Monday, February 21, 2022

The Most Important Lesson: Chain of Command

The flags are packed! Today is the day I fly down to Saint Petersburg as this weekend the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series begins. This will be my third season working my dream job but the lessons that helped me get here were learned long ago. I'm currently working on a book that's going to tell the entire story of the journey to Indy on how things learned decades ago were paramount in making it and in today's story, well, I really enjoy this story of learning how chain of command works.

It was January 2002, and I was working at a videogame store in a mall. It was a miracle of sorts that I even had a job there as I gave the world's worst job interview. No, really, it was atrocious as I said, "I don't know" to every question the manager asked. Did I have any sales experience? Did I have any management experience? To those questions and others, I stated that I didn't know. Somehow, I got the job the next day.

Quickly, I picked up the art of sales. I loved it, actually, and it was something I had done forever while playing Monopoly. It was my goal to make you think you were getting a great deal and it was my goal to win the game. The rules of this game to win were to be #1 in every sales category they kept track of. One of these were game reservations and at the time those cost $10 but then a competing store opened a location in the mall and offered $5 reservations.

I complained to the store manager that we were being killed due to this. He disagreed because, "Whether it's $5 now or $10 now the end price of $59.99 is the same." While that might've been true the reduction in reservations showed otherwise. He countered by saying, "Of course it's going to be down 50% because there are two locations now." However, my numbers were down 75% which was greater than the expected 50%. We were losing business, and this meant my goal for being number 1 in the whole district was in jeopardy.

Perhaps I shouldn't have cared. This was an entry level job, and the turnover rate was exceptionally high. Also, the pay was a few cents over minimum wage. Why would I care so much? Well, when I do something, I'm going to do something the fullest of my abilities. It's either all in or all out and I was fully committed to this sales thing even thought there was no bonus or reward for my dedication.

I continued to lobby the manager for some sort of change, and he eventually said that there was a feature in the sales terminal to email corporate directly. Later, he told me that he meant this as a joke but as he took a lunch break, I went into the sales terminal, and I found the corporate email section and I began my letter.

Writing came easy to me explaining my case. I also used some humor and a hint of desperation in the business we were losing. It took an hour, but I was happy with the case I laid out and I hit send.

The following week when I clocked in the manager saw me and called me over. He said, "Aaron, big thing, corporate did not appreciate your email. Really? You used humor in the email? That email goes straight to the CEO! They were not a fan of reading your writing so never use that email system. Oh, and reservations are now $5." Mission accomplished!

This was a big lesson for me, though. It wasn't learned right then as it took some other events down the road to solidify the concept of chain of command, but just because I knew I was right didn't mean I had the power to use tools not meant for me to change the system. Up to that point in my life I would supersede any chain of command if I knew I was right and I didn't understand the concept of, "even though you're right you're wrong." There's a system in place in most places and to go rogue is not typically a good strategy.

When I've heard stories from other individuals on the autism spectrum in the workplace this concept of command seems to get us in trouble and the problem is when the person is actually right. What's the balance here? There are times when bypassing the chain of command is the right play, but most of the time it isn't. Learning this dance can be difficult because, truly, in this videogame store example they did agree with me and changed the price for all stores with a competing store nearby. While I was spoken downward somewhat because of the email I got my end goal, but what if they had fired me for bypassing the chain of command? Would I ever have spoken up ever again? 

In the workplace everyone will experience the chain of command in their life and learning the delicate balance that exists. For us on the spectrum in can be a bit trickier because if we put our entire being into the work, we can easily get frustrated if others don't have the same passion we do and we will continue to pursue avenues until we get the conversation we want. Some may consider this a bit of annoyance, but shrouded in that potentially frustrating annoyance is actually a dedication most employers should be pining for.

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