My Brilliant Career, Part 3


First, a quick review of my career progress at this point in the story:

1. Worked my way through school as a flunky on the graveyard shift. Got a useless degree in English.

2. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

3. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

4. Went to another company and was hired into a jobΒ for which I was not qualified.

It had now been four years since I’d found the employee relations job and everything seemed okay. The primary reason things seemed okay is that I had no idea what was going on at the very top. At this point, I wasn’t part of the management structure, so I could easily slip back into my lower-middle-class upbringing and bitch a blue streak about that bunch of dimwits in the executive suite who didn’t give a crap about the rest of us. I’d had very little contact with any of the executives except my boss, who, like all the other executives, believed that information was power and shared very little inside information with his direct reports.

That wasn’t why he got fired. He got fired because he screwed up the sales compensation plan and caused a million dollar shortfall in the budget.

My colleagues and I speculated about a replacement. I thought for sure it would go to a person we’ll call Andrea. She had the most knowledge and experience and had worked closely with several executives on key initiatives. The Compensation Manager might have had a shot due to her Ivy League affiliations, but she was part of the sales compensation fiasco and the CEO had publicly humiliated her for her incompetence, an incident that was the talk of the town for several weeks. There was also some speculation that, this being a French company, they would bring in one of their own from Paris and fire the rest of us. Given my relative lack of experience and the fact that I’d only supervised manufacturing people several years before, no one thought I had a shot, self included. I didn’t want the frigging job anyway. I had no desire to be a golf-playing country-clubbing bonus-padding loser Mercedes owner. I still had dreams of escaping the world of business and somehow making it in a more artistic field and living a more bohemian existence. The last thing I wanted was to be a Vice President.

It had to happen.

One day Andrea walked in and said she and her hubby were headed for Honolulu to pursue their shared music careers in the soft jazz market. Later that afternoon, the CFO came to my office and told me to follow him. We headed for the CEO’s office, which was appropriately and significantly hidden from public view down a long hallway where all the human noise of the company was shut out as effectively as if he had been working in a sound isolation booth.

The CEO asked me a question. “What’s your ancestry?” I supposed the question was still legal in France, so I answered, “My father’s side is Portuguese.”

He said, “Portuguese! Good! That means you’re hard-working.” He then told me I was in charge of HR and that he wanted me to fix the turnover problem in the sales force and keep him out of jail. I was then dismissed.

So, here I was, a newly-minted executive who had no qualifications for the job and no desire to do the job. They gave me a modest increase and I later learned that what made me the top candidate was that they knew I’d come cheap. Having Portuguese ancestry somehow confirmed the wisdom of their decision.

To say I was stunned would I have been an understatement, but the people in HR were all very excited for me. The head of sales came down and gave me a bear hug and said, “Welcome to the executive suite.” I wanted to throw up, but I mustered up a pathetic smile.

It was all put into perspective that evening around the family dinner table. By then I was married with two sons, aged eight and five. Once we all sat down, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, guys, I’m a Vice President.”

There was a moment of silence, then my youngest said, “You mean like Dan Quayle?”

Oh God, I thought. I am a loser.

—to be continued—

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My Brilliant Career, Part 2


I approached my first day as a Corporate Trainer full of excitement and confidence. I ended my first day as a Corporate Trainer wanting to drive to the Golden Gate Bridge and fling myself into the icy cold of the San Francisco Bay.

The person “mentoring” me was an academic with no experience in the real world of business. His immediate task was to turn a raw, inexperienced novice into a first-class management trainer and enable said rookie to take over the Supervisory Development Program. He approached this task with diligence, a detailed action plan and a generous portion of anal-retentiveness.

I thought I was in trouble when I learned that the first task on his list was to teach me how to tear flip chart paper from an easel without leaving any rough edges or dangling bits of paper. I knew I was in trouble when I wound up spending the entire fucking morning tearing flip chart paper from an easel until I had mastered the technique.

Things went downhill from there. Rather than design an original training program that actually met the needs of the participants, he bought an off-the-shelf program that was in vogue at the time. This program was based on the concept of behavior modification, which taught that if you kept repeating something over and over, you would learn it and the skill would become a part of you.

It was also as boring as shit. The participants received a workbook of skill modules. The first skill module was Listening. There were three steps to listening. The participants wrote down the three steps three times in the workbook. Then they watched a video showing third-rate actors following the three listening steps. They watched the video twice more, Β then the participants wrote down the steps three more times. After that, they practiced the three steps in front of the class while my mentor verbally abused them if they deviated in any way from the three steps. When all of them had practiced, they concluded the module by writing down the three steps one more time.

Even without a lick of experience in leadership training, I knew that this was bullshit. If there was one thing I learned in the real world of supervision, it was that a leader had to connect with people in the form of a real, live human being. I couldn’t teach this crap!

I decided on day two that I had made a mistake and needed an escape strategy. Fortunately, there was a lot of empty calendar space between classes and those dreary mentoring sessions that I used that to explore the subject of organizational development. The possibilities in the literature excited me, for it spoke of the need for authenticity, for self-awareness and for encouraging fresh thinking in the workplace by involving people at all levels in decision-making. Inspired in part by my experience working as a drone where management barely considered me a human being (until they found out I had a degree), I decided this was an area worth further exploration.

I would get a Master’s degree with an emphasis in organizational development and save the working class from a lifetime of quiet desperation! Hooray!

In the meantime, I would start looking for a job in a field with a bit more stability and market presence than pure OD. I liked the people side of things (in part because I didn’t understand the technical side), so I started looking for jobs in Human Resources, despite my complete lack of knowledge and experience in the field. That combination had already led to two promotions, so how could I go wrong?

Sure enough, I found a nice company that met my basic criteria (they didn’t make things that blew people up) and a nice job as an Employee Relations Specialist. I knew nothing about labor law and nothing about employee relations. The VP who hired me liked my experience in manufacturing because this assignment was in their manufacturing plant. It also helped that I could talk a little about organizational development, a field in which the VP considered himself an expert.

He was anything but, but we got on well enough and I learned all kinds of things about the law and traditional HR practices, most of which I thought were total bullshit. More importantly, I learned a lot about human beings, how they derive meaning from the smallest of jobs and how they can learn and grow given a decent amount of confidence. I did get to deliver a supervisory training program of my own design and found teaching leaders and potential leaders both energizing and fulfilling. Better still, I traveled all over North America delivering training, resolving legal issues and visiting every baseball stadium within my reach. In the meantime, I completed my Master’s degree, which turned out to be the best educational experience of my life and gave me knowledge that I still use every day. Things were going good! Hooray!

Of course, it couldn’t last. What do you think happened?

a.) Everything went to hell in a hand basket.

b.) My boss got fired and my favorite colleague decided to move to Hawaii and become a jazz singer.

c.) Robert received yet another promotion to a job for which he was distinctly unqualified.

d.) All of the above.

To be continued . . .Β 

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