A few weeks ago a friend and I met for dinner (by which I mean cocktails) to compare career notes and try to solve a few work-related problems. She talked, and I listened; and then I talked, and she listened. And at the end of the night my friend said: You know, I think that should be the next list you share, the career advice you’ve gotten over the years that you talked about tonight. I think you should write about that.
And so for the next week or two (three), I thought I might do something I don’t typically do here and venture into work-work territory for a bit. Here goes:
I stumbled into a job in telecommunications at the very end of the 1980s, back in the days of the Bell monopoly, long before the ubiquity of the internet. It was an accidental stumble, precipitated by the need to buy groceries (shoes) and to pay rent, which I was struggling to do as a photography teacher.
Conveniently, in addition to being a photographer, I also played the piano. Because I played the piano, I had nimble fingers and was a fast typist. Because I was a fast typist, I was easily placed in secretarial jobs that required lots of typing. All of this was only temporarily, you understand, only to pay the rent.
So I got a temporary assignment as a typist for a marketing director at a small satellite communications company, an RCA spin-off that provided data networking services. When it became apparent to my temporary employer that I could also write, and not just type, and that I had a few ideas to offer here and there, the temporary job became permanent, and I began a career in marketing and corporate communications. It was only temporary, only to pay the rent. For the last 28 years. That is the short version. Someday I may tell the longer version, but not today.
Because I have been very lucky, especially for a typist, I’ve worked for people who have had faith in me, who have invested in my growth. I’ve been AMA trained and Steven Covey’d, found my Strengths, my DISC, my Myers-Briggs, my FIRO-B. I’ve been coached, formally and informally. I’ve read bookshelves full of books on culture and positioning and change and self-mastery, trying on new ideas, filtering what works in practical application from what doesn’t. More importantly – most importantly, I’ve had the privilege of being paired with wonderful, encouraging, smart people who were far enough ahead of me, career-wise, to give good advice.
Two particular colleagues stand out in this regard. I can honestly say that, had I not known either of them, I wouldn’t have gotten to do half the things I’ve done in the last almost-three decades. Their faith in me seeded my faith in me.
You’ve likely never heard of either of these men; and, absent this rambling post, you likely never will. They are ordinary men, in the grand scheme of things. But they both chose – are probably still choosing – to share freely what they learned along the way, simply in the extraordinary spirit of giving.
So I’d like to pass along five of the most important pieces of career advice I’ve ever received, things I learned from Bill and Joel (though not in that order, because ‘what I learned from Joel and Bill’ just didn’t sound right). I share these tidbits because the only way I’ll ever be able to thank either Bill or Joel is by paying it forward, sharing what I learned, in hopes that it might help someone new. Maybe that someone is you.
Also, I will actually tell more of the story about both Bill and Joel someday, just not today. Know that I met and worked for Bill because I listened to Joel’s advice (see #1); again, someday I’ll tell that story. Today, you’ll have to settle for only their words of wisdom, words that continue to help me in my career.
- Always take the job for the boss. If there were only one piece of advice I could give to someone just beginning a career, this would be it. And here’s pretty much how Joel presented the idea to me, a quarter of a century ago: A good boss will support, encourage, challenge and respect you; a bad boss will leave you feeling empty, tired and inadequate. Every day.A less-than-perfect job working for a great boss should always, always win over a great job working for a terrible boss. Ignore these words at your own peril. I have, twice, so I speak from real experience. Always take the job for the boss.
- (side note: if you are thinking: I hope not to have a boss, because I’m going to be my own boss, well, awesome for you; go get ’em, tiger. You’ll still have a boss; it’ll be you. Will you support, encourage, challenge and respect yourself; or will you make yourself feel empty, tired and inadequate? Only you can answer this question.)
- Pull is stronger than push. If you are the strong, self-directed, achieving type (not that I would know anything about that sort of person), then this idea may be hard to digest. Or possibly, you may accept this now (more) common concept but only when applied to production or marketing or LEAN process, not personal career development. But the dynamic is the same. Here’s how Bill put it, 20 years ago.If, in your job, you have someone higher in the hierarchy who is willing to pull you up – into greater responsibility, exposure, etc., then you’ll get those things much faster than if you push yourself into the mix.To be fair, a bit of both forces are required.If you want to grow, then you have to have the confidence and wherewithal to put yourself out there and demonstrate your abilities. But having someone ahead of you on the ladder who will invite, encourage, and promote you will have a greater effect than you could have alone, doing your best tap dance.
- (side note: No quid pro quo. Ever. Never ever. If someone is willing to help pull you along in exchange for … anything, then you’re better off without their pull.) (second side note: see item #1)
- You can’t solve a problem between two people one person at a time. Here’s a true story: I had been working for Bill, in Omaha, for about three months. There was someone on our team, whom I’ll call … oh, how about Pat, who wasn’t, in my estimation, measuring up. I would ask Pat for work, and Pat would not respond as I expected.So one late afternoon I marched into Bill’s office to tell him that Pat was really causing trouble for the team. And Bill interrupted me, mid-sentence, saying: hang on a second. And he started dialing the phone.Since I had barged in on him unannounced, and since he was often on conference calls, I figured he had something scheduled that he had to take care of before he could talk to me. And then, before I knew it, there was Bill saying, to the speaker phone: Hi, Pat. Jennifer is here in my office, and she has some concerns about the project you are working on. Can you come up and join us? And I thought I might just die, right there and then, on the spot.
- But I didn’t. When Bill said to me, while we were waiting for Pat to some up the stairs: you can’t solve a problem between two people one person at a time, I had to put on my big girl clothes and find words to say to Pat, with Bill there, to describe the problems as I saw them. And then Pat got to do the same. And, lo and behold, we actually worked it out and got the project back on track. No, we did not forge a friendship. No, there were no fun lunches, cocktails, or inside jokes. But we figured out how to work together, and Bill never had to do that thing he did ever again.
- (side note: There are times when we all need some advice and counsel about how to talk to someone else, a third person, when a problem arises. Going to the king to seek advice is different from going to the king to seek judgment.)
- It’s hard only if you want to do it right. If it’s too hard, then you’re trying to do it too right. This advice should be self-explanatory. When you’re stuck, the question to ask yourself is this: am I trying to do it right, or am I trying to do it too right? That is all.(side note: I say this all the time, by which I mean at least once a week. Still. Always. Sometimes just to myself; sometimes to an audience.)
- Run to, not from. Here’s another true story: The telecommunications company where I worked in my first job-job (as a typist, to pay the rent) went through a number of changes in the years I worked there, and some of the changes involved new corporate ownership. I often had at least a general idea of these changes before they happened, because I wrote correspondence and speeches for the CEO; but I didn’t always know the specifics.One day, when we were working through an upcoming change, a colleague who was more knowledgeable about the details than I took me aside and advised me, in strict confidence, to get out. He said: you need to find a job, and quickly. He was trying to be kind and helpful, knowing I was, as I’ve mentioned, a typist trying to pay the rent. I had never really looked for a job before, having stumbled into both teaching and, later, typing; so I wasn’t sure where to start.
- Before I could get a game plan together, I got a call from a partner in a small ad agency. He had heard about me and wanted to have lunch. So we did; and he offered me a job on the spot; and I took it, because I knew I had to get out, quickly, from where I was, which was sure and impending unemployment. No, I did not consider Joel’s advice (see item #1). I did not think about what I wanted, only that I needed to leave the job I had and land in one with a paycheck, without an intermission. The work was great; the man was awful. Awful, awful, awful.
- Great work + awful boss = miserable job = abject misery.
- A few years later, when I was in Omaha, working for Bill in a telecommunications company that was going through changes in corporate ownership, I started to panic about my job. I asked Bill if I needed to make a quick exit, to get out. And Bill said: Whatever you do, make sure you’re running to something, not just from this. If you’re just running away, then you’ll probably make some bad decisions.
- I’ve thought and thought and thought about these words and whether or not they’re words of privilege. I’ve thought mostly about the people who don’t get to make their own decisions about leaving jobs, about the people who are downsized and outsourced and surplussed. I’ve thought that the idea of running to vs. from is an idea of luxury. But here’s what I believe, today: The idea of running to, not from, isn’t luxury; it’s claiming your own power. It’s having an end in mind at the beginning. It’s internal, not external. It’s a decision to feel strong, not afraid.
Shortly after I moved back to Memphis from Omaha to start the second of my three career phases, I had lunch with a young woman, a typist, who worked in the secretarial pool in the shared office space where I was hanging a shingle so it would look like I had a real business with real people when in truth it was just me, myself and I, with a fax machine and AOL mail. Anyway, this young woman asked if I would talk to her about public relations and marketing, because she was interested in my work and thought maybe it might be the right kind of work for her, too. And so we had lunch.
Afterward we were walking back into our high-rise office building, part of the herd moving toward the elevators. And all of the sudden there we were in the elevator with Awful Man (see #5), a man I actively avoided, even though fate somehow managed to put us in the same office building.
A few seconds after the doors closed, Awful Man turned to me, in the middle of the crowded elevator, and said: I think it’s very rude that you don’t say ‘hello’ to me when we pass in the lobby. In front of all those people, just like that. Understand, even though you may find this hard to believe, I am quite terrible with quick comebacks. So what happened next was a flat miracle. While part of my brain was stuck wondering what to do what to do what to do, some other force made my body turn and made my mouth say: Given how you treated me, you should be thankful I have the good manners not to speak to you at all. And then I turned back and faced the doors and didn’t say anything else, in that slow, old, suddenly silent elevator, in a slow, old, 14-story building.
My office, thankfully, was a couple of floors lower than Awful Man’s. The doors opened, and my lunch companion and I left our silent audience behind, and when the doors closed behind us, my lunch companion said: When I grow up, I want to be you.
Which is what we’ll talk about next week.
Until then, as the good man says: be well; do good work… yes, yes you know the rest. It’s good advice; take it.
Food | Week of February 22, 2015
Here’s something funny but true: my kids have enjoyed every single thing I’ve ever cooked from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Even the recipes with cabbage. Ditto David Tanis’s One Good Dish. It’s possible that I don’t precisely follow the recipes word for word, step by step. Also, I often add chicken or some other very non-vegetarian protein to the Bittman fare.
Anyway, on the weeks when we skip a Plated delivery and when the Gathered Table plan is just uninspiring, Bittman and Tanis are my current go-to cookbooks because cooking food my people will enjoy is important, to me.
Here’s what we’re having this week:
- South Indian cabbage with black mustard seeds | Chopped smoked pork tenderloin (I like the Tanis recipe for cabbage, but it’s not available online; this one from Martha Rose Shulman is close)
- Couscous with cauliflower and almonds | Roast chicken with lemon
- Citrus frisée salad with pan-fried salmon
- Orecchiette with cannellini beans and escarole (my kids like Bittman’s version, which isn’t really a recipe but merely a side note in the beans chapter. If you need a specific recipe this one from Ellie Krieger is also good)