Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter 4 • 1978-1980 • Corporate Culture Shock

I was not born with the corporate gene. Surely, it is innate, I thought, as I observed my new cohorts at my new job. They all seemed to know how to dress, what to say, to whom to defer. I was 41 years old and didn’t have a clue. I had just come from two jobs where I had been invited to have coffee with senior executives who were happy to chat with me. Here, I sensed that wouldn’t be the case.

Fortunately, I had a friend who understood the mores of this strange new culture. She gave me two guidebooks to survival—Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women and Dress For Success, which I read from cover to cover, trying to absorb as much as possible as quickly as possible.

I was hired by a sophisticated young woman who probably never read either of those books. She just knew how to conduct herself. She wore stunning suits, exuded confidence, poured her black coffee from a silver carafe, and smoked long, mentholated cigarettes. She was V.P. of Public Affairs, the first female vice president the company had ever appointed. Since the department was brand new, so was her staff. She was a flaming feminist, and she filled the department with strong, talented women. We all had cute names: Judy, Judi, Bobbi, Connie, Margie, and Cindy. That did not auger well for garnering respect from those who were already referring to us as “the hen house.” To diffuse our negative image, our boss instructed us to sign memos and correspondence with our initials and last names. This didn’t fool anyone.

I was, by that time, an experienced writer and editor, so knew I could do the job. The corporation had 120 small companies loosely organized into industry groups. All I had to do was plan publications, interview people, write articles, work with designers and photographers, get everything approved, and go to press. I had been doing that for years—in the land of “media.” This was a whole new country.

In a magazine, there is a publisher and an editor. Decisions are made and executed. I never appreciated the simplicity of that process before. In a corporation, there is a hierarchy of folks who get involved, call the shots, and grudgingly, after much strutting around, approve the politically sanitized copy. Every decision is a major event, every conversation a potential minefield. The first time I interviewed one of the group presidents, I closed his office door so the microphone wouldn’t pick up the background noise from the hall. Two hours later, my boss summoned me to her office for a proper dressing down. How dare I offend George (who happened to be the CEO’s son) with such disrespectful behavior? I remained at the company for two years; George never spoke to me again, and my boss made sure our paths did not cross. That was lesson number one.

George’s father was indeed the CEO, a dour looking man who didn’t fraternize with underlings. Being used to easy-going relationships with many corporate and civic leaders, when I found myself alone in an elevator with him, I smiled and said, “Hi. I’m Bobbi Linkemer,” and extended my hand. He just stared at it. Apparently, the proper show of awe on my part would have been to genuflect, not shake hands. Back to my boss’s office for another talk. Lesson number two.

My title was Manager, Internal Communications, and my job involved launching a series of publications for the employees of our disparate and scattered companies. The purpose was to unify them into one big, happy corporation. Since nothing existed, I could create these magazines and newsletters from scratch. The good news was I didn’t have to conform to established editorial guidelines and constraints. There were none. The bad news was everything had political implications, even the most straightforward little story. Perhaps at my age, it was just too late to learn the nuances of a silly though stressful game. Behind the scenes all sorts of intrigue was going on, but I had no idea who was involved or what was at stake. I was blithely meeting people, getting them to tell me their stories, and working with great photographers. Who could ask for more?


“If you’re one of those lethargic Americans who think the current craze of physical fitness—like hula hooping and the twist—will run its course and disappear, think again. To an increasing number of people in this country, from scientists to secretaries and every other conceivable occupation, physical fitness is as much a part of living as eating and sleeping, and they can’t image life without it … Athletes seem to overwhelmingly agree that it is impossible to be involved in a sport, giving it your full attention, and still think about the problems of the day. ‘I believe you can only do one thing at a time, and if you’re going to play well, your mind has to be on that.’ insists one committed golfer who has been perfecting his swing for twenty years.”

1979 • Accent

Yet, the tension in the place was palpable, handing in the air like smoke. The people who worked there were not happy campers. It had to do with the history of the company, which had been one man’s hobby. He had just kept buying businesses whenever he saw one he liked despite a lack of any discernible pattern to his acquisitions. When he died unexpectedly, everything changed. Out with the old, in with the new. New management, new rules, new culture. Public Affairs was part of the new order, and we were not winning a popularity contest with the old guard.

On the surface, I had a great thing going: a big office overlooking the park, an impressive title, and a livable salary. I even traveled to such exotic locales as Mishawaka, Indiana, to write about bottom silo unloaders and DeKalb, Illinois, to immortalize the Huskie Bus Line. It was heady stuff. Mostly, I kept my head down and tried not to antagonize anyone, which I seemed to have a knack for doing. If there was a way to open mouth, insert foot, I did it, never quite getting the hang of who had the power, which seemed to change frequently.


“Winters are severe in the Midwest and mobility is often difficult, to say the least. But at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, about an hour and a half outside of Chicago, folks don’t worry much about ice and snow. Whatever the season or the weather, NIU’s 22,000 students, as well as much of the faculty and staff, get around with relative ease. Rain or shine, in breezes or blizzards, most of them take the bus. ‘Our buses run during inclement weather,’ says the manager of the Huskie Bus Line. ‘As a matter of fact, there’s a saying around here that if you want to get through, just follow a Huskie bus. That’s how DeKalb keeps its streets open in the winter.”

1979 • Accent

One day, after the board of directors had met behind closed doors, a seismic shift altered the power structure. A coup had been staged. The president was out, somebody new was in, the current issue of the magazine was shredded (I was heartsick about that), and the Public Affairs Department was no more. Just like that. We were called into the V.P.’s office and given the news. Judi, Bobbi, Connie, Margie, and Cindy all stood around looking stunned. It was nothing personal, of course. They were merely disbanding the department. I guess the new leadership didn’t see any need for what we did, making us instantly superfluous. Whatever we had produced during the past two years was deemed worthless.

It was an interesting day. No one spoke to us. It was as if we had leprosy, and even indirect contact would put others at risk of being disbanded. Cardboard cartons appeared in our offices. We packed up our belongings and personal files, and a couple of brave souls helped us carry boxes to our cars. We were out by 4:00 p.m. I heard later that the file cabinets had been locked and the door to the office sealed and wallpapered over. That made for a nice story, anyway.

Like figures in a Soviet history book, we had been eradicated.