was doing, the decisions I was making, and I was getting the right job for the right reasons at the right time.