Wednesday, March 05, 2008

COLUMN: Consultant

The sun hurts my eyes as I raise my weary head from my pillow. I sit at the edge of my bed and wait for the fog to clear my sleep-addled brain. There was something I had to do today, but I can't put my finger on it. And why is there this textbook laying on my --

OMIGOD. I HAVE A FINAL TODAY. I OVERSLEPT. I FORGOT TO STUDY. I grab my keys, hop in my car, and zoom to class. I slam open the door and the whole room spins and looks. The professor glares at me disapprovingly. That's when I look down. I FORGOT TO PUT CLOTHES ON!

I know it's one of those stereotypical dreams the experts discuss, but I think I'm the only one who actually dreams it on a routine basis. So what's the I-forgot-to-study-and/or-wear-pants nightmare supposed to represent? Fear of failure? A lack of self-confidence? Extreme insecurity? Too many tacos before bed? Because I'm guilty of ALL those. And if I didn't have self-awareness of my own shortcomings, I might not have made it through this past week.

For the last seven days, we've had a consultant join us here at the paper. A fellow whose job it is to come in, evaluate our performance and our department, and then offer recommendations toward improvement. And my job, apparantly, was to turn completely neurotic about the whole affair.

Not that the guy put us under any undue pressure or anything. In fact, he was kinda chummy. No, I'm just an idiot and react poorly to the prospect of any type of judgement or criticism. He wasn't there to find the weakest link, but still, all it takes is the knowledge that some kind of Big Brother is watching for me to become unhinged.

In a way, it was exciting. This is a guy who's visited hundreds of newspapers around the world, and certainly can bring a thing or two to the table. We can -- and we did -- learn some pretty cool stuff from him. But at the same time, I've felt a strange uneasiness all week. Whether chummy or not, this guy WAS checking all of us out. What if he went into a meeting with top brass and went, "Gee, I dunno about that Shane guy. He kinda creeped me out. Your best track towards improving this paper would be firing THAT weirdo nerd"?

And then there's the surprisingly shallow and indignant part of me. The immature and irrationally proud part of my brain that wants to scream, "How DARE you come in here and try to tell ME how to do MY job, buddy? MY butt's been warming this chair for 13 years, but if you think YOU can do a better job, plop right on down and show me your magick, dude!" THIS is the part of my brain that probably requires professional help.

But in the end, it was a very harmless and productive learning experience -- apart from the mandatory final training session being scheduled at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday, a time of day not seen by THIS earnest journalist since, oh, the mid-90's or so. But for all the awkwardness of the week, it really wasn't anywhere as bad as my brain had plotted out. In fact, we gained some new ideas that you might be seeing in these pages over the coming months. He offered some criticism, but -- despite this sentence shattering your image of me and bringing the social strata of the Quad Cities to its knees -- I'm not perfect.

This week DID raise an interesting question, though. How exactly DOES one become a professional consultant? I mean, I'm sure our guy came from an extensive background in the newspaper industry, and I'm sure our top brass knows all that, but we underlings were never told this guy's credentials. For all I know, he could be a plumber who one day had his arm halfway up a toilet and went, "Y'know, I've got some swell ideas for the newspaper business."

So maybe THAT'S my true calling. I could be a consultant. Imagine getting paid for walking into a strange place and telling people how to do their jobs. If you found yourself amid a bunch of employees you hate, YOU COULD TELL THEIR BOSS TO FIRE THEM. And before all heck breaks loose, *poof* you're on a plane to the next place who's hired you. All told, that's a pretty sweet gig. The power would be intoxicating. If only I was qualified to consult at anything. Lemme think... Hmmm...

I've got it. The one thing I'm a certified expert at. I hereby offer my consulting services to dance clubs across the globe. My job? To inform inebriated revelers when their dance skills are woefully lacking. Surely I've reached expert status at making fun of drunken morons. Too often a dance floor full of promise gets ruined by someone busting a VERY ill-conceived move. How many potential nightclub hook-ups have been wrecked by some prospective suitor failing to successfully pop, lock, or drop it? It needs not be a horror any longer, America. Just hire me to come in and stand there. At the first sign of a poorly executed breakdance, I step in and just go, "Dude, no. No, dude." And if anyone so much as tries to do the running man, they're banned for life.

Consultants are everywhere. Googling "consultant" brings up 304,000,000 hits. The music you hear on local radio was probably programmed by a consultant in Florida who thinks he knows best what the Quad Cities wants to hear. Your neighborhood was probably designed by a city planning consultant. There might be one showing up to YOUR job tomorrow. But if it goes anything like ours did, don't worry and keep an open mind. It might end up being a good thing. Just remember to wear clothes.

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