Strange Bird: An Endangered Species

Last year, I was following a search for a leadership position that happened publicly. It was the search for the new general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority or the Metro, one of the largest public transit systems in North America. Initially, I was following the development because I regularly traveled to Washington, DC, and as a frequent rider of the Metro, my safety, my comfort and my ability to get to places on time and conveniently were on top of my mind. In 1995, riding the Metro in DC would be a highlight of my visit since the Metro was cleaner and more comfortable than the subway system in my own city. In 2015? I rode the Metro because I had no other choice. In its forty years, the Metro had accumulated a lot of issues, from poor rail safety records to crumbling stations, from unreliable schedules to a financial crisis. It would take a strong leader to help the organization turn around. I wonder how the Board of Directors would select the new general manager given the complexity of the issues the Metro faced and of the jurisdictions and the people it served.

One day, as I was riding the Metro in DC, a local paper gave an update on the search process:
“A sharp division between the jurisdictions and Metro’s board, which had Virginia’s support, provoked the current crisis over the transit agency’s leadership.

While Maryland and D.C. want a financial expert to take the reins of the system, Virginia would be comfortable with a conventional transit executives as long as he or she focuses on safety, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said.”

Coincidentally, the dilemma on what expert to hire resonated with me personally. At the time, I was acting in the general management capacity for an organization as it searched for its permanent leader. The organization was facing complex issues and had little time and limited resources to solve them. My job was to listen to the stakeholders – from the board to the staff, from the customers to the vendors – prioritize their issues, and find the right people and resources to work through the issues while keeping the stakeholders focused and on course. I expected the job description to describe what I was doing. Interestingly, it did and it didn’t. As expected, it asked for candidates with a wide range of functional skills, professional experiences, and demonstrated responsibilities. What surprised me was that it also asked for candidates who were subject matter experts in many areas. At the end, subject matter expertise became the focus.

I was automatically out of the running for the job that I was already doing. I was not an expert. I was, and still am, a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

When I saw the job description of the general manager of the Metro and the report on the sharp division among the jurisdictions with the hiring authority, I felt for the men and women who would apply for that job. I wondered if candidates with the right skills and experiences were being overlooked. The job, as I saw it, required:

  • Someone who was experienced in solving complex issues for complex organizations, not doing it alone but with the help of others;
  • Someone who knew how to identify problems and locate experts who knew how to solve them;
  • Someone who knew what questions to ask, whom to ask, and how to assess the answers;
  • Someone who had walked in others’ shoes, who might not be an expert but appreciated expertise and could trust the experts while making sure that the experts work together, deliver results and prove themselves trustworthy;
  • Someone who could connect the dots;
  • Someone who could draw the big picture;
  • Someone who could motivate the experts to get their hands dirty and chip away at issues, a process that could be tedious, repetitive, and boring and often required people to give up their individual or departmental interests for greater goals;
  • Someone who was not afraid to prioritize, make tough decisions and commit to a course of action until further evaluation;
  • Someone who created safe space, manage stakeholders, and advocate for the experts to get their work done.

That person might not know the science and engineering of rail safety or the difference between debits and credits behind financial statements, but the person had better know how to enable safety experts to do their best job and to get a capable finance team to help figure out how to ensure adequate resources for rail safety. The Metro did not need another expert. The Metro needed a jack- (or jill-) of-all-trades.

Seeing that those with the hiring power were zoning in on specific expertise and not general management, I worried. I worried not only for the successful turnaround of my beloved Metro, but also for those of us in general management. Were we becoming irrelevant?

General management, in my observation, seems to be a dying species. At the very least, general management suffers misconception. Back at the turn of the 21st century, I arrived at a business school known for general management. Many CEOs and at least one U.S. president went there. When I got there, the dot-com startups – remember those? – were en vogue, and entrepreneurial management replaced general management as a required course in the first year. General management seemed to have faded away with the passing 20th century.

I have spotted similar trends elsewhere ever since. Variations of the word “entrepreneur” have become common on job postings. Since the millennials joined the workforce, we have also seen all sorts of employment models, like gig economy, and organizational structures to accommodate a more diverse workforce. This is all great, and I love it, but that doesn’t take away that we need men and women with general management experience. Just because they are jacks-and-jills-of-all-trades does not mean that they are not essential. If I can summarize their contribution into one sentence: they know how to connect the dots to make a big picture. So, whether they work for an entrepreneurial, nimble, chaotic startup or for an established, complex organization, or whether they lead a small community or run a country, connecting the dots to make a big picture is what you want them to do. Or at least, that is what I want them to do.

As my empathy with the men and women of general management grew, I came across a book called What Kind of Bird Is That? by Mirra Ginsburg, illustrated by Giulio Maestro, based on a Russian story by V. Suteyev, at a used book sale at my local public library. I had no idea what the book was about, but I was drawn to the drawing of a strange-looking bird on the cover. It had a white head, a long neck, a huge orange beak with a sack, a pair of blue long legs, a pair black wings, a kaleidoscopic tail of a peacock, and a pink comb. The unusual look was neither ugly nor beautiful, but it was for sure captivating. The next thing I knew, I judged the book by the cover and bought it.

It turned out, it was a story a goose who did not like the way he looked, so he went around trading parts of his body with other birds. He got a long neck from a swanwhatkindofbirdisthat-004, a huge orange beak from a pelican, blue long legs from a crane, black wings from a crow, a colorful tail from a peacock and a pink comb from a rooster. As in a plot of most children’s stories, he went on an adventure, had a mishap, and came back to being just a goose at the end. The moral of the story was to be content with what you had.

Well, that was not the only moral that I got out of the story.

For me, the story was a journey of a goose who, despite of his initial intention, got to know other birds by wearing the other birds’ body parts. At the end of the journey, the goose was transformed from a mere goose to a composite bird that carried the forms and functions of the various birds in his community. He became a strange bird. While the other birds did not see whatkindofbirdisthat-005part of themselves in him and judged him for his unfamiliar look, he felt all of the parts that made up his new body. He experienced the strengths and weaknesses of each component. He learned to appreciate the beauty of the swan’s long neck and knew the challenges of having to carry around its weight. He liked the elegant long legs of the crane and learned their limitations when he tried to run fast to escape the fox. Because he could no longer pluck the fresh sweet grass with a beak of a pelican or fly with his small crow wings, he had a better appreciation why his fellow geese could pluck grass or fly given the specific body parts.

The strange bird embodied the spirit of a general manager, a jack-of-all-trade, master of none. In a professional context in the human realm, he had walked in others’ shoes through his transformation. He had picked up tools, skills and experiences from various functions, so to speak. He could relate to all the parts made him. While he no longer could use each part expertly, he understood the benefits and shortcomings of the parts and knew what specific parts he needed to help him at a given time. At the end, it was the other geese – with their wings and sharp beaks – who flew back and saved him from the fox.

I saw the strange bird in me. I saw the strange bird in the future general manager of the Metro.

There are many roles that require experts to do the jobs, and there also many roles that require general management skills and experiences. If our minds are telling us to seek an expert for any job, then I suppose we can consider general management as expertise. Becoming an effective general manager requires training, skills, experiences and hard work. It takes general management experts to see the dots and to know how to connect them into a beautiful picture. So, I don’t know why we often trip ourselves when we get to choose a leader in general management roles and go for specific expertise instead of the expertise of general management. I hoped that the hiring authority for the Metro general manager position saw the value of this endangered species.

Months after I read the article, Mr. Paul Wiedefeld was selected the new general manager of the Metro. So far, I have seen the spirit of the strange bird in his actions. While the rehabilitation of the Metro will be a marathon, and for a while, I will continue to be concerned about my safety, my comfort, and my ability to get to places on time and conveniently when I ride the Metro, I at least feel assured that there is a strange bird that could lead other birds to the desired destination.

Next time when you get to choose a leader, keep an eye out for a strange bird. Maybe it is one for you to consider and not to shoo away.