Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chapter 7 • 1982-1989 • The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

My next job, which turned out to be my last job, deserves a book of its own. On one hand, the company personified dysfunction; on the other, it was graduate school in organizational dynamics and marketing. The word “again” describes every aspect: starting over again, proving myself again, leaving under duress again.

My first interview was not in a business office but rather in a beautifully appointed living room of one of St. Louis’s historic mansions. The man who owned the house was president of a small training and development firm. Tony was charming and polite as he described what he was looking for in a writer. They already had a writer, he explained, who had been with the company since its inception. Sam had written everything—books, training programs, promotional materials—all in a style that was completely different from mine. I left with stacks of his work, took them home, and read every word. I didn’t like the way he wrote.

When I returned for my second interview, Tony asked, “Well, what do you think?” There was no sense beating around the bush. I said, “I don’t write like that. I can’t write like that. And I don’t want to write like that. If that’s what you’re looking for, I am not the person for this job.”

He was impressed with my honesty, he said, insisting that he did not want more of the same. He wanted “a fresh, new voice.” He had read my writing samples and thought they were excellent. I was indeed the right person for this job. Convinced, I began the process of touring the homey, one-story building in a St. Louis suburb; meeting Sam and the other significant players; visiting my workspace; and negotiating salary and benefits. Looking for a job can take months; being hired often happens overnight. One or two conversations, a handshake, a few papers to sign, and I became the newest member of the team.

If the lesson I was supposed to learn at the bank was don’t believe a thing anyone tells you when that person is trying to hire you, I hadn’t learned it. I believed what I was told because I wanted to believe it and because I had an uncanny ability to ignore anything that didn’t fit my preferred paradigm. Everything about the job was appealing. The location was closer to home; the salary was a quantum leap above what I had been making; the people I met were intelligent and friendly; and, though my office was a cubicle on a sun porch with one whole wall of windows. Parking was free; the benefits were great; promises of future raises sounded fantastic; and on and on. I wanted out of the bank and into this place. Tony sounded like he was so lucky to find me; he couldn‘t believe his good fortune. I certainly couldn’t believe mine.

If I had applied the too-good-to-be-true test to Tony’s sales pitch, I would have been suspicious. But I had just come through almost a year and a half of having my ego mashed into the floorboards, and I was basking in newfound adoration. To be honest, not everyone adored me. When I met Sam, I could tell he wasn’t going to be president of my fan club. In fact, he indicated that, while I may have charmed everyone else, he was not so easily fooled. To my credit, I recognized a red flag this time. When I accepted the job, I told Tony, “I do not want to report to Sam; I want to work directly for you.” He agreed to my terms.

Sam was a fixture. He was the voice of the company, and he wasn’t about to have his position usurped by some interloper. He viewed me as a threat to be neutralized, and he threw himself into the task. I was undermined and sabotaged with such shrewd subtlety, I didn’t realize what was happening.

Even though Tony began to believe he had made a huge mistake, he wasn’t about to admit his faulty judgment. I remained with the company in a variety of capacities for six-and-a-half years.

My first assignment was to head up advertising, an area about which I knew nothing. My background was in publications, not advertising, but that didn’t seem to matter. Ned, who came on board the same time I did, had years of ad agency experience and could have handled my job with his eyes closed. He was hired as a sales rep and told to keep out of marketing. Such was the convoluted reasoning of management.

The company designed, taught, and sold training programs and insisted that the new hires go through all of them so we would understand the products. Ned and I spent weeks participating in seminars until we were bleary-eyed and confused. How could anything be so complicated? There were seven programs of varying lengths and complexity, which we tried to keep separate in our minds. Then, one day we realized the obvious: there were not seven programs at all, only one program dressed up in seven different packages! And when we thought about it, that one program wasn’t so difficult to understand.

Nonetheless, Sam had convinced Tony that I was clueless and therefore couldn’t write about our products. That was sheer nonsense. I could understand and write about anything and had been doing so for sixteen years. I thought my job was to translate their arcane jargon into clear, conversational English. I was wrong. My job was to memorize the arcane jargon and write just the way Sam had always done. Nothing short of that would suffice. But I could not and would not do it.

The heart of the training was interpersonal skills. The programs were all built on a behavior model that explained why people behave the way they do and a step-by-step system for structuring potentially difficult conversations. I explained those concepts in every possible vehicle—ads, newsletters, articles, marketing materials, sales letters, news releases—except the actual training programs.

I subscribed to those skills. I learned them; I practiced them; I knew they worked. The irony was management, particularly Tony, did not. It was like working for a company that manufactured widgets but wouldn’t have a widget in the place.


“If trainers want to become an integral part of the business-planning team, they will have to learn to think more like business people and less like trainers. Too strong a statement? A lot of people in the corporate training community don’t think so. In fact, many of them wonder why anyone would debate the premise. Too long relegated to the role of policy followers, rather than policy creators, they are examining their own image.”


Every once in a while, for no reason anyone could discern, Tony would announce a reorganization, and suddenly we would all have new responsibilities and job titles. After several years of being a company writer, I morphed into an instant sales rep, a job for which I had no qualifications or prior experience. My territory was the East Coast, including New York, Washington D.C., Connecticut, and part of Pennsylvania.

Dragging heavy sample cases of video cassettes and training manuals, I found myself racing though airports, hailing cabs or renting cars, staying in one hotel after another, and calling on people who bought training programs. I was constantly lost, going the wrong way on unfamiliar highways and ending up miles from my destination. When I realized I was heading north to the Poconos, instead of south toward Philadelphia, in a heart-stopping maneuver, I made a U-turn on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

My strength as a salesperson was in “eliciting needs,” in other words, interviewing. I soon discovered I was not very good at the rest of the selling process—closing the sale. Despite being as far removed from writing as I could get, I enjoyed the job. I met a many great people, walked around Manhattan, toured the Smithsonian in Washington, and jogged from the posh Four Seasons Hotel to the art museum in Philadelphia. Just as I thought I was getting pretty good at this selling business, Tony announced another reorganization. I thought for sure, this time, I would be reorganized right out the door.

Instead, I was promoted to marketing manager, given a private office with a window, and put in charge of a staff. I never knew what prompted that decision. Ned, who had begun as a sales rep was now VP of marketing and my new boss. Together, we created the first real marketing program the company had ever undertaken. I can’t possibly quantify all that I learned from those years in marketing. I had come in as a writer with expertise in feature writing, publications, and corporate communications. In this latest position, I acquired an abundance of knowledge and skills that would define the rest of my career.

I became a good manager, helping to create the only department in the company in which everyone was motivated, collaborative, and happy. I was also a very successful PR person, getting the company’s name in print every month for a year, including on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. What a shame that management considered public relations a waste of time and resources (I was the only resource involved), but then Tony had no idea what we were doing or how important our efforts were to generating sales. The list of our achievements was long and impressive. I was doing the best, most challenging work of my career—developing multiple communications systems; writing punchy, persuasive promotional copy; placing articles in leading trade publications; and providing hands-on assistance to the sales staff. None of these marketing efforts had ever been attempted before.


“Try this scenario on for size: You’re a manager. Your staff respects you and works hard for you. Your projects are well planned and efficiently executed. Your boss gives you positive feedback. But every time you try to get a project off the ground with a peer, you botch the job, and you don’t know why. As a manager and a professional, you do know that to do your job well you need cooperation form colleagues, especially those whose efforts directly affect your own, but you don’t always seem to be able to get it. You are not alone. The best managers often find that they have problems managing relationships with those over whom they have no formal authority—the very people they must work with if they are going to succeed in their own jobs.”

1987 • Working Woman

During the last reorganization, I had been assigned to a new boss, the sales manager, who knew nothing about marketing. That made no sense, of course, but few things did. Still, I felt I had finally mastered my job and was accomplishing great things for the company. Tony did not agree. He had finally accepted Sam’s contention that I could not write. The next reorganization was my last. At 3:30 on a Friday afternoon, with no warning, I was fired.

I wasn’t really shocked, perhaps because I had been waiting for this particular shoe to drop since not long after I arrived. I was also tired of proving over and over again that I was good at my job and that people could actually understand my writing instead of having to fight their way through ten times more words than were necessary to make a point. That was a widely held view in the company, but one that was never communicated to Tony. So, Friday afternoon, I packed my things, cleaned out the files, took down my pictures, and disinfected my office. When people arrived on Monday morning, there was no sign that I had ever been there. A bit dramatic perhaps, but I took some pleasure in forcing my new boss to explain why I was gone.

I had spent twenty years working for other people in non-profits, corporations, and privately owned companies. I had always loved my work but not the circumstances in which I was paid to do it. For once, I had enough of a financial cushion to think through my options without panicking. That was exactly what I intended to do.