Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Broken Down in Buffalo (Relying on Others)

I now have a company car.  I have been looking for a good used car that can be dedicated to business use.  I found it on ebay, and it was the perfect situation: owned since new by an middle-aged woman who put only 5,000 miles on it a year in summers and stored it in winters.  Excellent condition.

love it

The problem was... it was located over 700 miles away in Akron, Ohio.

not just a drive to your local dealership

 Nevertheless, it was such a great car I bought it and my wife and I flew out to get it and drive it back.  After all, it was ready to go and needed nothing.  We planned to see Niagra Falls and my alma mater, Colgate University, neither of which she had ever seen.  The last night of our trip would be in Western Massachusetts, where I had a morning client meeting the next day.

Go Red Raiders!

We were picked up at the airport by the seller, a very friendly guy named John.  He greeted us and immediately let us know that on the way to the airport the car's temperature gauge began to climb.  Apparently there was a coolant issue that just came up.  Now if you met John, you would trust him with your kids after ten minutes.  He is just that solid of a guy.  We decided to head back to his place to take a look at it.

John is an MBA and a retired mechanical engineer.  After years of success in the office world, he built himself the ultimate man-cave garage and gave himself over to his passion: repairing vintage Suzuki motorcycles and selling some top-notch used cars in his spare time.  This is a happy and content man.

all men should have a man-cave

We identified the leak as coming from a plastic tank by the radiator.  Taking off a hose, we saw that a small piece had broken off, leaving a gap for coolant to pour out steadily and obnoxiously bright green.  Having a fully-stocked garage, John set about making a fix.  Epoxy and heat guns, sandpaper and clamps, he patched things back up.  He wanted to let it set a few more hours, but it was getting late and I wanted to get on the road to get to Buffalo (and snow was forecast).

He offered to give us some cash back, saying that it should cover the replacement of the plastic tank when we got home.  Like I said, a stand-up guy.  The car was smooth and happy for 200 miles as we made our way East.  Then the heat stopped working in the cabin.  The temperature indicator shot up into the red.  By this time it was heavily snowing. I pulled over under a highway bridge while the steam started to envelop the hood.

all the fun of this, but in a snowstorm on a highway

A refill of the coolant and we were on our way.  That gallon only lasted twenty minutes, and this time we broke down on top of a bridge a mile from our hotel.  I filled up again and we convinced the car to limp into the hotel parking lot.

The lot was full for 'special event parking', so we double parked.  Well-dressed people filled the lobby and the thumping sounds of a DJ emanated from the ballroom.  We had made it to the hotel in Buffalo, NY at 9pm and were tired and ready to have a nice dinner and head to our room.  Only one problem- the hotel didn't have our reservation.  Priceline had the wrong date down; they had booked the following Saturday (ok, that might have been our fault).  Due to the event there were no open rooms.  There was nothing to do but get back in the broken car, drive into the snowstorm, and try to make it to someplace for dinner as we searched for another hotel.  At this point we were almost at the end of our rope.  We just had to focus on the next step: "Ok, I guess we can't have dinner here.  I guess we have to find another hotel.  I guess we'll see if the car will make it to the next place."

We found a nice sports bar full of boisterous college students and ate dinner as we searched for a new room on our iPhones.  The car made it -barely- to our destination thirteen miles away.  We filled up the radiator with one more gallon of coolant.  After checking in we collapsed and fell into a deep sleep.

The next day was Sunday, so there wasn't much open.  After a great breakfast at a local alternative greasy spoon diner, we found an open mechanic's shop.  It turns out the whole radiator needed to be replaced- what we thought was $200 at the most turned out to be $687.  No one had the part in stock, so we had to wait another night in Buffalo, missing our next planned night in Western Mass (which was already paid for and could not be refunded- thank you Priceline) and postponing the client meeting. 

I got John on the phone, and he was very understanding and accommodating about the whole situation.  Where most strangers would say "tough- your loss", he was saying things like "As a father, I would recommend you do the following..."  He agreed to make the situation with the purchase of the car and unexpected problems right somehow.  We would work through it and come up with a solution that worked for each of us.

Next day, we got the radiator replaced, and we had a smooth and luxurious ride home in our BMW.

The lesson here is this:  I have a personality where I want to solve everything myself.  I don't rely on others unless I have to.  Usually this works out just fine.  But over the course of these 48 hours, there were at least 2 instances where there was NOTHING I could do to make the situation better.  Try as I might to find a solution to keep us on track to our timetable, or get the hotel room we thought we had, or fix the car without waiting for a part, I could not do any of it by myselfI had to turn to others for help.  I relied on my wonderful wife for support and brainstorming, and on a complete stranger to help me strategize what the best solution would be to do to minimize both cost and risk for both of us.  And you know what?  Sharing the problem and the solution felt good.

being stubborn didn't help solve anything

It occurred to me that many people at the top of organizations and in leadership roles tend to take on too much.  They emerge as leaders from the group because they step forward and take on responsibility.  Others accept them as a leader and may expect them to solve all their problems.  This may work well most of the time, but in times of crisis or of unexpected circumstances the leader needs to know when to open up to others and look to others for support.

too much

This type of approach includes:
  • soliciting advice from different viewpoints
  • finding an expert who may know better than you do
  • looking to friends and family for encouragement and support
  • delegating and sharing responsibility (loosening your grip just a little)
  • realizing that there is only so much you can do, and not every situation can be "won" for your maximum benefit
  • taking things in stride while still trying to do your best
                                                                              ...and even relying on the kindness of strangers!

The dangers of holding it all in and putting all the weight on your own shoulders are real: stress, adverse health effects, damaged or strained relationships, and wrong decisions made with an overburdened mind.

Be a leader, but know when to stop trying to be a hero.  Draw on the resources around you.  You'll find that most people are flattered to be asked.  They may even see you as a bit more human, and may even look up to you as more of a leader.

No comments:

Post a Comment