Medical Techs, Legal Secretaries, and Career NCOs

What are three types of people without whom nothing would work in their various organizations and institutions? I was musing on this Saturday, when a former co-worker of a family member approached us at lunch and talked about how much she appreciated how my family member never lost their cool, never took frustration out on subordinates, always tried to teach subordinates a little bit about the “other side” of the professional curtain so that the subordinates could do their jobs better and more easily.

This person’s job was one that is absolutely vital for the overall profession to function, but one that doesn’t get as much credit as the white-collar side of the aisle does. There are a lot more things besides medicine, the military, and the law where that’s true.

I’m not talking about mechanics and vehicles, although without wrench turners, nothing turns. I’m thinking about the people between the “professional” and the patient, client, customer, what have you. Where would architects be without construction engineers and foremen? A lawyer without a legal secretary is up a creek, ditto a judge without law clerks. A good clerk or legal secretary makes their boss look really, really good. Some of them know more about the law than their bosses do, but keep quiet about it. Medical technologists and surgical nurses are not “just” helpers-of-doctors. They have special training and skills that are vital to making medical procedures of various kinds go properly.

One of the things my father hammered into me, if the books I was reading didn’t do enough of it, was that NCOs are what makes the military function. When he was in, he learned very quickly to find the senior NCO in charge of [whatever] and politely order* the NCO to deal with the problem. Or he’d call the senior NCO in charge of [whatever] and say something to the effect of, “Hi, this is Doc B over at [detachment]. If you have a second, I need [animal, vegetable, mineral, individual or information].” Dad discovered that he got a lot more done, more easily, and quickly, and everyone was happier that way.  I suspect it helped that he’d done a few small, mostly painless-for-him things that made his direct subordinates very, very happy, and that he knew when to look away from certain harmless things. Plus he went out with the troops on exercises and did what he could to observe, learn, and not get too underfoot (for an officer.)

I’ve mentioned being warned that two people can make or break an academic’s career – the departmental secretary and the archivist. I can attest to that, and have done my best to keep both happy. Today, I ask as little as possible from the office staff, and work hard to be polite, reasonable, and to show that I have tried everything else before bringing the problem to the Head Shed. They like me in the office. Ditto the janitorial department. “If you get a chance—there’s no hurry—could you please . . .” has worked wonders. Also, when there was a need for help ASAP, “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you but I’ve got [big potentially expensive problem] going on. Here’s what I’m doing to contain it. Could you send someone with the [necessary device and equipment]?” got an assist within minutes, and a permanent fix as soon as conditions permitted.

Medical techs, legal secretaries, and others remember. They have very, very long memories. They are very good at the important work. Woe unto the doctor or attorney who makes their lives difficult. Woe unto the academic who irks her archivist, for no document, image, or file will ever be found swiftly again. Anywhere.


* He also taught me that there’s giving orders and there’s giving orders. Each has its place and way of being phrased, and each works best in different times and situations.


14 thoughts on “Medical Techs, Legal Secretaries, and Career NCOs

  1. During my brief stint in Corporateland (as opposed to working for little companies, or as an outside contractor), I noted that a key person at the 200+ person facility was one of the technicians. I was never clear on his background nor his official job title, and I got the impression that his management responsibilities were strictly informal, but…
    Well, he was the guy who spent a lot of time in the engineering lab and always knew what everybody was working on, what was supposed to be happening, what was really happening, and who was most likely to be able to iron out problems.
    I’ve noted in other contexts that junior workers who make a habit of showing up on time and looking alert tend to have extra responsibilities dumped on them, officially or otherwise, just because there’s gotta be a token responsible adult on duty.

  2. That explains much about Kor, from the Shikhari series. Tip-top caste, but he prefers to operate as a Sergeant-Major of Scouts.

    That informal leadership goes into medic and technical realms, too. In case of emergency, you want the one who is asking the right questions or gives an order to do this much of that; emergency stops.

  3. In one of the Hornblower books, the very young officer Hornblower (he was 17, IIRC) is put in charge of a French prize and is supposed to get it to England. The vessel’s rigging is in terrible shape as a result of cannon fire from the British vessel, and Hornblower has no idea how to fix it. So he just orders the oldest seaman go ‘go forward and clear up all that mess.’

  4. With the qualifier of the good one, whole hearted agreement.

    Some folks go for those jobs because they believe that there’s no work involved, and get very upset when they are required to behave differently.

    A decent one is a blessing, and a good one worth their weight in gold.

    Sometimes, if you work hard, you can turn the bad ones into decent ones; I managed that for the gal who got stuck helping in my first shop. Dang fool of an LPO just pointed her at the paperwork, didn’t even give her a copy of the guidance/regulations involved. When she was out having her kid, I got stuck doing that job– so I printed and laminated all the rules it was supposed to follow, reorganized the filing cabinets by that and how our documents organized the papers, and called the guys on their failure to properly do the paperwork.

    “Amazingly,” when she got back, even though she was spending almost as much time away as she spent at the shop– the paperwork didn’t pile up anymore.

    One of the sheets I printed for her was the one on what was required to be on paperwork for it to be legally complete, so she ended up having a big pile of “no, this can’t be filed, it’s not complete.”

  5. The reason for career NCOs being so efficient is because A) after a certain level they directly control materiel or access to services and have a great deal of autonomy in doing so, B) they are also part of a network of other NCOs at the same level who also control materiel or access, and C) there is a great deal of mutual favor-swapping going on. You honor the request of another NCO who needs something from your department and at your discretion, and at some future moment, they will be able to help you out with something you need. I did a long series on this, when I first started blogging – the Theory and Practice of “The Scrounge”.

  6. “Ditto the janitorial department. ‘If you get a chance—there’s no hurry—could you please . . .’ has worked wonders.”

    When I was in the college dorm the janitor assigned to our section was Virgil. He was very quiet, almost jumped out of the student’s path when we came by, and kept things spotless. Although he acted very deferential, his normal facial expression was incredibly fierce, he looked like the shadowy knife guy in a comic book. Nobody ever spoke to him.

    So one day not sure why but I decided to just stop and talk to him. When I spoke his name asked him how he was doing, the fierce expression vanished into a huge friendly smile, and he seemed genuinely pleased that I noticed him. We chatted a bit, and from then on I made it a point to speak with him every time I passed if possible, if only “Hey Virgil, how ya doin’?” as I passed.

    At the end of the school year I was going home for the summer and trying to figure out how to get my loft bed supports home, along with a stuffed chair and a dorm fridge, none which were going to fit in my car. This was in the old days when dorms barely had a bed and desk, never mind niceties like chairs and air conditioning.

    Virgil overheard me talking with someone about it, and afterwards came by and told he had a spot in the basement (normally off limits to students) where I could store all my extras for the summer. And so every summer through college I was able to stash all my stuff for free!

    Was a big lesson for me. Of course you should always treat everyone, staff, whoever, with respect and kindness without expectation of reward, but it does have its way of coming back to you.

  7. I have been blessed to have very good secretaries aka executive assistants…it has made a big difference to my effectiveness.

    Someone observed that a primary result of the computer revolution, so far, has been to turn highly-paid executives into incompetent clerk-typists. There’s more to it than that, though: good secretaries perform an important organizational and information-management role, which is sorely missed in many organizations. Indeed, I think a lot of organizational chaos and less-than-optimal productivity stems from the decline in the secretarial role.

    • Ding! Yes, through the 80s and 90s companies, even small ones, still had office specialists, including, dagnabbit, always at least one actual human answering phones and minding the front desk. Now, callers and visitors face an automated phone maze and an incomprehensible scheme for announcing themselves on arrival.
      And the high-paid tech specialists end up spending way too much of their time doing support and admin work, badly. But the Management caste has embraced the fundamentally Marxist concepts of the man-hour and the interchangeability of worker-units, so we can’t expect an understanding of the importance of job-specific skills.

      • Oh, gads– our dental office has an awesome “receptionist.”

        She was studying to be a nursing assistant when she found out she faints at the sight of someone getting a shot….
        So, she speaks Dental, and Normal Person, and she switched over to accountant at college (no idea how that worked) so she does all their insurance claims and can give you the “well, officially this isn’t this, but usually you pay about this much after it’s all done” and it’s legally OK. Dentist can’t say that, etc.

        Plus, she’s a gossip hotline and a really nice person; after she delicately inquired why someone with an IQ over room temperature was a stay at home wife, suddenly half the town knew that we’re both vets and I’d “quit” to raise the kids.

        Means that we’ll go out of our way to support that local business, for sure– similar effect with our garage, which is an hour round trip BUT their desk guy is also a mechanic and the social media manager. (Technically he’s manager, too, but the owner is there 99% of the time and his wife is there 120% of the time, so that’s just a title.)

    • *Thank you!* On September 18, I got a message from one of those incompetent executive clerk-typists who’s forgotten that, and relies on automated systems instead of competent admin professionals. Very pertinent reminder.

  8. Secretaries, office managers, and janitorial staff (and in the military, personnel and pay clerks) are the ones you NEVER, EVER want to piss off. EVER!!!

    • One relocation, we spent 2 yrs in part of the space belonging to organization’s admin offices. We’d feed and clear printers and copiers, bring cookies, and I had flower from the garden. Nice folks; missed them, had zero paperwork problems for 8-10 years.

  9. Eric Wilner…”always at least one actual human answering phones and minding the front desk.” Tom Watson Jr, the longtime CEO of IBM, wrote (in his very interesting autobiography) about the time, in the early days of the computer industry, when a TIME Magazine reporter went to visit UNIVAC (then almost synonymous with computers), hoping for an interview. But UNIVAC was too busy for her. As she was walking back down the street, she noticed a large computer in the front window at iBM, and thought she’d give *them* a trying. The receptionist immediately recognized the importance of the opportunity, and got Watson to make himself available post-haste.

    This is the cover story that resulted:,16641,19550328,00.html

    Bet your phone tree or ‘smart’ email management system can’t do that!

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