Can't We All Just Get Along?
"Can't We All Just Get Along?
By Mary Brandel
Contractors are usually hired by upper management and then put to work with the rank-and-file IT staff. Therefore, it's critical that contractors avoid conflict and politics at (nearly) all costs.
During the first week of a yearlong contract with Hills Stores Co. in Canton, Mass., Andy Wysocki was asked to work on a point-of-sale program for the $2 billion retailer. (Hills was bought out by Rocky Hill, Conn.-based Ames Department Stores Inc. in 1999.)
The following week, he and another contractor on the project were asked to change the user interface "to something that, in my book, wasn't usable," says Wysocki, an independent contractor who is now based in San Francisco. The other contractor on the job fought the change the whole way, "but I just kept reminding him that they were paying us good money and to just ignore it and do what they wanted."
By the third week, the company had asked the team to change the interface back again. At this point, "the other contractor was very, very unhappy," Wysocki says. "But to me, it was just my job."
Clearly, Wysocki is no idealist, but his attitude is a good one to adopt if you want to navigate the many political and cultural waters you encounter as an independent consultant. Contractors are usually hired by upper management, but they function in a rank-and-file world. This means they have to get along with all types of people and climates, ranging from friendly at best to toxic at worst.
Short of obtaining a degree in organizational psychology, contractors can follow some rules of thumb to avoid or at least coexist with a company's land mines and political quagmires. The most important rule - as Wysocki has learned - is to do what the person who hired you tells you to do. "If you don't agree with what they want to do, bring up your concerns. But if they don't want to budge, remember, they are paying the bill," Wysocki says.
Political tangles are something every IT contractor should avoid. "The people I've seen get in trouble with a corporate culture are those who mistakenly thought they understood the environment they'd entered, when in fact they could not because there were hidden political agendas at work," says Janet Ruhl, book author and host of Realrates.com, an online resource for computer consultants.
Wysocki goes so far as to not attend company-related meetings if they don't pertain to his project. "I consider the pecking order of the people and try to keep the one who signs my invoices happy," he says. That doesn't necessarily mean wimping out of every politically charged situation. "I work very hard to not take sides, but if I find I disagree with somebody, I always talk to that person first. It's not easy, but I do confront my problems," Wysocki says.
Moreover, it doesn't mean doing your job with your eyes closed. In fact, Tom Welch, a certified project manager in San Antonio, says he spends his first few days on any new contract with his eyes wide open. "A consultant doesn't have to be the smartest one on the team, but he does have to be the most observant," Welch says. That includes assessing both the organization and the individual members of the team you're working on. Most important, Welch says, is to realize you're not there to shine. "You definitely don't want to be a know-it-all," he says. "There are people who know the project and the technology better than you. Your job is to coach them to bring the best out of everybody. If you go in swaggering, you're going to catch hell."
Personality Traits of a Contractor
The following characteristics will work to your benefit when on a client site:
- Intuitive about other people's personalities and needs
- Observant of group dynamics
- Flexible about how things should be done
- Willing to try out others' ideas
- Tolerant of many different personalities
- Desire to remain independent of political intrigue
The following characteristics may work against you when on a client site:
- Idealistic about how things should be done
- Need to see your own ideas implemented
- Strong need to be liked and admired
- Strong need to belong to a group
- Desire to get involved with internal politics"
<Note from JobFairy.com: You'll still get caught up in the politics even if you're a contractor. But at least you'll get paid more.>