I’m having one of those days where past and present seem to swim together, leaving little wakes that diverge and overlap, rising and falling in free form. I’m feeling like these should somehow be tied together in a story, but I’m kind of afraid of screwing it up by forcing these thoughts and feelings into combinations that sound right in theory but kinda suck in practice.
But that never stopped me before, so…
Then and Now
I was happy to see that the business I devoted a lot of my life’s second act to today emerged as a stand-alone enterprise, free from the constraints of a larger corporate brand that at times helped, but also hindered the healthy evolution of a premier brand in a niche industry.
Pitney Bowes Document Messaging Technologies is now BlueCrest, with a new brand, a new market freedom, and I am sure the same hungry spirit, staffed by creative, innovative technologists and thought leaders.
Catching glimpses of familiar faces in tweets and press releases was a gift I wasn’t expecting. I am happy for them, and a little envious that I’m not there to experience their next successful chapter.
Go get’ em, BlueCrest!
Over the course of my career, I got to experience leadership in all shapes and styles. When I wandered into Danbury looking for a short-term temp job to help me support my family, (as playwright Robert Andersen once said, “you can make a killing but you can’t make a living in the theatre”) the production mail business was very small, and very much behind in the industry. That changed rapidly, driven by a team of brilliant designers, engineers, field service professionals and support groups that somehow managed to take what at the time was undisciplined, adventurous passion and energy and form a world-class organization.
Building that business required a leadership team that could harness the chaos, set big goals and motivate everyone to work together. They had to figure out how to deal with the brilliant, the stubborn, the dreamers and the grind it out-ers who had to come together to build the business.
From the outside, that leadership team may have looked just as diverse and disheveled as the rest of the workforce. But they were far from that. Today, as I sit in the back of the room watching and listening as our community leaders make sense of complicated issues, I find myself thinking about lessons I learned from those who mentored me. I remember things they said and did, things that are stored away in my mental file cabinet, available for revisiting and reuse.
Empowerment, Given And Taken
‘It’s your business, do what you think.’ Brian Baxendale, a gregarious and insightful leader, had the ability to see the potential capabilities of an employee and provide the right amount of permission tempered with the right amount of firm guidance. He remains an inspiration to many of us who got the chance to try things, to fail, and to try again.
Cambria’s recent struggle with the issues around our Fire Department gave our community an opportunity to engage in passionate debate about how we view our world, and how we want to see it in the future. Cambria is rich in so many ways, but that richness doesn’t extend to the financial realities many of us face. It has been interesting to observe and participate in the spirited discussions in support of or in opposition to a tax measure that would fund three firefighter positions. The conversations revealed more political and philosophical facets than I expected.
There were supporters of the measure who face real economic pressures, yet valued the service the firefighters bring to the community. There were those who feel the same economic pressures who opposed the measure because it would have a real impact on them. Many of us are staring at increased costs for all the services we rely on, with limited opportunities for a complimentary increase in personal income. There are people who are more financially secure who supported the measure because the tax would not cause them pain, and the additional capabilities were viewed as cheap insurance against a high-probability fire event. There were those similarly positioned who believe the extra manpower was unnecessary, as the coverage provided by both local and county/CalFire departments is more than sufficient. There are supporters who respond emotionally (“these are our guys!!!”) and detractors who see everything as corrupt and driven by greed (those bastards are at it again!!!) And there are many, both supporters and opponents, who check some of the boxes in all of these categories.
The reality though is that after all the tumult the measure was not successful. The supporters delivered a 54% tally, which fell considerably short of the required supermajority of 66%.
Analysis of the outcome provided some insights, notably that within each area of Cambria those who voted – and voter turnout was not great – delivered a majority “yes” vote. Like they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades… but is there a message in the 54%, beyond just winning and losing?
Informal polling, which has mainly been me asking people stuff, revealed that there was a real information gap in what the measure would do and how it would affect the fire services going forward. I was surprised to find that some folks thought the tax would add three additional members to the fire department. They did not realize that the defeat of the measure would result in the loss of three full-time professional firefighters. Of course, there were a lot of good, reasoned “no” votes, based on well-informed and considered rationale.
‘I’d like to try anyway.’ Ajay Ghia combined a studious, low-key approach with an unshakable determination to follow a course he knew was right. While presenting an acquisition recommendation to the corporate “C Suite” , he was met with a curt “you’re not going to convince me this is a good idea” from a notoriously difficult executive. After a beat Ajay replied, “I’d like to try anyway.” He then made a presentation that supported his position. The executive still did not agree, but he didn’t expressly kill the idea. Ajay and team went on to follow his strategy, the acquisition was made, and it became the platform for a series of systems that transformed the competitive landscape.
The members of the Cambria Fire Department are a determined and committed team who believe what they do is essential and critical to the health and safety of the community. They are also very dedicated to each other’s safety and success. As the community wrestled with the questions posed by Measure A-18, the firefighters continued to seek out ways to fund the three at-risk positions. The three firefighters had been hired under an earlier SAFER grant, which covered the cost for a period of two years. One of those efforts entailed applying for a second SAFER grant from FEMA.
Same Name, Different Rules
The difference between the first grant and the second grant is not trivial. Having seen the lack of follow-up from many communities who received the first round of grant funding, FEMA changed the rules and added a requirement that the governing agencies (CCSD) had to commit in writing to increasing levels of matching funds across the life of the award. This requirement raised the barrier to success considerably. As opposed to the revenue A-18 would have provided, the cost of the match would fall to the CCSD, and by extension the community, with no additional revenue source to cover the expense.
Ready, Fire, Aim
‘Interesting, but Irrelevant’ Rick Jablonski, Sales Leader and strategist, would occasionally use this phrase when discussions would wander a bit and stall on issues that were tangential to the decisions that needed to be made. I find myself using it a lot lately.
Because the challenge wasn’t daunting enough, the staff report, required when matters are put before the board for consideration, contained a suggestion that funds currently directed to the support and maintenance of the Fiscalini Ranch might be redirected to the fire department. The funding deficit that would be then applied to the ranch would be filled by a potential parcel tax that would be dedicated to the ranch upkeep.
(Cue inspirational music)
The Fiscalini Ranch is a majestic oasis, with a history that in many ways defines Cambria.
It means many things to many people, and there are community-based organizations that dedicate time and money to keep it safe and vital. Walking the bluff trail and sitting on one of the unique and beautiful benches is my version of going to church.
I don’t quite know where that proposal came from, or how much thought went into the ramifications of proposing it in this context, but it sure landed with a big BOOM. Suggesting that taking steps to “unfriend” the Ranch stirred a response that filled the cozy meeting room with community members who likely would riot (politely and gently) should the suggested actions gain approval.
‘Is this resonating?’ Bernie Gracy has been described as having “a brain the size of a small planet.” He was and is a tireless innovator with a passion for 100 + slide PowerPoint presentations, delivered with spell-binding energy and intelligence. He would always make sure to pause, wave his arm in front of the screen and ask the audience “is this resonating?” A great reminder to validate that what we say is well understood.
This suggestion did two things; one positive and one amazingly damaging. On the positive side, the immediate and passionate response brought into crisp focus just how much the community will support and protect the Ranch. A smaller, though equally important effect, was carrying more of the community to the meeting, where they could see and hear the issues in person, and not have to rely on others, including me, to tell them what happened. Many of us who share our views and recollections do so through the lens of our own positions, which can unfairly shade the story as it is retold. A shining exception to that is Kathe Tanner, our long-serving journalist who has seen it all and told it all. Her report of the meeting was crisp, factual and spin-free.
The damaging part of the recommendation was that it cast the firefighters as villains, and gave fuel to opponents who had both subtly and overtly positioned them in that light throughout the discussion leading up to the June vote. That battle was pretty brutal, and the rank and file of our small but mighty fire department were put in the position to represent themselves in the debate. They had the disadvantage of being firefighters and not accomplished debaters, opinion shapers, or skillful public commentators. Nor were they inclined to get down in the mud with some opponents filled with a weird rage built on a worldview that everything CCSD is corrupt, incompetent, greedy or otherwise evil. Instead, they had to make their case again, having seen the community not support their cause through the ballot box, yet facing what they believe is a serious staffing shortfall.
Facts and Reason
What was meant to be a simple, administrative and policy discussion to determine if the required letter of commitment should be issued quickly changed as the Board saw the furor the public release of the supporting staff report set off across the town. Board President Amanda Rice did an excellent job of setting the correct expectations for what was to be discussed and considered, and what was not to be considered. The ” not” was the linkage of Ranch funding to Firefighter funding, or any other method for funding the required grant match. The other members of the board added similar commentary, and also expressed a bit of discomfort with the inclusion of it in the report. This demonstration of leadership from the board went a long way towards averting unnecessary and destructive commentary from a rightfully upset gathering of citizens and Ranch lovers.
The Public, Speaking
‘Here’s my sense of the thing…’was the signal that Karl Schumacher had finished his process of examining an issue and coming to a recommendation. This phrase artfully set the table for a well-reasoned and insightful answer rather than a partisan position. Amazingly effective and diplomatic.
With the floor open for public comment, community members shared their thoughts on the issue at hand. Most of the comments were in opposition to the request for commitment. Some arguments were made using perceived deficiencies and inaccuracies in the grant application, and the long-range financial impact the funding requirement would have on the fiscal health of the district. Issues raised also included the thought that the recent defeat of A-18 was a clear signal that the community had spoken and did not want tax dollars spent on funding the fire department positions. This position had been shared by a fair number of people on social media prior to the meeting.
I spoke in favor of supporting the grant, sharing my belief that the staffing levels advocated by the fire department, and endorsed by every fire professional I had interviewed, were both sensible and necessary. I also shared my dismay at the proposal to take from Fiscalini and give to Fire Department, likening the use of that tactic to Fake News – tossing an incendiary topic into the middle of a serious issue, resulting in a splatter of shrapnel that causes injury to common sense and thoughtful discourse. I also made a pitch for treating those with opposing views, and in this particular situation our firefighters, with less disdain and more respect. Cambria Health District Board President Jerry Wood, speaking as a private citizen, also voiced support for the measure.
The most resonant and reasoned presentation came from Ted Siegler, a highly capable and respected community member with in-depth knowledge of the District’s financial condition as well as the working of the Fiscalini Ranch. Ted has served and continues to serve in leadership roles on multiple committees and boards, including the CCSD Finance Committee and Fiscalini Ranch organizations. I think I also saw him on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Armed Services committee, but that may have been different prominent white-haired guys.
Ted laid out a clear set of facts, challenged some of the numbers that were included in the staff report, and concluded with the position that due to the district’s fiscal condition it would be irresponsible to take on additional financial responsibilities with no offsetting increase in revenues. It was practically impossible, absent a purely emotional motivation, to disagree with his findings and recommendation.
The talking stick was returned to the board, and they had further discussion about what they were about to decide. Cambria Fire Captain and grant writer Emily Torlano answered questions and clarified some information about how the grant was written and submitted. She noted that there was a question in the grant application that asked if the agency would like to request a financial hardship waiver of the matching funds requirement. The decision to check “no” had been made based on previous practice and with the thought that checking “yes” might have a negative impact on the application. It should be noted that the grant application process was begun well before Measure A-18 was placed on the ballot – a reasonable action given the uncertainty of the funding options to maintain the three firefighters hired under the original grant.
Before voting, the question was raised whether the Grant Application could be amended to change the hardship checkbox to “yes.” It was clear that the vote was going to go against the request, and options including not responding at all, returning with a brief decline – to – commit funding letter, or something else that would have the same effect but not incur a red mark against Cambria should future grant opportunities arise. In the end, the language used in the letter articulated the reasons for the decision to not commit. They were: District’s uncertain financial condition, and the defeat of Measure A -18.
The decision the board made, while disappointing to some of us, was the right one for the community. As messy as it got, the Board showed solid thinking, compassionate listening, and excellent, committed leadership.
The firefighters were a bit disheartened, but I believe they left feeling they got a fair hearing from the board and most of the community. There is no gloating or complaining to be done here; there should be some comfort in knowing the process worked, our voices were heard, and our elected leaders did their job with intelligence, honesty, and fairness. I hope we take that forward with us as we steam full speed ahead into the next hurricane of rate increases and ambulance taxes.
Shortly after the decision was made to withdraw the grant application, the Cambria Fire Department was notified that their application had been approved and the grant awarded. They had to decline.
Pat Carberry spent his professional life leading different functions with grace, wit and compassion. Pat was also a hard-nosed businessman when necessary. He served in Vietnam as an Army Green Beret, but rarely spoke about his service. Pat was famous for the “Letters From God” that he’d read at the retirement parties of fellow PB’ers. When it came time for him to retire, he took a very different approach. He spoke quietly, and shared, ‘I’ve seen the horrific things human beings have done to each other.” A pause, then he looked at each one of us and said “Love one another.’