Management maze

Managing a household is a lot like running a business, one in which the chief executive officer does all the work.

Like a business, the household has its income and outgo, which never seem to match up. It has its chain of command, which is roundly ignored. It has stress and timetables, though the schedule often revolves around soccer practices, which means the customers are right there in the car with you, whining.

One of the nicer ways that household and business management are alike is that both have a learning curve. Get through a task the first time and, even if you fall on your face in the process, you're better prepared the next time.

I'm not talking about simple household tasks, such as grout-scrubbing, which never really gets easier or more fun, no matter how much your technique improves. I mean the business of the household: dealing with city employees and lawyers and banks and insurance companies. The first time we encounter some aspect of that service world, we feel stressed and anxious that it's all going to cost too much. But when we face a similar problem again, we're ready because we've learned. We can meet the challenge with confidence and calm and the certain knowledge that it will cost too much.

Take, for example, buying a house. The first time you sign your name to a mortgage, you pore over every deed and document, trying to understand it all, trying to make sure you're not getting screwed in some way. (You are, of course. Trust me.)

By the time we're on our second or third house, we blithely scrawl our names on any piece of paper the loan officers thrust in front of us. We know we can't make heads or tails of the documents anyway, so why not get it done in a hurry? Just for laughs, mortgage bankers could start slipping in paperwork requiring homeowners to hand over our children. We'd all blissfully sign, none the wiser. Until, of course, the bankers tried to give the children back.

My car got dinged recently while parked, which I knew from experience would send me on a two-week trip through the police report/insurance/body shop/rental car maze. Upon discovering the damage, I didn't even bother with the requisite cursing and stomping around. I just sighed, comfortable in the knowledge that I'd done this all before and knew the ropes.

I've had more than my share of body shop adventures in the past couple of years. I'm starting to think my car is magnetic. Any vehicle that gets near mine is irresistibly drawn into a collision. This makes for some nervous driving, and a lot of time on the phone with the insurance company.

But it's all a familiar routine now. File the reports, make the calls, get the estimates, set an appointment. I zip through it like an experienced businessman whipping up contracts. The body shop owner even recognizes me and calls me by name. (Of course, his name is Steve, too, which makes it easier.)

And, before you know it, I've got my car back dent-free and everything's back to normal. Until the next time somebody rams into me.

Dealing with such everyday disasters is the main job of household managers. Our main tool is the telephone. One of the most important lessons (and hardest to learn) is to call for professional help when things go wrong.

Businesspeople know this. They call in experts to fix their computers or do the landscaping or rewire their offices. They don't try to do everything themselves. But household managers often forget this lesson. Faced with a plumbing problem or a faulty light fixture or a computer meltdown, we'll first try to fix it ourselves, which means we call in experts later to repair a worse problem. After the flood. Or the fire.

But we can learn to manage the busywork of life -- the bills and the phone calls and the paperwork. I, for instance, have learned a foolproof way of making sure bills get paid on time and all the household paperwork stays organized: My wife takes care of it.

Some things you leave to the CEO.

1 comment:

Hal Johnson said...

Good one. After a recent six-month stint as a "house husband," I can identify.