Monday, January 25, 2010

Chapter 8 • 1972-200 • AMA, The Biggest Break

I believe in luck. For so much of my career, serendipity was the only explanation for the next big opportunity. Two such lucky breaks occurred while I was still working at the training company. The first was a one-time event. I dreamt of writing for a national magazine, though I had done nothing to pursue that goal. My philosophy at the time was on the order of if you dream it, it will happen. Had I only known what power that idea held, I might have written The Secret and become a best selling author. What did happen was on a slightly smaller scale.

One day, my phone rang, and a woman announced, “Hi, my name is Suzie. I’m the editor of Sky, Delta’s in-flight magazine, and you have been referred to us as writer in St. Louis. I would like to talk to you about doing an article for us if you’re interested. “Yes,” I replied with an academy-award performance in cool, “I’m quite interested.”

The article was a business profile on the CEO of one of the largest, multinational corporations in St. Louis. Strangely, this person was one of the few business leaders I had never interviewed during my magazine days. Sky’s editorial policy was to feature prominent CEOs in diverse industries and cities, illustrate each article with an oil painting of the executive, and award the portrait to its subject as a gift. It was a first-class operation and a truly plumb assignment.

I researched this executive until I knew more about him than his peers in the business world. Ironically, as well regarded and respected as he was, no one, including his fellow CEOs, seemed to know much about his life. He was, they all told me, a very private individual. The experience of interviewing him was exhilarating. Despite everything I had heard, he was charming, warm, forthcoming, and candid, sharing business philosophy and personal information willingly. This was the first time I had ever taped an interview, but I didn’t want to miss a word.

I had the strangest sensation while we were talking. It was the sense—the absolute certainty—that this is was exactly what I would be doing for the rest of my working life: sitting in executive offices, interviewing heads of companies, and writing about them for prestigious publications. That scenario actually played out many times in the years to come.

I had done so much research, and the interview had gone so well, that the article practically tumbled onto the paper. It was one of the best profiles I had ever written, and both the editor and the CEO were complimentary. The CEO even sent me a personal thank you note, an unusual gesture in my experience. The story was published in the December 1982 issue of Sky
magazine, and I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame among those who flew the friendly skies of Delta during that month.


“It is precisely ten years since he assumed the top slot at Monsanto, an appropriate time to reflect on his role as CEO of one of the largest, most significant employers in the St. Louis region and, in fact, in many parts of the world. He sees that role in terms of responsibilities—“obligations” is his preferred word—to a whole range of constituencies. His message is simple and one that has honed and polished over the years. It is the foundation upon which Monsanto’s management operates and is clearly articulated in the company’s most recent annual report. ‘When one recognizes that the purpose of business is to supply products and services to the public, one must also recognize that it cannot be done alone.’”

1982 • Sky

The second break was quite the opposite of the first. It was not something I had hoped for or even known about; it was not an isolated event. In fact, it was the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the American Management Association (AMA) and, most important, it made me an author.

A coworker at the training company had been moonlighting for the AMA for years. He was involved in various projects and had agreed to write a series of six little books. I stress the word “little” because each one was fifty-to-sixty pages long and measured four-by-seven inches. Currently, he told me, he was “extremely busy with other projects” and needed help. Would I write three of the books, under my own byline, of course? He would recommend me to the editor.

As usual, I was beset by doubts. Could I do this? When would I do it? How could I possibly make a three-month deadline when I would have to research and write these books on my own time? This was my pattern with every big challenge that came my way. I had a friend who used to say I had to go up in a pile of feathers for forty-eight hours before I took on any new project.

So, forty-eight hours later, I did some arithmetic. There were three books of and three months in which to research and write them. That meant I would have to write one book a month or from twelve to fifteen pages a week. That didn’t sound unachievable at all. The books, intended for young people who were just entering the working world, were on meetings, resumes, and professional image. They were small but mighty in my mind. If I could write a feature article, I reasoned, I could write a little book. And if I could write a little book, I could write a bigger book. It all came down to having a process. By the time I completed my first assignment, I had figured out the process and established a small foothold with AMA.

The next thing that happened was comical. A man named John called from New York and said, “I’m an editor with AMA’s Extension Division. I just read your book on meetings, and I love it!” Was he kidding? How could anyone love a 50-page book on meetings? John wanted me to come to New York to meet with him. On my list of pipe dreams, meeting with an editor in New York held the top spot.

Back to the subject of luck. My employer, who wouldn’t even send me to a lunch meeting of a local trade organization, sent me to New York for a week. The reason was a training conference where I would have a chance to meet and schmooze with editors of national training and human resources magazines. This had never happened in the company’s history, but once again, the stars aligned. There I was, in New York, having lunch with John, who was proposing that I write a self-study manual on How to Plan and Run Productive Meetings. I had never written or even read a self-study manual, but I said, “Sure, I can do that” (secretly allowing for my 48-hour meltdown once I was back home).

The difference between a little book for eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds and a serious textbook for adults already working in the business world was profound—so profound, in fact, I couldn’t even allow myself to think about it. The book finished had 193 pages filled with information about every aspect of meetings, instructional programming, charts, checklists, a bibliography, additional readings, a practice case, and two exams.

AMA is a complex organization with several divisions. After the self-study program went to press, John introduced me to Mary, who was in charge of audio/visual training, another area about which I knew nothing. I was beginning to feel that knowing nothing was not the disadvantage I had always thought it to be. There were always basic rules to follow for formatting the copy, and the rest I was free to make up as I went along. I began with one or two 60-minute audiocassettes on distinct topics; them graduated to six-hour programs on self-empowerment, leadership, and communication skills for secretaries and administrative assistants. Mary loved my story lines and dialogue, two of the things I invented as I wrote.

Mary turned me over to Barbara, the editor of Trainer’s Workshop, a training manual in magazine format. Managers, who were not really trainers, would follow the prompts, copy the overheads, and teach the skills. I wrote on Coaching, Counseling, and Feedback; Managing Under ADA (The American With Disabilities Act); Managing a Diverse Workforce; and, naturally, Managing Meetings. The irony of all of this was that I was writing training, mostly about interpersonal and communication skills, which Sam and Tony had said I was incapable of doing. Ah, sweet revenge, though, to tell the truth, I never felt the need to send them anything I wrote.

My cassette-tape program on communication skills for secretaries and administrative assistance was getting some attention. Mary suggested I contact an acquisition editor at Amacom, the book-publishing arm of AMA. Jacquie was open to a book proposal on the topic. I bought a book on how to write a book proposal, wrote it, and sent it off to Jacquie. Later, I learned that the ease with which that proposal was approved and a contract signed was not the norm. The process is generally much harder and more time consuming, but I was naive on the subject of publishing.

Now, I was writing a real book, which meant dealing with editors, reading and rereading galley proofs, and fighting with the marketing department about ridiculous subtitles. Writing the book itself was not difficult because all the information already existed in the audio program. It was just a matter of rethinking it as a book instead of a series of conversations. To make it more relevant I interviewed secretaries on each of the skills I wrote about and inserted the edited interviews into the narrative.

The Secretary’s Secret Weapon: Arm Yourself For Success With 7 Essential Communication Skills was published in 1996. (Two years later, it was translated into Portuguese, under the title of it Secretária Efficiente: Prepare-se para o successo Desenvolva as sete habilidades esseniciais de communicação. I don’t know a single person who has read it.) By that time, I was long gone from my last job and able to write on what I called prime time, which meant during the day instead of only nights and weekends.

Since AMA thought of me as a communication guru, my next two books were on getting organized, written with a co-author, and polishing one’s people skills. Published by a new division of Amacom called Amacom New Media, the books were attractive and expensive, with soft-cover books and CDs within heavier outer covers.

Jacquie introduced me to Claire at Marshall Editions, a London publisher who was looking for someone to “Americanize” British-English books written by experts who couldn’t write very well in any kind of English. Those projects were painstaking, especially since British grammar is so different from ours, but they led to writing a book for Marshall called Dealing With Difficult People. It was beautifully designed, but that meant I had to “write to fit” the design, which presented a completely new set of constraints.

Since the book was going to be sold all over Europe, the editors took out anything pertaining to U.S. law, and I had to come up with new material to fill the gaps. Marhall Editions and AMA had an arrangement to publish each other’s books. When Dealing With Difficult People came out, Amacom published it as Solving People Problems. The editors had promised to reinstate the U.S.-specific information, but they didn’t change a thing. I was disappointed and thought American version was weak. But by this time, I knew that editors and publishers are god-like creatures who make decisions that are incomprehensible to authors. Don't like it? Too bad.


“If you look around a typical workplace—whether it is an office, a plant, or a store—you might notice the growing variety of people. Diversity is a fact of life in today’s business world. Where once offices were primarily populated with white, Anglo-Saxon males, the mix has changed. Diversity means you are likely to be working with or near a person of color, someone with a disability, older people, women, immigrants, and those from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds than your own. These people may be new to you; and the unknown can be unsettling, especially if there are language barriers, differences in work styles, or even personal styles. Stereotyping and prejudice are unfortunate realities. Some people fear what they don’t understand or find “different” from themselves. These feelings can create fertile ground for uninformed judgments, rudeness, and bigotry.”

2000 • Dealing With Difficult People

Like so many companies, AMA kept reorganizing and moving people to new jobs or out the door. John, Mary, and Jacquie left. I don’t know what happened to the Extension Division, but I had heard Amacom New Media was dissolved after publishing only a few books. Thus, my stint at AMA came to a close with no fanfare. It was a great gig, while it lasted, but its two greatest benefits were creating a bridge between full-time employment and full-time freelancing and launching me into the mysterious world of book publishing.