Saturday, January 16, 2010

Chapter 6 • 1980-1983 • Corporate Squared

I had been unemployed for 12 weeks and was feeling quite desperate by the time I reached the Corporate Communications office on the eighteenth floor of the bank building. This was the largest, most influential bank holding company in Missouri, with facilities all over the state. It was involved in all sorts of city expansion plans and civic activities. Its CEO had been the chairman of the RCGA board when I was at Commerce magazine. Still, I knew nothing about banking in general or this bank in particular. I would be in for another steep learning curve, but that was something I had tackled many times in the past. After all, at my last job, I had been working my way through more than 100 companies in six disparate industries. How hard could banking be?

This is what I learned: When someone offers you a job, there are ten imperative rules to follow before you accept. (This will probably give away the plot of this chapter.)

1. Interview the interviewer.

The cardinal rule of job hunting is to research the organization before the interview. I should have learned as much as possible so I wouldn’t sound like I just fell off a turnip truck when I walked in the door. But there hadn’t been time. The phone call had come at 8:00 in the morning on a day full of job interviews. I was breathless and wired by the time I arrived at my last appointment. Now, of course, I would approach the whole thing more scientifically, armed with rehearsed answers to every possible question an interviewer might ask, as well as a long list of questions I would ask. That day, however, I walked in cold.

There were so many questions I should have asked, but Richard, the charming man who had waited all day to meet me, was intent on telling me all about the job and trying to ascertain if my resume was fiction or fact. Other than inquiring about benefits, which would have been reason enough to take the job, I don’t remember asking a single intelligent question.

2. Be suspicious of your first impressions, especially if they are glowing.

Richard was so genial I couldn’t believe he was real. He was warm and funny and complimentary and eager. Where was my head? I had been in the job market for three months and hadn’t met anyone who embodied even one of those characteristics, let alone all of them. I kept thinking how great it would be to work for this man, and the more he courted me (that’s what he was doing), the more I thought it. I was practically in love by the end of our meeting. Obviously, this is a cautionary tale. The Richard who interviewed me and the Richard I went to work for a week later were not the same person. I don’t know what happened to Mr. Nice Guy, but he was replaced by a look-alike who had no personality, ranged from blah to cold, and appeared to find nothing even remotely funny. I had been duped.

3. When your inner voice talks to you, pay attention.

Richard had to get clearance from the vice president of Corporate Communications before he could hire me. This was reminiscent of the hiring process at Commerce magazine. Richard’s boss was tall and distinguished looking, but not at all warm or funny or complimentary or eager. In fact, he seemed to be doing me a favor by agreeing to meet with me. The interview was brief, and when it was over, I knew more about him than he knew about me. As we walked out of the office Richard looked a bit embarrassed, and I felt a fleeting catch in my chest. I ignored both indications that this job might not be all that it seemed.

The VP, however, was exactly what he seemed—self-absorbed, insecure, and domineering. He terrorized everyone who worked for him, especially Richard, who suffered from high blood pressure and mood swings. The best course of action was do your work, don’t make waves, don’t expect credit for anything, and never forget who is in charge. All information had to flow through the VP, so that whatever anyone wrote was edited within an inch of its life to reflect a single point of view—his.

4. Take time to get the feel of your workspace.

My tour of my future office consisted of a glance inside the door as Dick flipped the lights on and off. Of course, it was empty and lacked the grace notes of a place with a live-in occupant. It had a desk, a chair, a bookcase, an electric typewriter, and a window overlooking some part of downtown. The feeling was dark, but then it was already dark outside. We breezed by it as Dick showed me to the door and practically hugged me goodbye. By the end of the first week, I knew It had not been sufficient to merely see where I would work; I should have taken the time to sit at the desk and spent some time there. Had I spent even 10 minutes in that room I might have realized the energy was as dark as the sky and the metal furniture. This place would take more than pictures on the walls to warm it up.

5. Clarify exactly what your job responsibilities will be.

Richard had explained that I would be launching a new employee communications program consisting of a statewide quarterly magazine, a monthly newsletter for St. Louis employees, an occasional press release, and other little tasks as necessary. One of the reasons he had hired me was that I had just gone through the same process in my last job. I could choose my graphic designer and photographers, though, of course I would be expected to take pictures as well. He was thrilled that I knew how to handle a camera. I would get to travel, again to hotspots like Bowling Green and Sullivan, Missouri, and to write about their banking affiliates. There was only so much one can write about a bank building, so I thought it would be better to write about the communities in which these buildings resided. Getting approval from the VP was not easy, but Richard and I figured out how to make it seem like this was his idea.

The pace was brutal. As one publication was going to press, I was already writing the next one or two. There were no breaks in the activity, and the occasional press releases turned out to be daily because this was the year interest rates went through the roof. The “little tasks, as necessary” sometimes became big tasks. I had never worked so hard I my life, even when I was running a magazine.


“A walk through the quiet streets of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, is much like browsing through an old and well used photograph album. There is a pleasant sense of nostalgia in the carefully restored old homes, in the easy way people greet each other, and in the unhurried pace that seems to characterize the tempo of the town. The 5,000 residents of Ste. Genevieve think of their hometown as a small, rural community, and that is exactly the way they like it ”

1981 • Mercantile Quarterly

6. Ask if you will have help or if you are the whole staff.

Since I already knew it was going to be a huge job to create, write, and produce several publications, I wondered aloud if I would have an assistant or a secretary. (Three of us had shared a secretary at my last job) “Well, no, not officially,” Richard admitted, but “unofficially” there were two women in the front office—one was the VP’s private secretary—who would be available when I needed help. That sounded pretty unconvincing, but I could hardly ask, “Are you sure?” Later, it became obvious it would take a court order to get any administrative assistance, but by the time I figured that out, I knew that Richard’s glowing descriptions of the job and working conditions had been wildly exaggerated.

7. Check out the logistics (cost and location of parking, etc.)

The main bank and headquarters building were located in the heart of downtown St. Louis far from the highway. So, not only was I commuting 50 miles a day in stop-and-go traffic just to get to the edge of downtown, I also had to crawl through crowded one-way streets to reach the parking garage and then walk several blocks to the bank. Parking was expensive, and I didn’t even get to park my own car. Garage employees would take it from me and peel rubber as they sped up the ramps. This played havoc with my transmission.

Of course, I didn’t realize any of this when I took the job, and, while it was hardly convenient, it wasn’t terrible until winter hit. St. Louisans don’t seem to know how to drive in snow, traffic was a nightmare, and driving in bad weather terrified me. By the time I got from the cold garage to the bank I was frozen solid. I never knew how long the commute or parking would take, but I did know I had to be at my desk at 8:30 sharp. Since it often took an hour and a half to drive 25 miles, I had to leave home very early.

8. Clarify flexibility or rigidity of rules (starting and ending times, lunch), especially when you are a salaried employee.

Since I was managing employee communications, I assumed that meant I was a manager. Managers don’t punch a time clock. If they are a few minutes late in the morning or returning from lunch, it’s OK. Right? Wrong. Apparently, I was not a manager in that sense, and it was not OK to be a few minutes late. It was Commerce magazine all over again. The leash was inappropriately tight for the position I held. I found it frustrating to be asked, “Where were you?” and “You do know what time we start work, don’t you?” I viewed this as corporate Mickey Mouse and bent the rules whenever I saw an opportunity.

9. If possible (it rarely is), ask your predecessor why he or she quit.

This is, of course, a fantasy. If I had met the person who inhabited my dismal office, he would not have told me why he left. He undoubtedly would have said something about a better offer or a great career opportunity. He would not have confided that a general mood of misery pervaded the department, which was run by a paranoid, petty tyrant; that everything about the job was depressing and stressful; and that he was overworked and underappreciated. Those would have been good things to know.

10. Find out if there are any little perks no one has mentioned.

There did not appear to be any extras, though I did ask. Senior management was about to introduce a new benefit package, which turned out to be the best part of the job. There was no deductible, and it paid 100 percent of everything. I didn’t realize at the time how over the top that was as benefit packages go. I discovered the best perk of all while I was researching a story on exercise. The bank would pay 50 percent of the membership fee, as well as the cost of any class we wished to take. I interviewed the senior vice president who had initiated this program and several people who were even more stressed out than I was. They swore that joining the Y had saved their sanity. I signed up.

Not only did the exercise and running relieve stress, it also helped me avoid rush hour traffic. The class I signed up for was in the morning. Participation meant getting up and 5:00 a.m., driving the practically deserted highways at 6:00, and hitting the gym floor by 6:30. I conquered my fear of driving in snow, avoided other crazy drivers, and made it to work by 8:30.


“If keeping fit is the latest great American pastime, the rallying cry of its fans is, ‘Keep moving!’ On the main roads and on the side streets, on courts of every size and description, in rural areas and in cities, people are doing just that. They are on the move, and their methods of getting in shape and staying there run the gamut of possible physical activities. ”

1981 • Mercantile Quarterly

While working out helped, it didn’t improve the atmosphere of the office. It was maddening to love my work but hate my working conditions. I was beginning to realize that this was a corporate anomaly: Hire an expert to do a job; then make it almost impossible for the person to do that job. It was still winter; it was still cold and snowing; and the environment was still depressing. Then, I got a phone call that gave me reason to hope. I had been referred to a small company for a writing job. Was I interested in meeting the company’s chairman?

By March, after only 16 months at the bank, I was gone.


The Rejection Queen said...

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